The meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill is important for a number of reasons and we should pray that it be guided by the Holy Spirit. For Christians and all people of good will it is a welcome sight when estranged brothers take a new first step towards each other. The separation between Christian Churches and denominations is the greatest scandal among the followers of Christ, one that undermines the witness of all Christians. It reflects an ignorance of Christ’s prayer on the eve of His Passion (Jn 17:21): “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You!”
The meeting in Havana should be neither hyperbolised nor underestimated. It is historic: an encounter of church leaders, who are emblematic characters in an asymmetric relationship with many paradoxes and nuances. No Church has a monopoly on the virtues, nor on the vices. In God’s eyes a Church’s qualities are not necessarily a question of quantity. But the two hierarchs come with different legacies. Francis is the leader of a billion Catholics and is the single most respected moral authority in the world. He is meeting the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), still limping from a century of persecution, still looking for its moral voice in post-Soviet Russian society.
Many internal observers say that in the Putin years the leadership of the ROC, increasingly wedded to state power, has sacrificed its freedom and undermined its prophetic vocation while receiving lucrative government support. Today, Patriarch Kirill’s civic standing in the Russian population is much lower than that of Vladimir Putin. The role in society of the ROC is rather marginal. Sunday liturgical participation among the Orthodox in Russia is less than 2%, lower than that in the most secularised countries of the West, while abortion, divorce and alcoholism rates are among the highest in the world, not to mention the corruption at every level in every institution in Russian society. While critical of moral problems in the West, Kirill,the ROC, and Vladimir Putin have not had much success in promoting a Christian world view or way of life in Russia.
While Pope Francis’ ecclesial mandate in the Catholic communion and his social role in the world are manifest Patriarch Kirill represents just part of the global Orthodox community struggling to establish unity. He has been in an lasting dialectic with the Patriarchate of Constantinople over influence in the Orthodox communion, making shaky and modest the outlook for the first Pan-Orthodox Council in centuries, now scheduled for June of this year.
The ROC presents itself as the biggest Orthodox Church. But approximately half of the flock claimed by the ROC is in Ukraine. Ever more vocally Ukrainian Orthodox are expressing their desire for real ecclesial independence from Moscow whence war is being waged against them. In fact there may be more practicing Orthodox in Ukraine than in Russia. An autocephalous and united Ukrainian Orthodox Church would probably be the most numerous one in world Orthodoxy, something both Putin and Kirill are striving to prevent at all costs. The asymmetry of the encounter between pope and patriarch—who they represent and what they stand for—needs to be understood in order to avoid misconstruing the nature and impact of the Havana rendezvous.
The encounter does have serious ecumenical import and potential, but it should be remembered that significant and more substantive substantive meetings between pope and patriarch have occurred long ago. The groundbreaking meeting between Pope Paul IV and the Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras I in 1964 led to the mutual lifting of mutual 900-year-old anathemas. Over the last half century Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict and Francis have regularly met with the senior Orthodox Patriarchs—the Patriarchs of Constantinople—in Rome and Istanbul and Jerusalem, if not in Cuba.
This brings us to the significance of the location. The Pope is demonstrating humility: he is going to the territory of the other. In the eyes of nostalgic Russians Cuba is almost home territory, a last outpost of a lost Soviet Empire that Putin explicitly is trying to reconstruct at great political expense and human cost. The Pope is travelling to Mexico – the place of his scheduled pastoral visit – and makes a stop in Cuba where the patriarch will be waiting for him. In a very real sense the Pope is going to the Patriarch. In November 2014, Francis publicly stated his unconditional readiness to meet Kirill. “I will go wherever you want. You call me and I’ll go.” In coming to Cuba again, after last years visit, Francis makes good his promise.
During this Jubilee Year of Divine Mercy Pope Francis is carrying everywhere the message of God’s grace, solidarity, and limitless love. The visit to Mexico promises to be an emotional pastoral trip and the call for mercy will resonate throughout the entire Latin American world. Before embracing and being embraced by millions the Pope will fly to a private meeting one-on-one.
Francis needs not, and probably will not, say much. His pontificate is marked by symbolic gestures and simple words that compel the attention and respect of the world. The pontiff has a special charisma and mission not only for the Catholics and Christians. He speaks to the hopes and suffering of all humanity. His solidarity with the poor, passionate global peacemaking, and eschewing of trappings in ecclesial service appeal to a universal audience. These papal priorities, implicitly or explicitly, will be presented to Kirill whose nationalistic ecclesial ideology of the the “Russian World” bolsters Putins military actions for empire and who has been more that susceptible to power politics and church-state entanglement.
The meeting is a symbolic breakthrough which could allow for substantial steps in the future. Over the last 25 years the Russian Orthodox rejected Rome’s proposals for a meeting of pope and patriarch based on objections to the revival and vitality of the Eastern Catholic Churches, especially the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Whatever these objections might be it is finally clear that they are no longer as real as once claimed. The fact of the meeting is recognition of the fact that the Ukrainian Catholics will not simply disappear.
Finally and hopefully, the encounter could lead Patriarch Kirill to take a prophetic position regarding Russian military aggression in Ukraine. The Russian role in the devastating violence in eastern Ukraine is clear to the global community as is the grave violation of international law in the annexation of Crimea. Obliquely the Holy See has referred to the violation of international law in speaking about the situation in Ukraine. By meeting to Patriarch Kirill Pope Francis gives the Russian Orthodox Church leverage, a new window of opportunity to articulate a new position breaking with its traditional role in Russian colonial rule. Ukraine has emphatically declared that it is no longer a colony. It will be important if the ROC begins to accommodate itself to Ukraine’s political and ecclesial self-expression and self-determination.
The topics of discussion will not be explicitly political ones. Rather the gist of the rendezvous will be the encounter of church leaders representing very different experiences, agendas, styles, and spiritualities of ecclesial leadership. One can hardly expect revolutionary results. Yet, it is through encounter that spiritual change occurs. Let us pray for good spiritual fruit.
Bishop Borys Gudziak
Évêque de l’Éparchie Saint Volodymyr-le-Grand de Paris des Ukrainiens pour la France, le Bénélux et la Suisse
Head, Department of External Church Relations, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church
President, Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv