“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” (Psalm 133).
St. John XXIII anticipated it. Pope Paul VI advanced it. St. John Paul II obsessed about it. Pope Benedict XVI almost achieved it. Today, Pope Francis is the closer.
Reconciliation between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has been a papal dream for decades.
Media coverage of today’s meeting between the Holy Father and Patriarch Kirill in Havana will emphasize how historic it is — and the event is breathtakingly historic as the first encounter, ever, of a pope and Russian patriarch.
Yet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church, is a frequent visitor to Rome. He and Benedict signed a common declaration renewing “our commitment to move towards full communion” in 2006. He and Pope Francis visited the Holy Land together in 2014.
In fact, it was 50 years ago that Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras canceled the exchange of excommunications that became known as the Great Schism of 1054.
What makes the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill momentous is not what it tells us about the past, but what it tells us about Christianity, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church today.
Five insights can be drawn from the Havana encounter.
Crisis Forges Unity
Rome and Moscow announced the breakthrough last week in a joint press release, but Russian Orthodox officials were blunter about the urgency behind the meeting: Christian genocide in the Middle East and Africa.
At a press conference, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations — effectively the No. 2 after Kirill — told reporters that “extremists are perpetrating a real genocide of the Christian population. … In the present tragic situation, it is necessary to put aside internal disagreements and unite efforts for saving Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to the most severe persecution.”
The two faiths share the bond of real pain and real sacrifice.
According to the Pew Research Center, the Catholic and Orthodox populations living in the Middle East are roughly equal in number: 5.6 million Catholics and 5.5 million Orthodox Christians, based on 2010 data. About 1.7 million Christians in the region are members of Protestant denominations.
Catholic and Orthodox leaders are united, trying to repel “anarchy, war, death and the plight of 3 million refugees,” in the words of Patriarch Louis Sako, head of the Baghdad-based Chaldean Catholic Church, who advocates protecting Christian communities so they can stay in the region.
He joined with four other Orthodox and Catholic patriarchs in northern Iraq to visit refugees in 2014, where they also recited the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, the dominant language in that region at the time of Jesus Christ.
So, on the ground, this existential crisis has forged collaboration, which requires powerful leadership to help break through global disinterest.
This is something Pope Benedict XVI perceived when he convened a Special Synod for the Middle East in 2010, which, among other recommendations, called for greater Catholic-Orthodox unity in the interest of long-term protection.
ROC Projecting Itself Globally
The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest faith community in the Orthodox Christian family, by far. Of 260 million Orthodox believers in the world, 101 million (39%) live in Russia.
Ethiopia has the second largest of the world’s Orthodox population, followed by Ukraine, with 14% and 13%, respectively.
Although Orthodox patriarchs are considered co-equal (“autocephalous” is the term used) — with the patriarch of Constantinople considered “first among equals,” empowered to convene synods, based on the see’s historical importance — the Russian Orthodox Church is eager to assert itself as leader of the Orthodox world, according to experts.
“Patriarch Kirill is asserting Moscow’s role as the Third Rome,” observed Jesuit Father James McCann, senior vice president of The Gregorian Foundation, in an interview with the Register. Father McCann, a fluent Russian speaker, led the U.S. bishops’ programs for Eastern Europe and Russia 2003-2010.
He referred to a 16th-century Russian Orthodox monk who developed a theory positing Moscow as a political and religious center, destined to succeed the Roman and Byzantine empires. It was an idea that helped consolidate Russian independence.
“‘Two Romes have fallen, a third stands, and a fourth there shall not be,’ was the phrase, which captures the centrality of Orthodox Christianity to Russian identity,” explained the Jesuit priest.
According to Father McCann, after decades of hesitation, the ROC has decided to meet with Pope Francis for several reasons, one being rivalry between Patriarch Kirill and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who has developed a close friendship with Pope Francis.
As well, he thinks we are witnessing Patriarch Kirill’s effort to extend the primacy of Russian Orthodoxy over all Orthodoxy, which means extending the influence of Russia around the world, sometimes through church investment.
Cuba, with about 15,000 Russian Orthodox believers, is Patriarch Kirill’s first stop on an itinerary that includes Brazil and Paraguay.
