[From Austen Ivereigh in Bogotá] In one of the biggest ecumenical breakthroughs in centuries, it was announced today that Pope Francis will meet the Russian Orthodox Patriarch next week in Cuba, en route to Mexico.
The two-hour meeting at Havana airport between Francis and Patriarch Kirill on February 12 will be the first ever between the leaders of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, divided by a 1,000-year-old schism.
Following discussions, they will sign an agreed statement that is likely to pledge both Churches to a search for eventual unity. The statement could also include an agreement to find a common Christian date for Easter.
Although the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch (currently Bartholomew) has enjoyed warm relations with popes since the first meeting back in 1964, the deeply nationalist Russian Orthodox Church has always been the major roadblock to the broader Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.
By far the largest of the Churches, with over two-thirds of the world’s 200m Orthodox Christians, the Russian Church has also long been the most anti-western and anti-Catholic.
In a joint statement, Rome and Moscow said the meeting “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.”
Pope John Paul II made many efforts to seek reconciliation with Moscow, but was continually rebuffed. Moscow has long viewed the Catholic Church as a foreign intruder and the tiny number of Catholics in Russia – less than one per cent of the population — as a kind of fifth column.
In 2002, for example, a Catholic bishop and four priests were expelled after the Vatican turned the apostolic administrations into dioceses. Another major source of tension is over the so-called ‘Uniate’ Churches in Ukraine — Orthodox Churches in communion with Rome.
There are also deep differences over authority. Moscow has never recognised the Bishop of Rome as having primacy over the other Churches.
Although relations eased after the death of Patriarch Alexy II seven years ago, Patriarch Kirill and Benedict XVI never managed to meet.
Today’s announcement has been over two years in the making and came as a huge surprise — although, as Andrea Tornielli notes, there have been signs that a breakthrough was imminent.
In November 2014, Francis said he had told Kirill. “I’ll go wherever you want. You call me and I’ll go.”
The Russian Orthodox Church, in its statement, said that while many differences remained, “[n]evertheless, 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, 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.”
The Cuban president, Raúl Castro, with whom Pope Francis met in September in Havana, will be present for part of the meeting.
Francis told Castro back in September that Cuba had a vocation to be a “point of encounter” between east and west.