The historic meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba was an occasion of great joy for ACN. For our charity has been committed for almost 25 years now to promoting dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. It was the dearest wish of Pope John Paul II, following the collapse of communist rule in Russia, to help the Russian Orthodox Church and promote dialogue with her. We should not forget that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church literally had to start again and rebuild itself from scratch, a process that demanded unparalleled effort. Pope John Paul II was happy to entrust Father Werenfried van Straaten, the founder of ACN, with the task of supporting the Orthodox in Russia with deeds of active charity and by seeking ways of dialogue with her.
Peter Humeniuk, ACN’s Russia specialist commented recently: “We may be thankful for the fact that we have been able to help both Churches to work together at many different levels, in mutual trust. Again and again we have had confirmation, both from the Holy See and from our partners in Russia, that this path was the right one. On the 100th birthday – and 10th anniversary of the death – of our founder, Metropolitan Hilarion wrote to us to say: ‘The charity ACN was to all intents the first Catholic organisation to take the step of building up constructive, friendly relations with the Russian Church.’ And a few years ago the present Patriarch Kirill said that our charity had often been the only bond, even in difficult times, uniting our Churches. And from the Holy See there has been repeated confirmation of ACN’s work in this field. The last three popes have all expressly supported this commitment, and Cardinal Bertone, during his time as Vatican Secretary of State, once described it as a ‘point of contact with the Orthodox Church’. “As for the meeting of our two Church leaders in Cuba, for us this is of course a further confirmation and encouragement to continue along this path,” Peter Humeniuk concludes.
ACN is above all delighted that so many projects have borne such good fruits. It has never been merely about giving money, but about improving the climate and building up trust and friendship between our two Churches, which were described as “sister Churches” by the Second Vatican Council.
A good example of this is the help provided by ACN for the training of Orthodox priests. There is now a new generation of priests, and even of young Orthodox bishops, whose training was supported by ACN and for whom it is quite normal to have good relations with the Catholic Church. We should not forget that Catholics represent only a small minority in Russia, and as a result many Orthodox believers – including many priests – for many years never even had an opportunity to come to know and respect Catholic believers. And so a sound training for these priests and the positive personal contacts with them are a major factor in overcoming prejudices.
One Orthodox seminary that ACN has been supporting ever since it was first established in 1996 is the seminary in Belgorod. At the present time there are 111 young men training for ordination to the priesthood there. A particular feature of the seminary is the fact that the priests who are trained here will go out even into some of the remotest and most inhospitable areas of Russia to serve there as priests – places where in winter they will have to travel on sledges and in summer on foot, through muddy tracks, to reach remote outlying villages and preach the Gospel there.
In 2015 ACN again helped for the formation of these 111 seminarians. The director and his seminarians are most grateful for this fraternal support, and Metropolitan Ioann of Belgorod and Starooskolsk has also expressed his gratitude to all our benefactors, together with the hope that this friendly collaboration will continue in the future.