In Cuba, the ROC financed construction of a prominent cathedral, Our Lady of Kazan, in historic Havana at the invitation of Fidel Castro in 2002 to commemorate Cuban-Russian friendship — one of the only new church constructions allowed on the island under the Castro brothers’ regime.
The Vatican is not naïve regarding the political dimension of the Francis-Kirill meeting: As Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who will accompany Pope Francis, told Vatican Radio, “It is clear political issues are present,” and it is “not possible to avoid” tense topics, such as the war in Ukraine (where the ROC accuses some Ukrainian Greek-Catholics of fomenting conflict — and vice versa), in a two-hour long meeting.
Vatican’s Independent Worldview
The United States and NATO have pursued a policy of isolating and demonizing Russia, especially since conflict erupted in Ukraine in 2014. With regard to Syria, once again, the U.S. and Russia are largely on opposite sides of the conflict.
Pope Francis is determined to position the Catholic Church as a neutral interlocutor, balanced with regard to the worldviews of West vs. East, South vs. North. That’s why he has sought opportunities to maintain dialogue with President Vladimir Putin and with Patriarch Kirill.
This independent outlook is based on the Holy See’s view that Western culture is fundamentally Christian and thus stretches from Europe east to Eurasia and west to North and South America. Effectively, wherever Christian communities are found, especially as a majority.
Rather than conceding to a “clash of civilizations” culture war, Holy See diplomats have, for generations, slowly worked to heal the “scandal to the world” of East-West division, as Pope Emeritus Benedict termed it, to allow Christ’s church to “breath with her two lungs,” in St. John Paul II’s famous phrase.
St. John XXIII was a lifelong proponent of ecumenical dialogue. He felt strongly, from a young age, that the division of Christians was false and could be overcome. In 1926 he wrote:
“Catholics and Orthodox are not enemies, but brothers. We have the same faith; we share the same sacraments, and especially the Eucharist. We are divided by some disagreements concerning the divine constitution of the Church of Jesus Christ. The persons who were the cause of these disagreements have been dead for centuries. Let us abandon the old disputes …”
This commitment deepened based on his 10 years as Vatican representative to Bulgaria, which is heavily Orthodox.
Pope Francis echoed the saint he so admires when he described to La Stampa his attitude toward Orthodox bishops: “I felt like their brother. They have the apostolic succession; I received them as brother bishops. It is painful that we are not yet able to celebrate the Eucharist together, but there is friendship. I believe that the way forward is this: friendship, common work and prayer for unity. We blessed each other; one brother blesses the other.”
Churches Share Moral Agenda
Beyond personalities, collaboration between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches flows from a shared diagnosis of contemporary threats to Christianity itself: Christian persecution and Islamic fundamentalism on one hand and secularism and moral relativism on the other.
A secularizing trend that tends to marginalize, diminish or even deny Christianity’s relevance, especially in Western culture, is a force for ecumenical unity.
It’s not just faith in Jesus Christ that traditional Catholics and the Russian Orthodox share; it is an attitude toward a range of social issues, from protecting life in the womb to opposing same-sex “marriage,” from rejecting the crass materialism of consumer culture to supporting the Church’s role in the public square.
The primary sticking point between the two Churches is the primacy of the Latin pope, yet even that “issue” has been minimized by Pope Francis — at least symbolically.
Father McCann described how the Holy Father changed the Vatican phone directory: The cover typically featured the Vatican coat of arms, and the first page had the pope’s name with all his many titles. Pope Francis kept the cover, but on the title page he listed only “Francis, Bishop of Rome.”
“I’ve never been so excited to see an almost-blank page,” remembered the Jesuit, who served as rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute at the time and worked with many Orthodox scholars. “I knew the Russian Orthodox would be responsive to that humility.”
What has emerged in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is agreement to focus on common morality and mutual respect as the based for shared action, letting the Joint Commission on Theological Dialogue work in the background at its gradual pace.
As Metropolitan Hilarion told AsiaNews in 2013, “I am convinced that at the moment our joint work in the field of promoting moral and social values is much more effective. I believe that the elaboration of a common position on various social and moral issues has helped us to move ahead.”
