The Cable

The Pontiff and the Patriarch

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill are set to bridge a 1,000-year gulf.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill holds the Holly Light during an Orthodox Easter service in Moscow, early on April 20, 2014.  AFP PHOTO/ ALEXANDER NEMENOV        (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill holds the Holly Light during an Orthodox Easter service in Moscow, early on April 20, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

No pope has met with a Russian Orthodox patriarch since the 11th-century East-West schism rent Christendom in twain. In the intervening years, the world population has grown from a few hundred million to over 7 billion, empires have come and gone, and the religious bodies in question have transformed, amending doctrine and practice.

The most meaningful bridge over this gulf, wrought in the drafty stone halls of medieval Europe, is set to begin construction under circumstances few in the 11th century, or the 16th, or even this century for that matter, could have predicted: Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, are to meet face-to-face in José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba on February 12 — a brief stop for Francis en route to Mexico, but one likely to overshadow much of that visit. The two leaders are set to sign a joint declaration, the contents of which have not been released, in a moment that could redefine relations between the churches.

“Once again Pope Francis reminds us that we worship the God of surprises,” Bishop Mitchell Rozanski, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said on Friday.

To the 1.2 billion Catholic and more than 250 million Orthodox (some two thirds of whom are Russian Orthodox) Christians who woke up to news of the historic milestone, the news seemed like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky, especially given the usual glacial pace of Vatican affairs.

But preparations for this meeting have long been in motion, spanning multiple papacies.

In 1964, Pope Paul VI met with Athenagoras, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and “first among equals” of the Orthodox patriarchs, setting the stage for further reconciliation. Subsequent popes and ecumenical patriarchs have enjoyed close relations. Pope Francis is on good terms with current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, to whom Francis’ climate encyclical was dedicated. But Orthodoxy is less vertically organized than Roman Catholicism, and the various patriarchates, especially Moscow, wield considerable autonomy.

Despite strained relations after the fall of the Soviet Union, fueled by what the Russian Orthodox leadership perceived as Catholic infringements on traditionally Orthodox territory, the possibility of closer relations began to emerge behind the scenes. “Through all of this, it’s important to remember, the Russian Orthodox metropolitans have routinely been received by popes at the Vatican, very cordially,” Rocco Palmo, who writes the Whispers in the Loggia blog, told Foreign Policy. “The patriarch, before his election, held that job, met with successive popes, and was very well regarded in Rome.”

So next week’s meeting in Cuba will take place between men who have not only spoken already by phone, but who have had plenty of experience with the other’s churches — at the highest levels. Kirill has spent plenty of time in the Vatican. In his previous capacity as the Russian Orthodox Church’s external relations chief, Kirill visited the Holy See a number of times, where he had meetings with John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

“Under John Paul, under Benedict, Moscow has been kind of the great unrequited love, the prime target,” Palmo said. “Since that meeting between Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, the relationship has gotten progressively better — even discussions over the concerns about canonical territory, which were a major difficulty.”

Father John Crossin, executive director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he learned of the dramatic development earlier Friday and was surprised at the short-notice — but not that years of reconciliation efforts were bearing fruit.

“Gradual, deliberate, considered progress in being made,” Crossin told FP. “This is a step in an ongoing process.”

Russian Orthodox Archpriest George Konyev, of the Administrative Center of the Patriarchal Parishes in the United States, declined to comment.

Despite the reconciliatory milestone, the largest differences that divide the churches — some of which, such as the status of the Eastern rite Greek Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ukraine, are wrapped up in politics — remain unresolved.

“It’s not like they are going to be giving each other communion or celebrating liturgy together in the airport in Havana. But it’s an important step, and one that could have geopolitical resonances, given the constituencies that they represent,” Palmo said. “Both parties see Christian civilization as being at stake.”

The meeting was reportedly motivated by a mutual concern over persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

Politically, the time was ripe for a pope-patriarch rapprochement. But without strong personal relationships, built over years of quiet, concerted effort, the planned meeting would have been inconceivable.

Less than three years after he was elected, Francis achieved what generations of his predecessors could not, Palmo said. “It’s nothing short of astonishing.”

Photo credit: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @bsoloway

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