The meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in February helped close an historic East-West divide in Christendom.
IN AN HISTORIC step to heal the 1,000-year schism that has split Christianity, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, met in Cuba Feb. 12th in an attempt to begin bridging Christianity’s East-West divide.
It was the first meeting between the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the largest in Orthodoxy.
“Finally!” the pope exclaimed as he embraced Patriarch Kirill in the small VIP room of Havana’s airport, where the three-hour encounter took place. “We are brothers.”
Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill joined arms and kissed one another three times on the cheek when they met. Speaking through an interpreter, the patriarch told the pope: “Now things are easier.”
Church officials have insisted that Patriarch Kirill’s historic meeting with Pope Francis is apolitical and meant to address the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
At a meeting with journalists on Feb. 9th on the grounds of Moscow’s Danilov monastery, the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church, representatives of Patriarch Kirill and the church said the papal meeting had finally become possible because the Orthodox Church no longer feels that the Catholic Church is trying to expand its influence in Russia and Ukraine.
Asked if the Russian president Vladimir Putin had approved the Cuba rendezvous, Patriarch Kirill’s spokesman, Alexander Volkov, would only say there was a “100% guarantee that the meeting is between two church leaders and has no relation to politics.”
But Russian media have speculated that the visit with Pope Francis was actually a political mission to reduce Russia’s isolation amid western sanctions over Ukraine and criticism for its Syria bombing campaign.
The Russian Orthodox Church has historically had close ties to the state, and Patriarch Kirill and Putin have an especially close relationship, with the patriarch calling Putin a “miracle from God” and backing him in the 2012 election. Furthermore, to organize the meeting, Patriarch Kirill had to outmaneuver hardliners in the church, and Orthodox fundamentalist websites have branded him a “heretic” for agreeing to speak with the “antichrist” pope.
According to analyst Alexei Makarkin, the only reason the patriarch agreed to the meeting was because Putin wanted him to. The main topic of the discussion – persecution of Christians in the Middle East – plays to the Russian president’s advantage, he said.
“Russia is now being criticised by the West and the Arab world for its position on Syria, and so any societal forces that won’t condemn Russia are useful to it,” Makarkin said. The pope is “not an ally of Russia, but his argument for the protection of Christians can be used by Russia to justify its campaign in Syria,” he added.
With the patriarch-pope meeting, the Russian Orthodox Church was both backing up Kremlin policy and “stressing that it plays an important role among Christian churches” ahead of a historic gathering of Orthodox churches in Crete in June, according to scholar and political analyst Masha Lipman. The church’s need to prove itself outside Russia is made more acute by its loss of influence in Ukraine due to the conflict there, she added. TAP
Sources: The Guardian with material from Reuters and the Associated Press
Background and Comment
By Fr. Raymond De Souza
In 1054, the two principal sees in Christianity split with each other, Catholicism (Rome) in the west and Orthodoxy (Constantinople) in the east. The breach was then not thought a permanent thing, but it has lasted nearly a thousand years, with Orthodoxy (Constantinople) and Rome (Catholicism) still divided into the largest Christian Churches. In 1964, 900 years after the split, Pope Paul VI, and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras, decided to meet for the first time in Jerusalem.
But by 1964 the Orthodox patriarchate of Constantinople had become a shadow of its former self. Styling itself the “Second Rome” it had withered under more than four centuries of Ottoman rule after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and was being slowly asphyxiated by secularist Turkey in the 20th century. Today the number of Orthodox souls in Istanbul would be smaller than a typical Catholic parish in suburban Toronto.
The centre of gravity of the Orthodox faithful is the Russian Orthodox Church, with two-thirds of Orthodoxy’s 200 million adherents, which is why Moscow calls itself the “Third Rome.” Rome and Constantinople now routinely meet, but the meeting of Rome and Moscow has been keenly desired by the former for decades, and resisted just as keenly by the latter – until now.
The Moscow patriarchate was established in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Constantinople in 1448. It was suppressed by Peter the Great in 1721, and for nearly two centuries the Russian Orthodox Church was run by bureaucrats of the tsar. The Russian monarchy fell during the First World War, and a few years later, the church fell into Lenin’s bloody hands. Under him, and later Stalin, 100,000 priests were murdered. Stalin re-established the state-run church when he realized religion would be useful in rallying the people against Hitler.
Under communism, there was therefore no possibility for a meeting with the anti-communist Catholic Church. After communism fell, a meeting was eagerly proposed by John Paul II, but Russian Orthodoxy was itself discovering its identity. Under Putin, the Patriarch of Moscow once again can only go as far as the de facto tsar permits, and Putin has lavished attention and money on restoring the Russian Orthodox Church to a prominent place in Russian life.
So why the meeting now? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been bitterly opposed by the Ukrainian Catholic Church. There can be little doubt that the rather muted response of the Vatican to Russian aggression in Ukraine – viewed as a near-betrayal by Ukrainian Catholics – as well as the warm reception Pope Francis gave the largely shunned Putin last summer in Rome, was the realpolitik price to pay to obtain Putin’s approval for Kirill to meet Francis.
Second, Putin wants a Rome-Moscow alliance in defence of persecuted Christians in the Middle East. A death blow to ISIL, led by Putin’s ally Bashar Assad in Syria, would massively increase Putin’s influence in the region. If Putin could argue that the pope and the patriarch supported Russia-Syria taking the lead against ISIL, it would make his regional power play more plausible.
Third, Patriarch Kirill has his own reasons, apart from a genuine desire for greater Christian fraternity. In June a meeting of all Orthodox patriarchs – a “Pan-Orthodox Council” – will be held for the first time in over one thousand years. If Kirill establishes in Havana that he is the lead interlocutor with Rome, the largest Christian Church, it will strengthen his bid for the “Third Rome” to displace the “Second Rome” in the leadership of Orthodoxy.
The politics compromises the purity of the historic Christian encounter, but Catholic-Orthodox relations must proceed that way on occasion. TAP
De Souza is a Roman Catholic priest and a regular columnist for The National Post. This is an excerpt from his Feb. 12th column.