True sign of love

During these days of Advent there are once again clear signs of a warming between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church in Russia. During a solemn Orthodox Liturgy on 19 December, Catholic Bishop Josef Werth of the diocese of the Transfiguration of the Lord in Novosibirsk formally presented Russian Orthodox Bishop Aristarch of Kemerovo and Nowokuznesk (Siberia) with a relic of Saint Nicholas. This solemn Liturgy, which was also attended by the apostolic Nuncio in the Russian Federation, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, was being held to celebrate the Russian feast of Saint Nicholas in the Orthodox cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Kemerovo which, despite the fact that it was a weekday, was filled to overflowing.

In his address at the solemn ceremony, Bishop Aristarch described the gift as "a true sign of love and esteem between the Russian Orthodox and the Catholic Church". And he repeatedly underlined the joy of the faithful over this relic, emphasising that both Eastern and Western Christianity share a common veneration for numerous saints.

Bishop Josef Werth, who described Bishop Aristarch as his "brother in the episcopate", for his part emphasised that this day was an example of how relations between the Catholic and the Orthodox Church could be. He stated: Orthodox and Catholic bishops, priests and faithful are meeting with one another and praying to the same Lord. I am certain that in future the same kind of cordial relationships will also develop in other cities and towns of Siberia."

The apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, explained that the presentation of this relic was intended as a "gesture of fraternal love" on the part of the Holy Father Benedict XVI, who had personally expressed the wish that it should be handed to the Orthodox bishop and faithful of Kemerovo. He explained that for the Catholic Church it was important to continue the dialogue with the Orthodox Church and to make use of every possible means of deepening it.

Representatives of both churches were in agreement in describing the event as "historic". Peter Humeniuk, who is responsible for the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need's contacts both with the Catholic Church in Russia and with the Russian Orthodox Church and who was also present at the handover ceremony, remarked, "People often talk only about the thousand year division between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church. And yet Christians in East and West can look back on a thousand years of shared history, during which Christians were not divided." He added that in today's society Christians of all denominations were facing numerous joint challenges and observed that Saint Nicholas, who in both traditions is regarded as the patron saint of seafarers, could thus "be our companion and guide during these stormy times".

The international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has for over 10 years now maintained good contacts with the young eparchy of Kemerovo and already had close links with the predecessor of Bishop Aristarch. Peter Humeniuk remarked that Kemerovo was an example of continuing good relations between the Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Church.

A number of Catholic priests and faithful from Kemerovo took part as invited guests at the Liturgy. One Catholic woman remarked, "I am overwhelmed. Yesterday evening our Catholic community celebrated Mass in our chapel with Bishop Werth and Archbishop Mennini, and we too had an Orthodox priest with us as a guest. It was a very beautiful occasion. During the Lord's Prayer we all joined hands. I was standing next to the Orthodox priest and we all prayed the Our Father together as brothers and sisters. And now today this ceremony together in the Orthodox cathedral. A world like this is what I dream of -- I am so happy!"

The city of Kemerovo is situated some 2,100 miles (3,400 km) east of Moscow in the Kusbas region.