Francis and Kirill: Who Played Whom?

Five details from yesterday’s historical meeting suggest that while the Russian Patriarch may have thought he was first violin, the Jesuit Pope was conducting the orchestra.

Pope Benedict XVI was, and is, known for playing the piano. Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the chief architect of Friday’s Cuban summit between his boss Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis, is a published composer of sacred music. But what about Francis himself? What are his musical talents? After his visit to Cuba today, I cannot help but wonder: does Pope Francis secretly play the fiddle?

More than one of my Orthodox friends (and not a few of my Ukrainian Catholic friends), in commenting earlier this week before the Cuba summit between the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Moscow, voiced the worry that Francis would get “played” by Patriarch Kirill—that he would walk into a Russian trap. Having read the statement of the Cuban summit, there are indeed parts of their joint statement that read very much like it was drafted solely by and for the Russians who, I have no doubt, will shamelessly spin it to suit their agenda.

But I wonder. I wonder if Francis will not be happy to have the Russians make such claims in the months ahead. I wonder if the Russians, thinking they have “played” the pope, have not unwittingly found themselves pulled into an orchestral arrangement in which they are simultaneously first and second violin, simultaneously both composers and, more important, players alongside others they cannot totally control. I wonder—to use a famous Russian formulation attributed to Lenin—who played whom?

This statement, then, admits of more than one reading, more than one hearing. Patriarch Kirill may have thought he was first violin, and perhaps he was at points; but it is not at all clear to me that Pope Francis was only second violin the whole time. Consider, in witness of this, four examples from the joint papal-patriarchal statement from Cuba, and a fifth from the meeting itself. It is my contention that all of these compositions are composed in such a way as to admit of hearing in two quite different ways.

First, paragraph 24 says of Catholics and Orthodox: “We are not competitors but brothers.” Many Catholics, perhaps most Catholics, and certainly most Russian Orthodox, will read that and think it’s aimed at Catholics, who are always (so the Russians claim) engaging in this competitive sheep-stealing “proselytism” condemned in the line immediately before this one.

But the statement can also be read—and I would argue very much should be read—not as a rebuke of Catholics, but as a quiet and wholly necessary reassurance to Russians. For it is Russians who need to be assured, again and again, that Catholics in Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere are not there at Orthodox expense, and that any growth in Catholic numbers is not a defeat for the Orthodox, but a common victory for the Gospel of our common Lord.

This statement says, in effect, we must no longer conceive of our relationship as a zero-sum game: Orthodox lose if Catholics win converts, or vice versa. If Catholics grow in Ukraine or Serbia or Russia or Greece: to God be the glory! And if Orthodox grow in Quebec or Palermo or Vienna or Dublin: to God be the glory! According to both Catholic and Orthodox teaching, a person entering into either Orthodoxy or Catholicism has access to “valid” sacraments and thus all the means necessary to salvation. So we can and should be united in rejoicing at each other’s gains, and united again at mourning each other’s weaknesses and losses.

Secondly, paragraph 25 also makes three claims (in italics) that can be read both ways. The whole paragraph in full reads:

It is today clear that the past method of “uniatism”, understood as the union of one community to the other, separating it from its Church, is not the way to re–establish unity. Nonetheless, the ecclesial communities which emerged in these historical circumstances have the right to exist and to undertake all that is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful, while seeking to live in peace with their neighbours. Orthodox and Greek Catholics are in need of reconciliation and of mutually acceptable forms of co–existence. (emphasis added)

Today: This can and should be read as meaning that nobody in 2016 is looking to create another Eastern Catholic Church out of an existing Orthodox ecclesial community. And indeed nobody is doing that. Rome has twice now foresworn off any future “uniate” churches.

But the “today” is key here, I’d suggest, insofar as it cuts off any kind of retroactive rubbishing of the past, any kind of apology (cf. my “Apologia Pro Unia”, Feb 8, 2016) for what happened yesterday, or at any point in the past. “Today” closes the door to the past and prevents us from indulging in that infuriatingly jejune practice popular among spoiled students of dragging up the dead to condemn them for insufficient sensitivity to today’s politics—whether it’s Columbus, Junipero Serra, or the leaders of the Fourth Crusade. In other words, Eastern Catholics exist, and neither they nor Rome are prepared to condemn them and apologize for their past existence.

Third: Ecclesial community. This phrase, admittedly, stuck in my throat, and it has already for several of my Ukrainian Catholic friends. For it reminds us of language used in the very early 1990s, when the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC) was emerging from the underground but bureaucrats in both Moscow and Rome tried to downplay its significance by conjuring up such ecclesiologically incoherent and twisted terminology as “Catholic communities of the Byzantine rite.”

In this context, however, “ecclesial communities” is used to refer to one-time Orthodox bodies who happened to became Catholic. This phrase, then, also admits of a dual reading—it can be read as applying in a denigrating fashion to today’s Ukrainian Catholic Church; but it is first posited of the Church of Kievan Rus, which is Orthodox and whose Orthodox bishops took themselves to Rome in 1595 to negotiate the Union of Brest. This must not be forgotten!

This “ecclesial communities” phrase is also useful insofar as it can also be turned back on today’s Orthodox, who have themselves created their own “uniate” communities of former Western Christians—both Protestant and Roman Catholic—who have become Orthodox through jerry-rigged “Western Rite” communities set up by various Byzantine Orthodox Churches—the Russian and the Antiochian among them. Serious Orthodox commentators I have talked to—Paul Meyendorff of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, for example—and other Orthodox scholars past (e.g., Alexander Schmemann) and present (e.g., Jack Turner) have all said these “Western Rite” communities are totally incoherent and little more than “uniatism in reverse.”

But, fourth, perhaps the most important phrase is this, again from paragraph 25 when, in speaking of Eastern Catholics, it says they have the right to exist and to undertake all that is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful. After a quarter-century of unrelenting hostility from the Russians directed against Ukrainian Catholics, it is no small thing for them to finally concede in print that we have a right to exist.

Now, to be sure, and following Churchill’s famous phrase from 1940, I do not consider this the end, or even the beginning of the end, of Russian hostility and complaints about “the uniates.” But this statement is, perhaps, the end of the beginning phase in the propaganda war, which has lasted twenty-five years now.

Consider, fifth and finally, the very fact of the meeting itself. Having for so long held the prospect of a papal-patriarchal summit hostage to its own demands, the Russians can hardly return to doing so now. They sought this meeting because they clearly need it to boost their badly battered standing in both the international political and ecclesial arenas thanks to their war against Ukraine, their involvement in Syria, and their incessant campaign to shove the Ecumenical Patriarch into the Bosphorus. They got the meeting they wanted, and they got the statement they felt they needed.

But so did the pope—on both scores.

There is a reason that the Jesuits were exiled in 1820 from Russia by Tsar Alexander I. There is a reason the Jesuits have long struck terror in the hearts of Russians and others. There is a reason that to call someone (whether a member of the Society of Jesus or not) “Jesuitical” used to be an accusation of the slipperiest, slyest, most casuistic forms of argument that could be read one way or another.

You have to hunt high and low to find Jesuits like that today, but I think one has been hiding in plain sight all along in Casa Santa Marta in Rome, happily playing second fiddle while others wrote and attempted to take sole credit for the composition, and also insisted on conducting it themselves. Well played, Francis, S.J. 

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).