Top officials from both the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox churches met for a virtual discussion Friday on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, including how to collaborate in responding to the complex and multifaceted challenges posed by COVID-19.
“This global emergency has shed light on a series of international and social inequalities, to overcome which the joint witness and action of Christians is more necessary than ever,” said Metropolitan Hilarion, president of the Patriarchate of Moscow’s Department for External Ecclesial Relations, during the Feb. 12 webinar.
In the face of the social, economic, and political concerns created by COVID-19, “uniting our strength, we can offer a contribution to the elaboration of adequate solutions to the ever more serious problems and we are capable of presenting a vision of eventual ways to overcome them, shared by the largest Christian churches,” he said.
In his remarks, Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Vatican’s top official for relations with other Christian churches, echoed Hilarion’s insistence on joint solutions to the problems created by the coronavirus pandemic, saying there is a need “to reflect together in the ecumenical world.”
The two men spoke during a Feb. 12 webinar titled, “Church and Pandemic: Challenges and Prospects,” organized jointly by the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Ecclesial Relations and the Vatican’s Council for Promoting Christian Unity to mark the fifth anniversary of an historic meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba in 2016.
In addition to Hilarion and Koch, the lineup also features Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the Vatican office for the New Evangelization, and Russian Orthodox Bishop Panteleimon, president of the patriarchate’s synodal department.
On Feb. 12, 2016, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia met for a brief visit during a stopover in Havana while the pope was on his way to Mexico, and Kirill was traveling to South America.
The meeting between marked a significant moment for both the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches. While popes had met Orthodox leaders since eastern churches split with Rome in the Great Schism of 1054, it was the first time a pope had met with a Russian Orthodox patriarch since the Moscow patriarchate was established over 400 years ago.
Every year since, representatives of the Vatican and the Moscow patriarchate have gathered on February 12 in different cities to discuss different aspects of the joint declaration, focusing so far on persecuted Christians, end of life issues, and saints.
This year’s meeting focused exclusively on the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on society, the economy, and the liturgical life of both the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.
In his remarks, Hilarion said the emphasis placed on caring for the poor in the 2016 joint declaration “has become even more evident in front of the current global emergency which has shown still more clearly the need for global solidarity in front of a universal threat.”
Not only has unemployment skyrocketed amid tight restrictions on public life and social gatherings, creating a new class of poor, but the discrepancy between poor and rich has also increased, as those without access to modern technologies have fallen behind both the workplace and school, he said.
Hilarion condemned the “national egoism” which he argued has become evident amid the coronavirus crisis, saying it has “repeatedly obscured considerations of solidarity in the most difficult moments of the pandemic.”
He also condemned the tendency to politicize the fight against COVID-19 and relieve crippled healthcare systems.
Similar to many other churches throughout the word, the Russian Orthodox were also forced to suspend liturgies, refrain from visiting churches, and traditional practices such as venerating icons and sacred objects with a kiss were forbidden, with pastors turning to digital media to ensure faithful had access to the sacred liturgy.
“Of course, the ‘virtual’ presence at the divine service cannot in any way substitute real participation, above all for the sacrament of the Eucharist,” Hilarion said, but added that the rapid development of digital platforms during the pandemic has also provided new opportunities for evangelization.
Throughout the ban on public liturgy, more people tuned in for the live-streamed events than who physically come to church under normal circumstances. In this sense, Hilarion voiced hope that “when the current emergency is over, a growing number of people will knowingly come to church.”
Citing examples of the Russian Orthodox church sending humanitarian and sanitary assistance to Italy during the country’s 2020 spring lockdown, Hilarion said this type of collaboration “allows us to appreciate even more the prophetic nature of the words of the pope and patriarch, who five years ago underlined that ‘Christian communities carry forward an important charitable and social activity, providing a diversified assistance to the needy. Orthodox and Catholics often work side by side'.”
“In this time, our common task is to give a new impulse to cooperation between our churches in the field of social service,” he said, voicing hope that the webinar would mark “a significant step forward” in understanding and responding to the challenges posed by COVID-19, “as well as toward the development of a common vision of the Christian approach to their resolution and the exchange of experiences.”
Pointing to problems such as social isolation, loneliness, unemployment, weak healthcare systems, political upheaval, the abandonment of Mass amid liturgical suspensions, and even protests by COVID-deniers, Koch stressed the importance of adopting a spiritual approach to the pandemic.
The suffering and death of so many people “puts existence of God into question,” he said, and described Italy’s lengthy quarantine last year, which coincided with the Catholic Church’s liturgical season of Lent, which begins again next week, as one prolonged Lent during which Christians are tested just as Jesus was during his 40 days in the desert.
Koch compared Jesus’s time in the desert to the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert with Moses before entering the promised land, saying this was also a time of purification.
“These 40 years in the desert can be paradigmatic to our pandemic,” he said, adding that lengthy lockdowns have “made us all return to the time in the desert.”
“We can hope that the time of crisis in the pandemic becomes a time of conversion for all of us,” he said, inviting Christians to live the remainder of the pandemic as “a time of fasting and charity, of grace and conversion.”
Scientific and technological advances have given humanity the impression that anything is doable, and that there is the ability to have limitless power at one’s fingertips, but with one small virus, “our way of acting has been greatly put into question,” Koch said, stressing the need to “return to ourselves” and to question oneself “about our human condition.”
Christians everywhere must seek answers to these questions in order to bring “our contribution to the many challenges” the world faces as an ecumenical community, he said.
During the course of the webinar, Panteleimon highlighted the activities of the Moscow patriarchate and Russian Orthodox communities throughout the world during the pandemic, and Fisichella stressed the need to find new ways of evangelization amid the challenges posed by COVID-19.
Hilarion closed the meeting voicing hope that participants would be able to join forces even after the pandemic “to increase our collaboration, above all in wellness and charitable activity.”