Mar. 1, 2007 (CWNews.com) - A Russian Orthodox prelate has told reporters that a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI (bio - news) and Russian Patriarch Alexei II could take place this year.

Bishop Hilarion of Vienna, who is representating the Moscow patriarchate at a planning meeting for the joint Catholic-Orthodox commission on theological dialogue, said that a meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch would be likely to take place at a “neutral” location, rather than in Russia or Italy.

“It is difficult for me to say when such a meeting could take place,” said Bishop Hilarion. “I think that it could happen shortly, should there be a mutual desire to meet and a common understanding of the fundamental questions.”

For several years, Catholic officials have sought a “summit meeting” between the Russian Patriarch and the Pope. Although concrete plans have been discussed on several occasions, in each case the Moscow patriarchate broke off the discussions, saying that a meeting could not take place until the Vatican renounced “proselytism” by Catholic clerics in traditionally Orthodox lands such as Russia and Ukraine.

Bishop Hilarion told reporters, however, that the prospects for a meeting are now better. “Dialogue is moving forward,” he said, on the issues that have caused disagreements between Rome and Moscow. “We are moving in the right direction,” he said.

The Orthodox bishop added that while a first meeting would probably take place outside Russia, he saw a later papal visit to Moscow as a possibility. “Alexei has said many times that a papal visit to Russia is possible,” Bishop Hilarion.

The Russian prelate said that he had no way of knowing whether President Vladimir Putin will invite the Pope to visit Moscow when Putin travels to Rome for a meeting with Benedict XVI on March 13.

Bishop Hilarion noted that another major event in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue will take place in October of this year, when the joint commission for theological dialogue meets in Ravenna, Italy. He said that Pope Benedict XVI and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople will attend that meeting.

The Vatican has not confirmed the Pope’s participation in the Ravenna talks. Informed sources have reported that Patriarch Bartholomew asked the Pontiff to join him in attending the October meeting, when the two men met in Turkey last November 30. Pope Benedict reacted favorably to the idea, the sources say.


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