Historic Meeting

March 11 2016 | by

WHEN Pope Francis met Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba on February 12, some saw it as an encounter of huge spiritual significance, a sizeable step towards unity within the global Christian community. For others, however, it was more of a calculated political maneuver, aimed at enlisting Vatican support for Moscow’s expansionist policies in Ukraine and beyond.

For over a quarter of a century, since the fall of the Berlin wall, successive popes have expressed their desire to visit Russia and to help heal the centuries old divisions between Western Christianity and the largest Orthodox Church. While relations between the Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Patriarch, spiritual leader of all the 300 million or so Orthodox Christians worldwide, have been steadily improving since the lifting of mutual excommunications half a century ago, Russian Orthodox leaders had steadfastly refused the hand extended from Rome.

Among the reasons they cited were the Catholic Church’s perceived attempts at proselytism, or luring Orthodox faithful into their own fold, and the reclaiming of Russian Orthodox Churches as their own. The flashpoint for much of the tension was in Ukraine, where there are three Orthodox Churches – including a large community led by the Moscow Patriarchate – and two Catholic Churches – a small Latin-rite Church and a much larger Greek Catholic, or Eastern-rite Church, which is Orthodox in liturgy and tradition, but in communion with the Holy See since the end of the 16th century.


Inter-confessional rivalry


As the atheist Soviet regime crumbled, Catholics in Ukraine and in other former satellite countries began to reclaim churches which had been closed down, handed over to the state, or given to the Russian Orthodox Church, which was allowed to exist in return for a facade of support for Soviet government policies. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which had been brutally suppressed at the end of the Second World War, emerged from its underground existence, with many exiles returning from overseas. Inter-confessional rivalry, sometimes accompanied by violent clashes, heightened the tensions between Moscow and Rome throughout the 1990s in spite of appeals by Pope John Paul II for a reconciliation between East and West that would allow the Church, as he put it, to learn to “breathe with both lungs” again.

At least two attempts were made by the Vatican to organize a meeting between the Polish pope and Kirill’s predecessor, Patriarch Alexy II, but on each occasion the Russian Church insisted that conditions were not ripe for such an encounter to take place. While both Alexy and Kirill, who at that time served as head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, may have been interested in closer ties with Rome, they also knew that the majority of Russian Orthodox bishops were keenly opposed to any ecumenical endeavors.


Francis’ humility


Before he took over the position of patriarch, Kirill met with Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, and he also wrote a preface to the Russian edition of Ratzinger’s book Introduction to Christianity, praising the German theologian’s ‘traditionalism’ in the face of the “onslaughts of totalitarian relativism which we are observing today” – a theme that is clearly reflected in a joint document signed after the Cuba encounter. Kirill’s successor in the post of ‘foreign minister’ or president of the Department for External Church Relations, the Oxford educated theologian Metropolitan Hilarion, has played a key role over recent years in strengthening ties with Rome and in highlighting the importance of Orthodox and Catholics standing firm in the face of liberalizing trends within the Protestant world.

What, however, were the reasons that convinced the Russian Church to accept the invitation for the Pope and the Patriarch to finally sit down together, signaling a new era of relations between the two Churches? According to Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican’s Council for Promoting Christian Unity, it was Pope Francis’ humility and especially his words on the flight back to Rome from Istanbul in November 2014, when he stressed he was willing to meet the Russian Patriarch wherever and whenever he wanted. “I think this comment has opened the door, and the Patriarch is very happy to meet the Holy Father now,” the Cardinal told me. He added that he thought the Patriarch’s decision was a “very courageous” one and that he’s hopeful the encounter can “be a path also for deepening dialogue” between the different Orthodox Churches ahead of a historic pan-Orthodox Council later this year.


Inter-Orthodox rivalry


Certainly the question of relations – or rivalry – within the Orthodox world is a key part of the equation. Approximately two thirds of all Orthodox believers belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, yet it ranks only fifth in the traditional order of authority within Orthodoxy, after the ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Since Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople met in Jerusalem in 1964, ending over nine centuries of hostility, the small Church in Istanbul, with its primacy of honor in the Orthodox world, has enjoyed an increasingly warm relationship with the Holy See. As the current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I prepares to convene the ‘Holy and Great Council’ of all 14 independent Orthodox Churches in Crete in June, closer Russian ties to the Vatican could be seen as a significant way of increasing Moscow’s influence, especially in discussions of ecumenical affairs.

