The Catholic Church’s gift of a relic of St. Nicholas to the Russian Orthodox – at the Pope’s behest – has been hailed by both churches as a “historic” milestone in ecumenical relations.
Catholic Bishop Josef Werth of the Siberian Diocese of the Transfiguration of the Lord formally presented Russian Orthodox Bishop Aristarch of Kemerovo and Nowokuznesk with the relic during a solemn Orthodox Liturgy for the feast of St. Nicholas on December 19th. Although both churches celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas on the December 6th, the Russian Orthodox still use the Julian calendar to calculate when feasts fall, so the feast is celebrated thirteen days later in the East.
The presentation took place in Orthodox Cathedral in the city of Kemerovo, Siberia – also dedicated to St. Nicholas – which was filled to overflowing, even though it was a weekday. Speaking at the ceremony, Bishop Aristarch described the gift as “a true sign of love and esteem between the Russian Orthodox and the Catholic Church.” He repeatedly underlined the faithful’s joy regarding this relic, emphasizing that both Eastern and Western Christians venerate many of the same saints.
Bishop Werth, who described Bishop Aristarch as his “brother in the episcopate,” emphasized that this was an example of how positive relations between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches could be. He said, “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 service was also attended by the Apostolic Nuncio in the Russian Federation, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, who explained that the presentation of the relic was intended as a “gesture of fraternal love” on the part of Pope Benedict XVI, who personally requested it be given to the Orthodox. Archbishop Mennini also stressed how important it was for the Catholic Church to continue dialogue with the Orthodox and to make use of every possible means of deepening it.
Aid to the Church in Need’s Russia expert, Peter Humeniuk, who represented the charity for persecuted and suffering Christians at the ceremony, said, “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.”
Promoting ties between the two churches in Russia is a key priority for ACN, and help for ecumenical projects with the Orthodox Church was part of the over $2 million aid package ACN gave to support Christian initiatives in that country last year.