Pope Francis, Russian patriarch meet in Cuba

Amid great expectation and global interest, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church met Feb. 12 in Havana. The closed-door meeting at Jose Marti International Airport lasted approximately two hours and ended with a public signing of a joint declaration that many believe is a steppingstone to greater communication and healing within the two long-separated churches.

Pope Francis called the historic event, which had been decades in the making, a meeting of brothers. “We speak as brothers, we have the same baptism, we are bishops,” he said after signing the joint declaration, adding, “unity is achieved by walking forward.”

Francis’ two most recent predecessors, Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, both sought such a meeting on numerous occasions, but Moscow only now consented.

The meeting took place in neutral territory — Pope Francis stopped in Cuba en route to Mexico, and the country was Patriarch Kirill’s first stop on a Latin American tour of the faithful — so as to put both pope and patriarch on an equal footing.

Toward reconciliation

Msgr. Paul McPartlan, the Carl J. Peter Professor of Systematic Theology and Ecumenism at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., told Our Sunday Visitor that the meeting between pope and patriarch was a “dramatic example of the culture of encounter” so often emphasized by Pope Francis, and was an important step in overcoming obstacles between East and West, separated since 1054.

“Reconciliation is at the heart of the Gospel,” said Msgr. McPartlan, a member of both the international and North American Orthodox-Catholic dialogues.

Many observers, including Professor Paul Meyendorff of St. Vladimir Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, believe the patriarch’s decision to meet with the pope indicates a lessening of Russian Orthodoxy’s hostility toward Catholicism.

“Patriarch Kirill took advantage of the meeting with the pope to support the desirability of dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, which is staunchly opposed by conservative elements (within Russian Orthodoxy),” Meyendorff told OSV.

Certain facts back this up. Before his election as Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill had functioned as the patriarchate’s ecumenical envoy and had visited Rome several times. He even authored a preface for “Introduction to Christianity” written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

History of division

The primary goal of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is the reconciliation of Christian East and West and the re-establishment of full communion between Catholics and Orthodox, and this was of primary interest at the Havana meeting. The division of Catholics and Orthodox traces back to a dispute between the ancient sees of Rome and Constantinople in 1054, when the pope’s legate, Cardinal Humbert, and the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, issued mutual excommunications.

At that time, the Church of Russia was still young, having been established following the baptism in 988 of Prince Vladimir the Great — considered the father of Russian culture — who then entered into a close alliance with Constantinople.

In the following centuries, the rift between Christian West and East hardened, resulting in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of today.

The growth of Orthodoxy in Russia after the 1054 split earned autocephaly for the Moscow Patriarchate, granted by Constantinople in 1589. Today, its flock consists of around two-thirds of all Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Because of the patriarchate’s size and standing in Orthodoxy, its relationship with Constantinople’s patriarch, who ranks among the Orthodox primates as “first among equals,” has been wrought with tension over the years.

Meyendorff, also a member of the North American Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, said he believes that the meeting with the pope enhances Patriarch Kirill as “a leader in world Orthodoxy,” especially where the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is concerned.

“The meeting bolsters Moscow’s position on primacy, which affirms that all autocephalous churches are equal, and that Constantinople has only a ‘primacy of honor,’ without any real authority,” Meyendorff said.

In a watershed moment, Blessed Pope Paul VI met in Jerusalem with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in 1964, opening Catholic-Orthodox relations after nearly a millennium. This marked the beginning of what both sides came to call the “dialogue of charity.” Catholic-Orthodox dialogue has progressed and deepened since then, especially through steadily strengthening relations between Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the establishment in 1980 of the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Church.


The task of this month’s meeting of the pope and Russian patriarch was not to deal with doctrinal or theological matters. Rather, it marked a further notable step in the dialogue of charity between Catholics and Orthodox. While many other primates from the 14 autocephalous, or self-governing, churches within Orthodoxy have met with the pope in recent decades, until now, the patriarch of Moscow had not.

Msgr. McPartlan described the declaration as “a powerful statement of shared concern about many urgent moral and humanitarian issues, with a strong call for Catholics and Orthodox to work together in addressing them.” And he noted that the joint declaration is attentive to concerns of both churches, including Russian concern about alleged Catholic proselytizing and Catholic insistence that the Eastern Catholic churches have the right to exist.

The joint declaration is not without controversy, however, especially concerning the reunion of Eastern Christians with Rome after the 1054 split — commonly referred to as uniatism. The document has revived some hard feelings for these Eastern Catholics, especially for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which reunited with Rome in 1596.

According to Father Peter Galadza, Kule Family Professor of Liturgy at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in Ottawa, Ontario, many Ukrainian Greek Catholics have expressed concern “that the Vatican was manipulated” in the drafting of the joint declaration. For instance, His Beatitude Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, “was not asked for input on the agreed statement,” Father Galadza said.

“While the statement has very many positive aspects, these were achieved at the price of moral compromise on several key points,” Father Galadza said. These include the joint declaration’s use of the phrase “ecclesial communities” to describe Eastern Catholics, a phrase Father Galadza points out that for Catholics “that’s the term used for Protestants.”

Father Galadza, also a member of the North American Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, said further evidence of a compromise in the joint declaration is its failure to address Russia’s aggressive force in Ukraine. He suggested that if the document could have “simply mentioned (Russia’s) need to abide by international law, the illegal and immoral actions of the Kremlin would have been exposed,” referring to the fact that “thousands of innocent civilians have died because of Russian policies in Eastern Ukraine.”

Going forward

Christians on both sides believe the difficulties can be overcome. Many find the meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill as the opening of a door to heal the deep wounds of division especially between Eastern Catholics and Orthodoxy.

“This long-awaited meeting was a major step toward the reconciliation of Catholics and Orthodox, and a sign of hope to the world at large that even long-standing divisions can be overcome by the grace of God,” Msgr. McPartlan said.

Time alone will tell the outcome of what began in Havana. But looking back at the 1964 meeting of pope and patriarch, both sides have many reasons to hope that the 2016 meeting has the potential to bear much fruit.

Michael R. Heinlein writes from Indiana.