Another underlying question is that of Russia’s role in the Middle East, in particular its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the war against opposition groups and Islamic State terrorists. While the Pope has constantly stressed that dialogue and negotiations are the only route to a lasting solution to the conflict, the Russian Orthodox Church has openly supported President Putin’s military action in Syria. While neither Pope Francis nor Patriarch Kirill are likely to disclose the contents of their two hour private conversation at Cuba’s international airport, their joint declaration does contain an urgent appeal for an end to conflicts and the persecution of Christians right across the Middle East.

Speaking after the closed door encounter, with just their translators and closest advisers (Cardinal Koch and Metropolitan Hilarion) present, Pope Francis said the two leaders had spoken openly together as bishops and “as brothers” who share the same baptism. Unity, the Pope stressed, is achieved by walking together, adding he and the Patriarch had discussed a number of initiatives that they feel it is possible to achieve, though they gave no details of what they might be.


Joint declaration


In their 30 paragraph long declaration, the two men say they hope this first encounter can contribute in a concrete way to the reestablishment of unity between Christians, but the most significant part of the document (5 paragraphs) is dedicated to the plight of Christians, and other people of faith, who are persecuted in countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The Pope and the Patriarch speak of “our brothers and sisters in Christ” who are witnessing the destruction of their churches and the extermination of families, villages and entire cities, remembering especially the two Orthodox bishops who were kidnapped in April 2013 and haven’t been seen since. The statement appeals to the international community to work together “to put an end to violence and terrorism” in Syria and Iraq, and to prevent the expulsion of Christians from the region. The document speaks of the indispensable role of interfaith dialogue, and urges all countries involved in the fight against terrorism “to act in a responsible and prudent manner.”

The joint declaration then goes on to highlight shared concerns over the question of religious freedom, thanking God for the renewal of faith in former communist countries, but also lamenting the secularizing trends in Europe and beyond where, the statement warns, new ideologies pose “a serious threat to religious liberty” and confine all Christian witness “to the margins of public life.” While remaining open to the contribution of other religious traditions, the two leaders insist that Europe “must stay faithful to her Christian roots” but, at the same time, its citizens must not be indifferent to the plight of the poor and migrants who are knocking at the doors of rich countries, where unbridled consumerism is threatening the natural resources of our planet.


Conflict in Ukraine


The Pope and the Patriarch reiterate their firm belief in the family and marriage, as an act of love, freely chosen, between a man and a woman, as the foundation of a healthy society. They stress the inalienable right to life of children in the womb, as well as the elderly and the sick, and they call on young Christians to be unafraid to live out these Gospel values in their lives.

Finally the two leaders turn to the most controversial question of the conflict in Ukraine which has left so many dead and injured, provoking a serious humanitarian and economic crisis. Inside sources note that Russian attempts to use the phrase “fratricidal conflict” to portray it as a civil war, rather than as a result of pro-Russian military action in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, were ruled out in the final draft. The document says the two men hope their encounter can contribute to ending the tensions between Greek Catholics and Orthodox Christians, noting that the ‘uniate’ model of Greek Catholics, in communion with Rome, is not a model for Christian Unity, but nevertheless underlining their right to exist and to “minister to the spiritual needs of their faithful.”


Cuban venue


At the Vatican’s Council for Promoting Christian Unity, officials are keen to play down the political overtones of the meeting and see it as part of Pope Francis’ wider efforts to reach out and build bridges across denominational divides. They say the choice of Cuba as a venue for the meeting was chosen because the Patriarch was already there at the start of a three nation tour of Orthodox communities in Latin America, and Pope Francis was headed for a six day visit to Mexico. Yet Cuba also has great political significance, since Russia remained its most important ally throughout its decades of communist rule, and Pope Francis, according to US President Barack Obama, played an important role in recent negotiations for an end to its isolation from the international community. While politics and religion are hard to separate in the complex history of this encounter, all observers are hoping it will help to overcome tensions and encourage a much needed spirit of openness, trust and closer cooperation between Moscow and Rome.

Updated on October 04 2016