Letter #7, 2016: A Pope-Patriarch Kirill Meeting in… Cuba?

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January 26, 2016, Tuesday — Will Pope Francis Meet Kirill in… Cuba?

“Everyone knows that he is the Pope of surprises. If he wants to make a change to his schedule, he will certainly do so.” —Captain Domenico Giani, head of the Vatican’s security force, after visiting Mexico recently to prepare the Pope’s February 12-18 visit to that country, cited in the Mexican newspaper El Heraldo, reported by the Il Sismografo website on January 20, saying (in Spanish): “…Pero todos saben que es el Papa de las sorpresas. Si el Papa quiere hacer un cambio en el itinerario, seguramente se podrá hacer.” (link)

“It is clear that Pope Francis ardently desires such a meeting… Kirill too is in agreement. Now the stoplight is not red anymore, but yellow.”—Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, in a January 23 interview with Swiss journalist Giuseppe Rusconi, who conducted the interview in part for our magazine, Inside the Vatican (link)

“I told Patriarch Kirill, and he agreed, there is a willingness to meet. I told him: “I’ll go wherever you want, you call me and I’ll come”; and he too wants this.”—Pope Francis, in-flight press conference during the flight from Istanbul to Rome, Sunday, 30 November 2014 (link)

“Just when the Pope is in Mexico [February 12-18], Kirill will be in Cuba, where he was invited personally by Raúl Castro in May of last year [2015], during the Cuban president’s visit to Moscow. On that occasion, Raúl Castro made a stop in Rome on his way back from Moscow and met with Francis. To speak with him about the Pope’s visit to Cuba, scheduled for September of that year. But it is likely that he also wanted to talk with him about his conversations with Patriarch Kirill and with Russian president Vladimir Putin.”Italian Vaticanist Sandro Magister, in an article this morning, January 26, 2016

Springtime for the Churches in… February?

For some time in Rome there have been rumors that a long-hoped for meeting between the leader of the Roman Catholic Church (now Pope Francis, but the meeting was hoped for by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s) and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church (now Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, but in the 1990s, Patriarch Alexi II) might occur during the first months of 2016.

Such a meeting of the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Moscow has never occurred.

And such a meeting would have profound symbolic meaning for the improving the relations between Rome and the largest of the Orthodox Churches, that of Moscow (which counts under its jurisdiction almost two-thirds of the world’s estimated 200 million Orthodox) — and also great meaning for the relations between the West, represented by Rome, and the country of Russia, represented, in this case, by the Patriarch of Moscow.

This morning in Rome, the veteran Vatican journalist, Sandro Magister, has published a story in which he makes a case for a possible meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch within the next three weeks, perhaps in mid- February, and not in Budapest or Vienna or Kiev or Minsk — that is, not in Europe — but rather in or near Cuba, during the time when Pope Francis is scheduled to be making an historic visit to Mexico (February 12-18) and when Patriarch Kirill is in fact scheduled to be making his own, unrelated visit to Cuba.

And so Cuba, the island which, in October 1962, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, almost became the site of a tragic nuclear confrontation between the US and the USSR, could in this way become the site of a very different encounter — an encounter of two world religious leaders, representing two of the great but long-separated traditions of Christianity, that of the Latin West (Catholic) and that of the Greek East (Orthodox, in its Russian form), meeting for the first time.

No Pope has ever met a Russian Orthodox Patriarch.

However, such a meeting has not been confirmed.

It is possible, then, that Magister’s report, which is stitched together from circumstantial evidence made public in recent days in separate interviews with the head of Vatican security and the head of the Vatican’s office for promoting Christian ecumenism — not based on a “leak” from an authoritative Vatican source — will not be proven accurate.

However, recent conversations I myself have had with a number of Vatican officials have authoritatively confirmed that a Francis-Kirill meeting is in the advanced planning stages. In fact, I have been told that such a meeting is “likely” during the first months of 2016, and, indeed, that it might occur “before Easter,” which comes at the end of March.

So the possibility of such a “Caribbean” meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in February, as Magister suggests, seems a possibility that may actually come to pass.

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The Magister article

Here is the text of the Sandro Magister article, released this morning, with a link to the source.

Francis and Kirill Together, Under Tropical Skies (link)

The Pope in Mexico, the Russian patriarch in Cuba. Both on visits to these countries in mid-February. Ready to surprise the world, with a meeting

by Sandro Magister

ROME, January 26, 2016 – “Everyone knows that he is the Pope of surprises. If he wants to make a change to his schedule, he will certainly do so.”

So said Captain Domenico Giani, inspector general of the Vatican gendarmerie, at the end of a meticulous security inspection in Mexico, where Francis will visit from February 12 to 18.

And the “surprises” could include an exceptional one: a meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill, the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow and of all Rus’. The first meeting in history between the heads of the Churches of Rome and of the “Third Rome,” unexpectedly beneath tropical skies.

