"By the Grace of God" – In Ecumenical Earthquake, The Pope Lands The Patriarch
The unrealized dream of successive pontiffs, Francis' success at scoring a face-to-face encounter with Patriarch Kirill I represents a seismic ecumenical breakthrough, one on a par with Paul VI's first outreach to the Orthodox world: Papa Montini's precedent-shattering embrace with the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964 – a step which began the path to the following year's joint declaration, which saw the primates of East and West revoke the mutual excommunications imposed in the Great Schism of 1054. Yet even as Constantinople represents the "first among equals" of Eastern Christianity, there's no question that its "muscle" resides in Moscow, with the Russians comprising the largest and most influential of the Orthodox churches, and likewise, by far, the one most comfortable with throwing its weight around.
With some 140 million faithful, the ROC is the Christian world's second-largest hierarchical communion after the 1.2 billion-member Roman church itself.
With today's announcement, two mysteries surrounding what had been Francis' first overseas journey to a single country are now solved. First, the news answers why next week's trip – which, at least until now, has had the Pope's intent to entrust the Jubilee of Mercy to Our Lady of Guadalupe as its principal purpose – was headed to Mexico alone...and on just two months' notice at that. And given Kirill's presence in Cuba next week for an official visit, the meeting divulges the reason why Papa Bergoglio had scheduled the trip over the first week of Lent, which over the last century has been reserved as the period when the Pope traditionally vanishes to begin the penitential season on a weeklong retreat with his Curia. (This year, the exercises will take place in Lent's second week as Francis continues his practice of bringing his senior officials on a road-trip to a retreat center outside Rome.)
To be sure, Kirill is anything but a stranger to the Vatican. Prior to his 2009 election as 16th Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, the 69 year-old served as the ROC's external relations chief – and thus his church's point-man with Rome – in which capacity he met on a regular basis with both John Paul II and Benedict XVI (seen above with Kirill shortly after his 2005 election).
Accordingly Rome's preferred choice to succeed the long-reigning, fiercely protective Alexei II – a development which sparked rejoicing in Catholic circles when it happened – since assuming the patriarchate, Kirill has publicly adopted the unstinting line of his predecessor, insisting that no meeting with the Pope would take place "unless we see some real progress in the issues that have long been problematic in our relations." If anything, as Kirill's election aroused fears of a "capitulation to the West" among his church's more outspoken elements, simply getting the ROC to a point of consensus on an implication-rich sit-down with the Pope is a remarkable accomplishment in itself.
In terms of the issues at stake, to use the now-Patriarch's phrase Moscow's top "problematic" concern has long been its claims of "proselytism" by Catholics on what the ROC views as its canonical territory, with the prime front of the dispute centering on the prominence of the Greek-Catholic Church in the Ukraine (UGCC), which the Russian church considers its own soil. In that light, despite a close friendship with the UGCC's global head, Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, dating to their days together in Argentina, over his papacy Francis has pointedly kept the Ukrainian church within his own fold – whose 6 million members worldwide comprise the largest of the Eastern Catholic churches – at arm's length, withholding both the church's customary red hat from Shevchuk and the UGCC's long-desired Roman approval of a patriarchate for it, ostensibly for the sake of dialogue with the Russians. (Amazingly, the very same fault-line topped the Roman News five years ago this week.)
The fruit of two years of very discreet negotiations according to today's word from the VatiSpox, Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, the announcement of the meeting included the key aspect that Francis and Kirill would sign a formal joint declaration, which will set the basis for the understanding between the churches going forward. While the contents of the document won't be released until after the signing – and some details could well be finessed straight through the week to come – any resolution to the canonical disputes and other complex questions will likely be left for future discussions, to let the sheer history of the moment stand for itself without distractions.
That said, one topic of common commitment that can be expected to figure in the talks and text alike is the churches' shared defense of the family, which Francis has repeatedly spoken of as being under assault from "ideological colonization" as, for his part, Kirill has blasted the West's embrace of same-sex marriage and the redefinition of gender as creating an "unholy world" and "godless civilization."
In addition, with the Orthodox patriarchs having overcome their traditional penchant for squabbling to universally agree to a critical pan-Orient summit of their churches this June – the first meeting of its kind in almost a millennium – Francis' prior call to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew for the churches to envision a redefined papal primacy in order to facilitate a united Christendom is a discussion at which Moscow is a necessary element, and where the Russians would undoubtedly want to be heard.
With the Pope originally slated to arrive in Mexico City at 7.30pm local time next Friday, the flight will now depart Rome five hours earlier than scheduled to accommodate the meeting with Kirill at Havana's Jose Martí Airport, where the Volo Papale will land at 2pm Cuba time (2030 Rome).
Below is the English text of the joint announcement issued today by both parties:
The Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow are pleased to announce that, by the grace of God, His Holiness Pope Francis and His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia will meet on February 12 next. Their meeting will take place in Cuba, where the Pope will make a stop on his way to Mexico, and where the Patriarch will be on an official visit. It will include a personal conversation at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, and will conclude with the signing of a joint declaration.SVILUPPO: Echoing what you've just read, in a press conference shortly after the meeting's announcement, Kirill's successor as the Moscow Patriarchate's top ecumenical hand, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokamsk, said that while hopes for the meeting had existed "for a long time," the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics proved the Russians' "principal problem" and "principal obstacle" which kept a Pope-Patriarch encounter from taking place, as well as "proselytism of Catholic missionaries in the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate."
This meeting of the Primates of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, after a long preparation, will be the first in history and will mark an important stage in relations between the two Churches. The Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate hope that it will also be a sign of hope for all people of good will. They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits.
Among Moscow's objections against the UGCC, Hilarion (above right, in white kamilavka, or headdress) cited the Greek-Catholics' 2005 move of the church's seat from Lviv to Kiev – the historic birthplace of Russian Christianity – as well as the UGCC's good relationship with the country's autocephalous Orthodox church, which the ROC views as "schismatic" given that body's independence from the Russian Patriarchate, which has its own branch in Ukraine. And sure enough, the metropolitan likewise cited the Greek-Catholics' "persistent desire... to give [their] church the status of patriarchate" as a hurdle to ROC-Vatican relations.
Using the pejorative term "Unia" to describe the Greek-Catholics, Hilarion said their prominence in Ukraine "remain[s] a never-healing bleeding wound that prevents the full normalization of relations between the two churches."
Nevertheless, Hilarion added that (at least, from the Russian side) the meeting's "main topic" – and the prime impetus for it at this time – is born from "the situation as it has developed today in the Middle East, in North and Central Africa and in some other regions, in which extremists are perpetrating a real genocide of the Christian population, has required urgent measures and closer cooperation between Christian Churches.
"In the present tragic situation," the metropolitan said, "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."
As for the site of the sit-down, Hilarion said that, "from the very beginning," Kirill "did not want it to take place in Europe, since it is with Europe that the grave history of divisions and conflicts between Christians is associated." In that light, the overlap of the Pope's and Patriarch's schedules in Latin America "has become an opportunity for holding the meeting in the New World, and we hope that it will open a new page in the relations between the two churches."