Similarly, in a recent interview with Vatican Radio, a priest who has been working on the Francis-Kirill meeting, especially the joint declaration they will release, emphasized the document as pertaining to “the dialogue of charity, not the framework of truth.”
Dominican Father Hyacinthe Destivelle, charged with Slavic Orthodox Church relations within the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, explained the declaration as touching on “different aspects of collaboration and testimony that the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church can give in our world today.”
He continued, “Important questions will be of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, secularization, the protection of life, marriage, the family … to give a common testimony to the world today.”
Patience Works Miracles
Steady groundwork has been laid for today’s meeting, since St. John XXIII invited Russian Orthodox observers to the Second Vatican Council.
To St. John Paul’s subsequent chagrin, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union — which allowed religious revival and contact for all the suppressed faiths of the former Soviet empire — four major areas of tension between Catholics and Orthodox conspired to lock the Polish Pope out of a country he dearly hoped to visit:
1) Catholic property claims against the Russian state, which had brutally expropriated, repurposed or destroyed thousands of churches, monasteries and ecclesiastic buildings during the Soviet era, in some cases turning Catholic properties over to the Orthodox Church;
2) Orthodox fears that Catholics and other missionary churches would sweep into Russia to proselytize and woo believers;
3) centuries of Polish-Russian rivalry; and
4) missteps at the Vatican in how it structured new Catholic administrative units in Russia.
Relations between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches reached a real low in 2002, when Russia barred Catholic Bishop Jerzy Mazur from returning to Russia from his native Poland. Four other priests were expelled. Bishop Mazur had been rebuilding — and governing — Roman Catholicism in Siberia, the biggest diocese in the world in area.
Confirming that things were bad, The Economist called it an “ugly and bitter feud” and observed that “relations between the Vatican and the Orthodox hierarchy, always tense, are going from bad to worse.”
What repaired this brokenness, eventually, was the ascension of Benedict XVI. In his first papal message to his former peers, assembled in the Sistine Chapel, Benedict announced his “ambition” as a “reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers.”
The most significant development in deepening East-West dialogue, though, was the ascension in January 2009 of Patriarch Kirill and the diplomatic opening of Russia to Rome a year later.
For 20 years, Patriarch Kirill had served as chairman of the Department for External Relations, so he was the Vatican’s main post-communist interlocutor and known by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Patriarch Kirill, 69, is a sophisticated man with deep standing at home. His father and grandfather (who was arrested by the Soviets in 1933 for capitalizing the word “God”) were Orthodox priests, as is his brother, a theology professor; his mother was a German-language teacher.
Kirill and Benedict shared an analysis of the risks threatening the West. They believe that Western culture depends on its Christian foundation for the precepts of virtue, which guarantee freedom. For these men, who lived through totalitarian and authoritarian oppression, rampant secularism and moral collapse signal a dangerous instability that can invite new forms of tyranny.
Patriarch Kirill advances his ideas from a position of strength: The Russian Orthodox Church is ascendant. It is also closely allied with political power, giving the Church muscle and relevance. As cooperation began to flourish under the Church leaders — the Vatican sponsored a “Day of Russian Culture and Spirituality”; the Orthodox countered by organizing a concert dedicated to Benedict — political relations between the Russian state and Vatican City also gained ground.
Vladimir Putin and Pope Benedict first met at the Vatican in March 2007, conversing in the pontiff’s native language. During the visit, according to a U.S. Embassy cable released through Wikileaks, Putin, an Orthodox believer, pledged his government would “do all it can to favor dialogue between the two Churches.”
In 2010, for the first time since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Russia and the Vatican exchanged ambassadors based on full diplomatic recognition. Not only did warmth between the Churches facilitate this agreement, but cordial relations between Putin and Pope Benedict paved the way.
War in Ukraine risked paralyzing the relationship between the Holy See and Moscow, but Pope Francis has been protective of the ecumenical dialogue and made clear he would not take sides in a dispute between brothers, Christians in western Ukraine vs. Christians in eastern Ukraine.
Setting aside war, synods, secularism and good spadework, by many accounts, it was Pope Francis’ legendary humility that sealed the deal for Friday’s encounter: On a flight back from Istanbul to Rome in November 2014, the Holy Father declared, “I will go where you wish; if you call me, I’ll come.” And the rest is history.