Pope meets patriarch: Understanding the event

In 2011, I published a book devoted to the late Pope St. John Paul II’s ecumenical efforts toward the Orthodox churches. It was no secret that this Slavic pope longed for unity, especially with the Russian Orthodox Church, which, after the Catholic Church, is the largest Christian body in the world. But at no point in his 27-year papacy was he able to meet with the head of the Russian Church or go to Russia. He got as far as Ukraine, during a hugely successful visit there in June 2001, but never into Russia. Nor was his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, able to do so.

But now Pope Francis, the pope of surprises, seems to have pulled it off, and a meeting has been arranged between him and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Church. The Vatican announced Feb. 5 that the first-ever meeting between a pope and a Russian patriarch will take place in Cuba on Feb. 12, prior to Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to Mexico from Feb. 12-17.

What does this mean, and why does it matter? How are we to interpret these things?

Differing viewpoints

The Church, like Christ, has two natures: divine and human. This is a useful heuristic for interpreting many things. What human and divine factors will be at work in this upcoming meeting of pope and patriarch?

Both primates are no doubt aware of Christ’s expectations (see John 17) that his followers be one; both primates no doubt want to see that happen; both doubtless know that Orthodoxy and Catholicism are already far closer to each other than either is to any branch of Protestantism; and both must know that with a further push from each man, their two churches could come a lot closer.

In addition, both are aware of the challenges coming fast and furiously toward Christianity today, from the persecution of Christians in the Middle East to hostile and perverted forms of liberalism in the West. As pastors, both men are keenly aware of the ravages being suffered by their flocks — and the need to fulfill their divine mandate to protect the Lord’s flock.

But both men are also no doubt aware of human politics in at least three other realms: Syria, Ukraine and the other Orthodox churches in the world. Both men have different assessments of events in Orthodoxy — as well as in Syria and Ukraine — because of different pastoral responsibilities. The pope has millions of Catholics in Ukraine who look to him for a more robust defense of them and their church in face of Russian aggression — the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and ongoing Russian hostilities in the Donbass and other parts of Ukraine.

The patriarch, by contrast, has been advancing a neo-imperialist ideology of “Russky mir” (“Russian World”) for some time now, in which Ukraine is an integral part rather than a separate country with a distinct identity. So the Russians have long fought to maintain a stranglehold on Orthodoxy in Ukraine, refusing to grant full independence to either the country itself or its church.

Part of the “Russky mir” also wants to see Catholics in Ukraine on a very short leash, if not removed entirely. The Russians very nearly destroyed Catholicism in Ukraine 70 years ago next month, when the pseudo-synod of Lviv tried forcibly to “reunite” the Ukrainian Catholic Church to the Russian Church. Even after Ukrainian Catholics were liberated in 1989, the Russian Church has continued to the present day to manifest its mendacity and hostility toward them. Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill will not see eye-to-eye on this particular issue.

The two men differ also on Syria, with the patriarch and his Church having pressured the Russian state to become militarily involved in Syria’s wars because the Russian Orthodox quite rightly and commendably felt the urge to do something to protect the Christian population of Syria. Some in the Russian Church have even explicitly blessed Russian involvement as a “holy war” or a new “crusade,” language Pope Francis would likely recoil from.

Political agenda

Finally, the global politics of Orthodoxy are very much in the background to this meeting. After nearly a century of talking about it, all the primates of the Orthodox churches around the world are set to meet this June on the Greek island of Crete in the “great and holy synod” designed to resolve some issues internal to Orthodoxy, one of which may be the question of primacy within Orthodoxy.

For many years, the Russian Church has been trying to shove aside the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in quest of global recognition as the most important and influential religious leader in the world next only to the pope of Rome. The Russians assert that they should have primacy over Orthodoxy because they are the largest church in the world (numbers are notoriously difficult and unreliable, but the general understanding is that there are somewhere between 80 and 100 million Russian Orthodox in the world), which also happens to have the most money and a very close relationship to a major European military power.

Meeting with the pope on the eve of the “great and holy synod” can be seen as a significant boost to patriarchal ambitions, which have long coveted, and sometimes clearly imitated, both the powers and the perks of a strongly centralized universal papacy. Russian envy of the West — whether politically under Peter the Great or ecclesially under Patriarch Kirill — has always been strong, but it is perhaps more so now than ever given that a single offhand comment on a plane from Pope Francis (“Who am I to judge?”) is single-handedly able to command masses of attention that no other leader in the world — spiritual or political — can come close to obtaining.

Beyond all this, what can one hope for from the meeting between pope and patriarch? I should hope they can make progress on the issues mentioned above. But it’s helpful to remember that no significant progress, realistically, will be totally accomplished at this two-hour tête-à-tête. Thus, I hope that, having met once and taken the measure of each other, they will not be afraid to do so again. After all, regular meetings between the pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch already take place and do much good. Let us hope for the same between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill.

Adam A.J. DeVille is a professor in the Department of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Saint Francis (Indiana). He is the author of “Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy” (University of Notre Dame Press, $38).