The first, historic meeting between a Pope and a Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church does not come from nowhere. Both the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate and the Holy See have been working on such an event for decades.
In at least three cases under recent Popes, such a meeting seemed about to take place. Once under St. John Paul II and twice under Benedict XVI. But then nothing happened.
Why, then, did the Feb. 11 meeting suddenly become possible? There are at least four different reasons.
The need to counter anti-Christian persecution
Both the Catholic Church and Russian Orthodox Church have spoken out clearly to stop the “genocide” of Christians that is taking place in parts of the world. It is now time to join their voices.
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Department for External Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, clearly spelled out the situation in a Feb. 5 press conference.
He said that “the situation as it has developed today in the Middle East, in North and Central Africa and in some other regions, in which extremists are perpetrating a real genocide of the Christian population, has required urgent measures and closer cooperation between Christian Churches.”
Metropolitan Hilarion added that “in the present tragic situation, it is necessary to put aside internal disagreements and unite efforts to save Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to the most severe persecution.”
Metropolitan Hilarion’s reference to “internal disagreements” alludes to that part of Russian Orthodoxy that always rejected the possibility of a meeting with the Pope.
For Metropolitan Hilarion, the problems with the Catholic Church still hold. He said the “principle problem” in relations between the two Churches and the “principal obstacle” for a meeting between the two primates has lied in the “Uniate” controversy.
The term refers to the Eastern Catholic Churches who were previously Eastern Orthodox Churches. The question was exacerbated during the conflict in the Ukraine. So much so that the same Metropolitan Hilarion took the floor at the Catholic Church’s 2014 synod of bishops to complain about the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. He objected that the Church was active in dioceses of the Moscow patriarchate.
The metropolitan’s actions seemed to freeze relations between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church.
However, the desire for a meeting between the Patriarch and the Pope was great, according to Father Giovanni Guaita, who worked for the Russian Orthodox Church Department for External Affairs.
“Despite any possible division, in the face of religious fundamentalism and of terrorism…it is clear that Christians must be more united,” he stressed.
The priest told CNA Feb. 7 that the upcoming meeting will show “that Christians must be more united in responding to religious fundamentalism and in denouncing the persecution of Christians.”
Likely, the joint declaration will mostly deal with an appeal against the persecution of Christians.
The need to counter global immorality
Fr. Guaita cited a second reason why the meeting needed to take place now.
“While the world is experiencing a sort of moral liberalism, the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church are a rampart for traditional values, and for this reason they are more united together. Together, they can launch a message of morality to the world.”
In this sense, he said, the choice of Cuba is meaningful.
“There are still not the right conditions for this meeting to take place in Russia or in Italy. But America is the new world. While Europe is the continent of divisions, America provides the image of a much younger continent. The choice of Cuba can represent a message of hope, the signal that we can start again from new relationships.”
Will these new relationships overcome the Ukrainian issue? It is hard to know. While everything appeared to be set for the announcement of the meeting with the Pope, the Russian Orthodox Synod issued Jan. 28 a strongly worded declarations that reiterated the attacks on the Greek Catholic Church in the Ukraine.
For this reason, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, said Feb. 5 that he does not expect that the meeting will bring any particular changes.
Archbishop Shevchuk then underscored that “the meeting cannot be an end in itself, but must rather be an instrument, a necessary means for honest and open dialogue.” He added that he is “pleased that we are no longer considered an obstacle and aren’t being used to justify one’s unwillingness to engage in such dialogue.”
The Russian government needs a foreign affairs boost
During the Ukrainian conflict, the issue of the Ukrainian Church became a political issue, given that the Russian Orthodox Church has always sided with the Russian administration. According to a source close to the Patriarchate of Moscow, “the Russian Orthodox Church has often acted as a sort of shadow ministry for the Foreign Affairs of the Russian administration.”
At the moment, Russia’s diplomatic situation is isolated. Relations with Turkey are very poor after a Russian warplane was shot down the last November. Many in the international community oppose Russia’s strong support for Syrian president Bashar Assad.
Facing this diplomatic isolation, Russian president Vladimir Putin met with Pope Francis in Rome two times in three years: in November 2013 and in June 2015. In both cases, they spoke about the Middle East situation, with a special view to Syria, and about persecuted Christians.
“Putin is presenting himself as the champion of the protection of persecuted Christians, and the Russian Orthodox Church helps him keep this image vivid,” a source close to the Patriarchate told CNA Feb. 9. In the end, “the meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis shows that Russia is open, and that the Pope is close and sensitive to Russia.”
The Russian Orthodox Church looks ahead to the Pan-Orthodox Synod
The Russian Orthodox Patriarchate also finally agreed to meet with the Pope for reasons of ecclesiastical politics. As the June gathering of the Pan-Orthodox Council approaches, Patriarch Kirill must show himself to be as close to Rome as Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who promoted and organized the Pan-Orthodox Council.
Patriarch Bartholomew proved to be closer than ever to the Catholic Church during the Pope Francis pontificate. He was the first Orthodox Patriarch ever to take part to a Papal installation Mass. He was present at the global prayer for peace with Pope Francis in the Vatican Gardens in June 2014. He hosted the Pope at his headquarters in Istanbul during the papal visit to Turkey in November 2014.
This way, Patriarch Bartholomew gained authority among the Orthodox Churches and was able to organize the Pan-Orthodox Council. This is a long-standing dream for the Constantinople Patriarchate that until now was unachievable.
After meeting Pope Francis, Patriarch Kirill can go to the Pan-Orthodox Synod on a par with Patriarch Bartholomew. Both the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Patriarchate of Constantinople can claim a privileged and special relationship with the Catholic Church.
Is a Moscow visit still a dream for the Pope?
In the end, Moscow and Rome are generally improving their relations. Rather than hold an ecumenical meeting, they are going to renew their relations with a common commitment to help persecuted Christians.
A further step would be an advancement in ecumenical dialogue. The last theological document was issued in Ravenna, Italy by a Catholic-Orthodox mixed commission. Both parties agreed that the Pope of Rome has a sort of primacy, and presides in charity for the other Christian churches. But still, there is not any agreement about how this primacy must be exercised.
In the end, a papal trip to Moscow still seems to be a dream. At least, it is not on the agenda yet.
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