На Кубе, В день в течение веков
To be sure, this afternoon's encounter in Cuba between Francis and Kirill I is a deeply significant moment, but its resonance lies far more on the geopolitical plane than a theological one. Even if religion and politics are often conflated and confused for each other these days, the distinction is critical – and as the historical sketch seems necessary, well, let's try to make it quick.
In essence, Christianity in modern-day Russia was barely at its inception at the time of the East-West Schism of 1054, when the mutual excommunications were levied between the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople – of course, the respective successors of the apostles Peter and Andrew. By contrast, the en masse baptism of the Kievan Rus (the precursors of the future empire, based in what's now Ukraine) took place less than seven decades earlier, in 988; a patriarchate at Moscow wasn't established until the late 1500s, and the rise of the Russian church as a major player beyond its borders roughly coincided with the empire-building which progressed from that period, culminating in Peter the Great's turn toward Europe a century later.
Fast-forwarding into the present (and away from Moscow), the lifting of the Catholic-Orthodox excommunications in 1965 by now-Blessed Paul Paul VI and the Ecumenical (read: "universal") Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople paved the way toward today's ongoing East-West dialogue, an international effort which has grown past cooperation on common social causes to broach theological and ecclesiological questions – the shape of papal primacy now among them – with an eye to resolving what the most recent joint text has termed "the search for full communion." Yet as modern Constantinople merely enjoys "first among equals" status among the world's 14 autocephalous (self-governing) Orthodox churches, the participation of the others has sometimes been a matter of fits and starts. Nevertheless, most of the lead Eastern bodies are already at the table with Rome.
Today, however, is a different animal: while Moscow has aimed to bill a shared concern over Christian persecution in the Middle East as the catalyst for the meeting its hardline faction has long resisted, with a "Great and Holy Council" of global Orthodoxy's broad swath of branches – the first gathering of its kind in some eight centuries – set to convene in June amid the groups' usual thicket of rivalry and intrigue, the largest, most forceful (and, indeed, most politically consequential) of the Eastern churches gets to showcase its clout by commanding the world's attention as its leader sits down with the Pope on what're essentially the Russians' terms.
All that said, lest any illusions exist of Moscow somehow eclipsing Constantinople's place at the wheel of Catholic-Orthodox relations – or, for that matter, any significant reshaping of the Eastern dialogue at the expense of Rome's longtime partners in it – think again... or, if nothing else, just don't hold your breath.
After just over two hours of private talks, Pope and Patriarch are slated to emerge before the cameras at 4.30 for the signing of the first-ever joint declaration between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches. To (what should be) no one's surprise, the months of negotiations over the text have stretched into the very last hours before the summit, with Russia's Interfax agency citing the expectation of ROC officials that further alterations or additions to the document could even be made during the closed-door meeting itself.
Beyond the joint text itself – its content only to be released after it's signed – both Francis and Kirill will deliver public speeches before parting ways: the patriarch to continue his official visit on the island, and the pontiff to Mexico City, where he'll arrive at 7.30pm local to begin a six-day trek that's loaded in every sense of the word.
On a context note, while the Russian church's ecumenical chief, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokamsk, has issued a steady stream of interventions on his patriarch's behalf, and viewpoints of every stripe have come out of the woodwork over recent days, it is a sign of the situation's delicacy that the Vatican team aiding the Pope – led by the Christian Unity Czar Cardinal Kurt Koch – has maintained an almost absolute silence since last week's announcement.
In the lone exception to the Roman lull, the Holy See's full-time liaison to the Orthodox churches, the French Dominican Fr Hyacinthe Destivelle, revealed on Vatican Radio earlier this week that while Francis and Kirill's joint declaration will be "a long statement, very substantial, it will not be a theological document," dealing instead with "different aspects of collaboration... that the Russian Orthodox church and the Catholic church can give in our world today."
Among other issues slated to figure in the text, Destivelle – who arrived yesterday in Havana with Koch to handle last-minute preparations – cited Christian persecution, "secularization, the protection of life from conception to its natural end; the question of the family, marriage and youth."
After stressing again that the document will have no theological bearing, the Dominican added that "the role of this meeting is in the frame of the dialogue of charity, not of the dialogue of truths."
Keeping that in mind, for everything as it happens, stay tuned.