Vatican City, Dec 22, 2021 / 03:15 am (CNA).
Pope Francis met with Metropolitan Hilarion on Wednesday amid rising expectations of a second encounter between the pope and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2022.
The Holy See press office said that the pope received the chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate before his general audience on Dec. 22.
The pope had announced the meeting with Metropolitan Hiliarion during his in-flight press conference on his return from Greece on Dec. 6, saying that the bishop was visiting him “to arrange a possible meeting” with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.
Pope Francis met with Patriarch Kirill at Havana airport in Cuba on Feb. 12, 2016, in the first meeting between a pope and a Patriarch of Moscow.
The Russian Orthodox Church is an autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Church with an estimated 150 million members, accounting for around half of the world’s Orthodox Christians.
The Associated Press reported that Hilarion told Russian media after the meeting that he and the pope “discussed specific dates and venues today, but they are yet to be specified and agreed so we can’t announce the date and place yet.”
The Holy See press office did not address a possible second meeting in its summary of the meeting, which took place in a room at the Paul VI Hall, where the pope holds general audiences.
It said: “During the conversation, which took place in a spirit of fraternity, a number of issues were discussed that are a cause for common concern and facing which there is a shared commitment to seek concrete human and spiritual solutions.”
“During the meeting, the Holy Father was able to express his gratitude for the good wishes for his 85th birthday, brought by Metropolitan Hilarion on behalf of Patriarch Kirill.”
“For his part, the pope expressed feelings of affection and closeness to the Russian Church and its Patriarch Kirill, who recently celebrated his 75th birthday, recalling with gratitude the journey of fraternity made together and the conversation they had in Havana in 2016.”
The press office added that the pope and the Russian leader exchanged gifts, with Hilarion giving Francis an icon of Our Lady of the Sign, in which the Virgin Mary stands face-on with her hands raised in prayer.
The meeting, which began at 7:50 a.m, ended shortly before 8:50 a.m., the press office said.
During his in-flight press conference, the pope underlined that he was willing to meet with Patriarch Kirill in Russia.
“I’m always willing to go to Moscow to talk to a brother, there are no protocols,” he said.
Metropolitan Hilarion, who spoke at the International Eucharistic Congress in Hungary in September, responded to the pope’s comments during the press conference by confirming that a possible meeting with the patriarch was on the agenda.
“Among these issues is a possible meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill. Neither the venue nor the date of this meeting have been determined for now,” he said, according to the Russian news agency Tass.
Metropolitan Hilarion also met with the pope at the Vatican in October, after which he said that a potential papal trip to Russia would be “impossible at the moment.”
He apologized for the ways that Catholics have contributed to division with Orthodox Christians during a meeting with Ieronymos II, archbishop of Athens and All Greece, on Dec. 4.
The pope has formed a close bond with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the world’s estimated 300 million Orthodox Christians.
But the Russian Orthodox Church severed ties to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2018 after Bartholomew I confirmed that he intended to recognize the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
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