But Metropolitan Kyrill Gundiaev, who led the delegation, said that while the visit was important, relations between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches remain too cold for a meeting between Pope John Paul II and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexii II.
"I have been asked if relations between Catholics and Orthodox are in autumn or in winter," Kyrill said. "I answer that we are in winter, which is colder but still closer to spring."
Kyrill and Archbishop Severino Poletto of Turin said Sunday (Sept. 24) before the delegation left that they considered the visit historic because it was made "with the blessing of the pope and the patriarch of Moscow."
Poletto and Turin city officials traveled to Moscow in May to invite an Orthodox delegation to view the shroud, on display in the Cathedral of St. John from Aug. 13 to Oct. 22 as part of the Roman Catholic Church's celebrations of the Jubilee Holy Year 2000.
Kyrill, who ranks second in the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and serves as the patriarch's foreign minister, said it is still "premature" to speak of a meeting between John Paul II and Alexii II.
"Today there are still problems to resolve before the so much awaited embrace between the pope and the patriarch," he said. The prelate reiterated his church's position that the meeting would be such a "great symbolic gesture" that it must come only after almost a millennium of differences have been resolved.
"Patriarch Alexii II has always repeated to me, `I want to meet with the pope,"' Kyrill said.
But he said that in addition to doctrinal differences, the two churches are at odds over the restoration of property of the Ukrainian Catholic Church seized by Communist authorities and turned over to the Orthodox Church.
Many Christians believe the linen sheet bearing what appears to be the outline of the body and face of a bearded man was Jesus' shroud. Carbon dating tests carried out in England in 1988 indicated that fragments cut from the border of the cloth dated only to the 13th century, but other experts contend the testing procedures were flawed and blood and grass stains on the cloth testify to its authenticity.
"The great majority of Russians believe it is authentic," Kyrill said.