Letter #9: More on the Pope Francis-Patriarch Kirill Meeting in Cuba


February 5, 2016, Friday — More on the Pope Francis-Patriarch Kirill Meeting in Havana, Cuba, on February 12

EasterVigilPopeFrancis10days“Thus, in full awareness and at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome that Peter bathed with his blood, the current successor assumes as his primary commitment that of working tirelessly towards the reconstruction of the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers. This is his ambition and compelling duty. He is aware that to do so, expressions of good feelings are not enough. Concrete gestures are required to penetrate souls and move consciences, encouraging everyone to that interior conversion which is the basis for all progress on the road of ecumenism.
“Theological dialogue is necessary. A profound examination of the historical reasons behind past choices is also indispensable. But even more urgent is that ‘purification of memory,’ which was so often evoked by John Paul II, and which alone can dispose souls to welcome the full truth of Christ. It is before Him, supreme Judge of all living things, that each of us must stand, in the awareness that one day we must explain to Him what we did and what we did not do for the great good that is the full and visible unity of all His disciples.” —Remarks of Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, on April 20, 2005, the day after he was elected Pope, in the first homily of his pontificate, which made clear how central the work of seeking Christian unity must be to any Roman pontiff, and so, also to Pope Francis (link)


There are several points to keep in mind in the run-up to the just-announced two-hour meeting in Cuba between Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome — and so the head of the Roman Catholic Church — and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, scheduled for February 12 at the airport in Havana.

The Pope will be traveling from Rome to Mexico, where he will make a week-long pastoral visit. So the meeting has been added on to the beginning of his trip.

Kirill will be in Cuba for a visit to a Russian Orthodox community in the country, and after meeting the Pope, he will proceed to visit other Russian Orthodox communities in several countries in South America. So the meeting has been inserted into the middle of his continental visit schedule.

(1) The importance of the meeting.

Such a meeting has never occurred before.

Because it is unprecedented, it is of world-historical importance.

It is of importance for the history of the Church, that is, for the history of the Christian faith. It is also, therefore, important for salvation history.

Finally, it is important for the history of Western culture, and therefore for the history of the world.

(2) Prior attempts to have such a meeting.

Such a meeting almost occurred 20 years ago between Pope St. John Paul II and Patriarch of Moscow Alexi II.

But that meeting was canceled at the last minute, for reasons that have never been made entirely clear, and it has been postponed each year since, for two decades now.

(3) Reasons the meeting has not been held.

The postponement of such a meeting has largely been due to disagreements involving:

(a) alleged Catholic “proselytism” among the Orthodox Russians in Russia;

(b) theological and pragmatic disagreements between the two Churches over the existence and activity of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine.

Note: The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church dates back to 1596, when it reunited with Rome. Then, some 350 years later, Stalin suppressed the Church, declaring it illegal in 1946. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church went underground for 45 years, re-emerging only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is based primarily in the western part of Ukraine, in the area close to Catholic Poland and Catholic Austria. It is a Church which celebrates its liturgies according to the Eastern (Byzantine) rite — just as the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox do — but is in communion with Rome, and so is a part of the Catholic Church. The Russian Orthodox Church itself has a strong presence in Ukraine — about one-third of the Russian Church’s bishops are in Ukraine.

This is the background of disputes during the past 25 years over who owns churches which were Catholic prior to 1946, then Orthodox between 1946 and 1991, then Catholic again after 1991, and are today claimed by both Churches.

(3) The “diplomacy of music” and of “exchange of gifts.”

In recent years, the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox have been in contact through many and diverse channels, creating a number of opportunities for conversation and improved mutual understanding.

These channels included exchanges of gifts, including musical exchanges (concerts), which were effective in allowing contacts to take place in a non-polemical context.

(a) A key moment in this process was the decision of Pope John Paul II, in the last months of his life, to return to the Russians the much-revered Russian icon known as The Icon of the Blessed Mother of Kazan, a “wonder-working” icon which is known popularly in Russia as “the Protection of Russia.”

The icon returned to Russia on August 28, 2004, and is now in the Cathedral of Kazan.

(b) Another key moment came in Rome on March 29, 2007, when a Russian orchestra and choir presented The Passion According to St. Matthew, composed by the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, who has now become the “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church (our magazine helped to organize that concert, which took place in the Auditorium on via della Conciliazione).

(c) Another key moment came on December 17, 2007, when a second composition by Hilarion, called Christmas Oratorio, was presented in Washington D.C. in the largest Catholic Church in the United States, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, to a standing-room only audience.

At the same time, a moving exhibit on “The Spiritual Renewal of Russia,” which included a wooden icon of Mary pierced by bullet holes, was offered in the crypt of the basilica (our magazine also helped to organize that concert and exhibit).

(d) Still another key moment came on May 20, 2010, when Benedict XVI attended a concert in Rome in which a number of the pieces had been composed by Hilarion.

Hilarion attended that concert and sat next to Pope Benedict during the performance.

(e) A pivotal moment also came on November 12, 2013, when a “Concert for Peace” was presented in Rome in honor of Pope Francis following the Pope’s calling of a day of prayer for peace in Syria and the Middle East in September, 2013 (our magazine and our Urbi et Orbi Foundation for Church Unity also helped to organize that concert).

