Pope John Paul II announced Monday the reorganization of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia. The move brought a swift negative reaction from the Russian Orthodox Church. The announcement could delay a visit by the Pope to Moscow.
The Pope's decision to reorganize the Catholic Church's presence in Russia effectively transforms its current four "apostolic administrations" into fully-fledged dioceses. Apostolic administrations are used by the Vatican in countries where the situation for the Catholic Church is difficult for historical reasons.
The Pope's chief spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Monday explained the significance of the Pope's decision. "It means that with this measure," Mr. Navarro-Valls said, "the Pope gives normality to the existence of the Catholic Church in Russia, which was a desire, insistently called for by Catholic bishops in Russia, as well as by the faithful, nuns and priests. "With today's decision," Mr. Navarro-Valls added, "the Vatican has done nothing more but to equate the organization of the Catholic community in Russia with that present in other parts of the world, as envisaged by Church law." He said the Russian Orthodox Church has its own dioceses in the West."
Mr. Navarro-Valls also said that the Pope's move is intended to improve pastoral assistance to Catholics in Russia and to improve dialogue and collaboration with the Russian Orthodox Church.
However, in Moscow the Russian Orthodox Church accused the Catholic Church of seeking new members. Relations have been tense between Rome and the Russian Orthodox Church, which accuses Catholic priests of proselytizing in the Orthodox areas of Russia and Ukraine.
The Vatican says there are about 1.3 million Catholics in Russia. The Roman Catholic Church was banned by former Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, in the late 1940s, but the ban was lifted in 1989. Mr. Navarro-Valls said he hoped that the Russian Orthodox Church would be understanding about the Pope's decision. "We hope that they will understand," he said, "because the principles of religious freedom and conscience are the first rights to be recognized in a democratic and free society."
Vatican observers say the already difficult relations between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches are likely to deteriorate and a much-desired trip by the Pope to Moscow appears destined not to materialize in the near future.