The Feb. 12 meeting in Cuba between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow takes on greater significance when viewed in its historical context.
The Vatican announced the meeting a week ahead, on Feb. 5. Three days later it released an updated itinerary changing Pope Francis’ trip to Mexico. He will leave Rome five hours earlier to accommodate the side trip to Cuba.
This makes it seem that the meeting was a last-minute decision, but it is anything but.
Pope John Paul II had urged a meeting with the Moscow patriarch decades earlier. He made it his mission to heal the millennial-long division between the Orthodox Church and Rome. Many Orthodox patriarchs accepted his requests for meetings and many frosty relationships were warmed up, but Moscow always held out.
Pope Benedict also tried to meet the Moscow patriarch. He also failed.
Far from being a last-minute decision, the historic meeting in Cuba took two years of secret negotiations “conducted well by great bishops,” Pope Francis said in an interview published Feb. 8 in the newspaper Corriere della Sera.
There are several irritants that need to be mended. What this meeting will accomplish remains to be seen.
One of major objections Moscow has always raised is the status of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. The church was established when the Orthodox Church of Kyiv broke relations with the Eastern Orthodox Church at the Union of Brest in 1596 and entered into communion with Rome. It was liquidated under Stalin in 1946 with the complicity of the Russian Orthodox Church and re-emerged in 1989 after decades in the underground.
Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, director of foreign relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, told reporters the activity of the Ukrainian Catholics that prevented the Russian Orthodox from agreeing to a meeting in the past is still a problem today.
In a statement on his website, he referred to Ukrainian Catholics with the pejorative term “uniates,” and said, “Regrettably, the problem of the uniates is still there, with uniatism remaining a never-healing, bloody wound that prevents the full normalization of relations between the two churches.”
In reaction to the Feb. 12 meeting, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, commented: “I do not expect that the meeting of Pope Francis with Patriarch Kirill will bring any particular changes. Although it is good that the meeting will take place.
“I am pleased,” he said, that “we are no longer considered an obstacle and aren’t being used to justify one’s unwillingness to engage in such dialogue.”
A second major irritant is the rivalry between the patriarch of Moscow and the patriarch of Constantinople. The patriarch of Constantinople is the traditional head, the first among equals, and spiritual leader of the 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. He demonstrates this when he sends an ecumenical delegate to Rome for the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul June 29, and the pope returns the favour by sending a delegate to Constantinople for the feast of St. Andrew on Nov. 30.
The Moscow Orthodox Church is much bigger than the Constantinople Orthodox Church and the Moscow patriarch wants to have more influence and power among the Orthodox family.
Paul Gavrilyuk, Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy, theology department, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn., says it’s all a matter of politics. “Byzantine politics is alive and well in the Russian Orthodox Church,” he wrote in Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, Global Orthodoxy, Feb. 6. The meeting with Pope Francis was announced just a week after the leaders of the Orthodox churches announced their commitment to hold the Pan-Orthodox Council on the island of Crete in mid-June 2016. Such a meeting has been discussed for more than 50 years, but has failed due to a variety of factors, “most notably the rivalry between the patriarchate of Moscow and the patriarchate of Constantinople,” he says. This historic event will now be overshadowed by the meeting in Cuba.
Complicating the meeting is the geo-political context of the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine. The timing of the meeting would seem to indicate that Kirill hopes to place Russia in a positive light at a time when it has been marginalized internationally.
“It is likely that during the meeting of the pope with the patriarch they will also speak of the present situation in Ukraine,” Shevchuk said. “I hope that His Holiness Pope Francis, who always raises his voice in defence of the wronged, will be a voice for Ukrainians, who are engaged in a battle for the unity and integrity of their land.”
Rev. Peter Galadza, acting director of the Sheptytsky Institute at St. Paul University in Ottawa, said he hoped the pope not only would raise the issue of Russian aggression against Ukraine, but also the support some Russian Orthodox leaders have given to “the notion of a ‘Russian World’ “ or Russkiy Mir, which sees the entire former Soviet Union as an area needing the special protection of Russia. Galadza said the notion “has hampered inter-ethnic harmony and understanding” and “evokes the Russification policies of the USSR.”
Will the meeting make much of a difference? It will make news worldwide, no doubt. But something more important will be needed. Perhaps the secular feast two days later will offer a solution. Feb. 14 is Valentine’s Day. It’s a celebration of human love. St. Paul says you can move mountains, but without love it amounts to nothing. Here, there’s more than mountains that need to be moved.