(f) Finally, on December 17, 2015, in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, the choir of the Moscow Patriarchate sang alongside the Sistine Chapel choir, the choir of the Pope, as a gift to Pope Francis on his 79th birthday, which fell on that day. Pope Francis was not in attendance at the concert, but Cardinal Kurt Koch was.

All of these events — and many others too numerous to list — made up the “diplomacy of music” and the “diplomacy of gifts” which helped prepare the way for this historic meeting schedued to take place in Havana, Cuba.

(4) Why now?

It is not entirely clear why the meeting is being held precisely now, in Cuba, and announced publicly only a week before it takes place.

Both leaders are clearly concerned about the dramatic turn of events now occurring in Syria, and have publicly lamented and warned about the dangers of a wider war.

Since August, Russian troops have been directly engaged in Syria, in a battle against the forces of ISIS seeking to overthrow the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.

Recently, the events in Syria have taken on an even more dangerous complexion.

As of this writing, there are unconfirmed reports that thousands of Turkish troops are massing on the Syrian border in what seems to be a prelude to an incursion.

Since Russia is now in Syria, defending the Assad regime, such an incursion might lead to Russian casualties, with the possibility of igniting a conflict between Russia and Turkey.

Since Turkey is a member of NATO, such a conflict would have the potential of growing wider.

Pope Francis on several occasions has alluded to the danger of a “Third World War” developing from the various conflicts now occurring in the Middle East, the Ukraine, and elsewhere.

It seems possible that, in this context, Francis and Kirill both desire to have a face-to-face talk, to exchange views and information without any intermediary.

It is well-known that Kirill is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has openly declared his support of Russian Orthodoxy in post-Soviet Russia.

In this context, the meeting takes on the significance of a possible effort by two religious leaders to forestall the eruption of a wider war in the Middle East, which could spread outside of the Middle East.

And the choice of Cuba for the meeting — the place where a conflict between the West and the Soviet Union almost erupted in 1962 at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis — seems, in this context, fitting.

(5) What will be the result of the meeting?

It is impossible to know, of course, but clearly a new historical phase is opening up.

The two religious leaders are concerned first of all about spiritual matters, the lives of their Churches, the lives of Christian believers, the preaching of the message of Christ in the world, the ending of the Great Schism of 1054, which has divided Catholics and Orthodox since that time — now almost 1,000 years.

But they are also concerned about the events of our time, particularly the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, where 2,000-year-old Christian communities — some still speaking the Aramaic language used by Jesus himself — are being threatened, scattered, and killed.

It is believed that the common statement that Pope Francis and Kirill will sign will address this ongoing persecution, and call for action to protect the Christians of the Middle East.

At the same time, even though some unresolved theological disagreements remain, the leaders of the two Churches are expected to call for collaboration in defense of certain fundamental values and institutions, like the dignity of human life and the defense of the traditional family.

So two important Christian leaders will be meeting for the first time, and the world will be watching with considerable interest to see what results from their meeting.

My friend Peter Anderson of Seattle, Washington, who has followed developments in the Orthodox Churches for more than 30 years, today sent me this email. It is worth sharing…

By Peter Anderson

Father Hyacinthe Destivelle, O.P., of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity gave a very interesting interview today to Philippa Hitchen of the English-language service of Vatican Radio (link).

Father Hyacinthe is responsible for the Vatican’s relations with the Slavic Orthodox Churches and was probably the person most involved at the Vatican for working out certain details of the Havana meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill.

Father Hyacinthe speaks fluent Russian and was the pastor of the Catholic Basilica of St. Catherine of Alexandria in St. Petersburg, Russia, immediately prior to his assignment to the Vatican in 2013.

Both Cardinal Koch and Father Hyacinthe will be in Havana for the meeting.

According to Father Hyacinthe, the personal conversation between the Pope and the Patriarch “will be a long encounter – almost two hours.”

After the encounter, there will be an exchange of gifts between the Patriarch and the Pope.

Then there will the signing of a joint declaration.

Father Hyacinthe states that “it is a long declaration.”

He adds: “it will be a declaration of different aspects of collaboration, of testimony that the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church can give to our world today. Probably important aspects will be the question of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the question of secularization, the question of the protection of life from its beginning to its natural end, the question of family, marriage, and youth, and other important things to give a common testimony to the world today. But it will not be a theological assessment. The role of this meeting is in the frame of the dialogue of charity.”

Father Hyacinthe, who is from France, also gave an interview to the French-language service of Vatican Radio (link).

This common declaration to the world will probably cover a number of the points that will be also made by the 14 autocephalous (independent or “self-headed”) Orthodox Churches in their message to the world when the pan-Orthodox Council meets in June on the island of Crete.

A detailed summary of Metropolitan Hilarion’s remarks to the press (in Moscow) after the announcement of the Havana meeting have now been posted in English (link).

In his remarks, Metropolitan Hilarion stressed that in view of the persecution Christians, “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 attention given by the world to the historic Havana meeting will probably equal or exceed the great attention given by the world media to the meetings (in the past two years) between the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis.

Anderson concludes: “I believe that Pope Francis was concerned that his very close friendship with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew not be construed as a lack of interest in a good relationship with Patriarch Kirill. The Havana meeting has the practical, and perhaps unintended, advantage to Moscow in that it will show that Moscow is not ‘playing second fiddle’ to Constantinople.”

The Vatican has asked for the prayers of all Catholics, and of all Christians, for the success of this meeting between the Patriarch of Moscow and the Bishop of Rome.

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