In fact, just when the Pope is in Mexico, Kirill will be in Cuba, where he was invited personally by Raúl Castro in May of last year, during the Cuban president’s visit to Moscow.

On that occasion, Raúl Castro made a stop in Rome on his way back from Moscow and met with Francis. To speak with him about the Pope’s visit to Cuba, scheduled for September of that year. But it is likely that he also wanted to talk with him about his conversations with Patriarch Kirill and with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

A meeting between the pope and the patriarch of Moscow – who governs two thirds of the 200 million Orthodox in the world – has been talked about for years, or rather for decades. Each time imagining it on neutral ground, like Vienna or Budapest. But never before today has the meeting been seen as feasible in the near future, not even after the exit from the stage of a pontiff “impossible” for the Russians like the Polish John Paul II.

After the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope, however, the hypothesis soon became less unrealistic. On November 30 of 2014, on the flight back from Rome after his trip to Turkey, Francis gave this response to a Russian journalist who had asked him precisely about his contacts with the patriarchate of Moscow:

“I told Patriarch Kirill, and he agreed, there is a willingness to meet. I told him: ‘I’ll go wherever you want, you call me and I’ll come;’ and he too wants this.”

Francis did not conceal – in his further remarks to the Russian journalist – the obstacles that he saw in the way of the meeting. Which were principally two.

On the first, uniatism – which is the derogatory term that the Orthodox use to designate the union of the Eastern-rite Catholic communities with Rome – Bergoglio made it understood that he wants to turn the page:

“The Eastern Catholic Churches have a right to exist, but uniatism is a dated word. We cannot speak in these terms today. We need to find another way.”

Regarding the second obstacle, the war in Ukraine – the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy but also the home of the most populous Byzantine-rite Catholic Church – the pope said instead that the one with the greatest difficulty was the patriarch of Moscow:

“There is the problem of war in these times. The poor man has so many issues there that the meeting with the Pope has been put on the back burner. Both of us want to meet and move forward.”

And in fact, on the question of Ukraine, Francis has always moved with actions and words carefully crafted so as not to gall the Moscow patriarchate and Putin’s policies in the region, even at the cost of sowing the strongest disappointment among the bishops, clergy, and faithful of the Catholic Church of that nation:

> Assaulted by Moscow and Abandoned by Rome (20.2.2015)

One effect has been that on several occasions Kirill has not failed to express public appreciation for the role of Pope Francis in the Ukrainian crisis:

> Patriarch Kirill thanks Vatican for balanced view on Ukraine crisis

So the Vatican and the patriarchate of Moscow began to study in secret the feasibility of a meeting between the two.

The secrecy was dictated by the intention of avoiding any reaction from forces in either camp that would be opposed to the meeting, with the risk of ruining it.

In the Catholic camp it is above all the Ukrainian Church that feels itself wounded by such a sensational cozying up of the pope to the patriarchate of Moscow, seen as inseparable from the great enemy and “invader,” Putin’s Russia.

But within the patriarchate as well there is very extensive opposition to “openness” to the Catholic Church, and therefore to the execrated West, symbolized by the embrace between the pope and the patriarch.

One sign of this is the caution of the deputy in the patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, concerning rumors of a meeting between Francis and Kirill:

> Too early to speak of meeting between pope, patriarch

Another sign is the recent turbulence at the upper echelon of the patriarchate, with the expulsion of the head of religious information, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, an ultra-nationalist and theorist of Russia’s “holy war” in Ukraine:

> Licenziamenti a Mosca: il patriarcato verso il terzo millennio

In freeing himself of him, Kirill wanted to weaken the component of the Russian Church most closely connected to the autocratic Putin regime and to its military operations in Ukraine and the Middle East.

In fact, after working in close agreement with Putin for the reconstruction of Orthodoxy in Russia, Patriarch Kirill now wants to act with greater autonomy and acquire the credibility and charismatic profile of a world spiritual leader, of a Russian “Pope Francis,” partly in competition with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, who is at home in the Vatican but in Russia is seen by many as a vassal of Western “uniform thinking.”

Both Francis and Kirill, therefore, have a strong interest in the realization of their meeting. And in its happening with that “surprise” effect which would present the world – and their respective opponents – with the fait accompli.

That the meeting between the two is near, very near in fact, has been hinted at by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the pontifical council for Christian unity.

In a January 23 interview with the journalist and fellow Swiss countryman Giuseppe Rusconi, Koch said:

“It is clear that Pope Francis ardently desires such a meeting. Kirill too is in agreement. Now the stoplight is not red anymore, but yellow.”

And he recalled as close to becoming reality the words that Francis said on the flight from Turkey to Rome:

“I told Kirill: ‘I’ll go wherever you want, you call me and I’ll come’.”

In less than a month the two really will call each other. Francis from Mexico. Kirill from Cuba. For the historic meeting so longed for by both.

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What is the glory of God?

“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.

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