Francis meets Kiril

Yesterday history was made. As had been previously reported Pope Francis met with Patriarch Kiril of the Russian Orthodox Church.

John Allen writes that “In an historic encounter which, in a sense, has been centuries in the making, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church met Friday in Havana, issuing a joint declaration pledging their churches to “walking together.” It was the first-ever meeting between the leaders of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, the two largest Christian groups on each side of the rupture between Eastern and Western Christianity conventionally dated to 1054. “We spoke as brothers, we have the same baptism, we are both bishops,” Francis said. “We talked about our churches, agreeing that unity is built by walking together.””

Allen goes on to write that “Francis began his outreach even before the meeting began. Asked aboard the papal flight to Havana when he would carry the press corps to either Russia or China, the pontiff said, “Russia and China, I carry them here,” touching his heart. Francis also tweeted on Friday that “today is a day of grace,” describing the meeting with Kirill as “a gift from God.” Meanwhile, the Russian news agency TASS reported that Kirill told Cuban President Raul Castro earlier on Friday that he placed “great hope” in the meeting with Francis, and signs of a thaw between the two churches were seemingly already visible. On Thursday, the head of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Church and a representative of the Patriarchate of Moscow met in Bekerke, Lebanon, the headquarters of the Maronite leader”.

Both pope and patriarch signed a declaration which included “An acknowledgement that “we have been divided by wounds caused by old and recent conflicts, by differences inherited from our ancestors. Deep concern for “Christians [who] are victims of persecution.” The two leaders said, “In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated. Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed.” A plea for greater interreligious dialogue: “Differences in the understanding of religious truths must not impede people of different faiths to live in peace and harmony,” the two men said. Worry about secular hostility to religion: “We observe that the transformation of some countries into secularized societies, estranged from all reference to God and to His truth, constitutes a grave threat to religious freedom. It is a source of concern for us that there is a current curtailment of the rights of Christians, if not outright discrimination.”

Allen adds that the statement also included messages about immigrants and preserving the “natural family”. Allen then mentions that “The emphasis on persecuted Christians in the Middle East in the declaration is especially noteworthy, as it was cited in advance of the meeting by leaders on both sides as lending special urgency to the encounter. The Pew Forum estimates there are roughly 5.6 million Catholics and 5.5 million Orthodox in the Middle East and North Africa, each between 1 and 2 percent of the region’s population”.

Crucially Allen notes that “Historically, Russia has seen itself as the patron and protector of Middle Eastern Christians, especially the Orthodox. Francis has denounced the threats faced by Christians in places such as Iraq and Syria repeatedly, saying the fact that various Christian denominations are suffering together creates an “ecumenism of blood.” Although efforts to put such a pope/Russian patriarch summit together have been underway for decades, announcement of Friday’s meeting came just one week ago in a joint statement from the Vatican and the Patriarchate of Moscow. It took advantage of the fact that Kirill was already scheduled to be in Cuba at the same time Francis would be en route to Mexico, making it feasible for the two men to intersect. Observers say the decision by Francis to stop in Havana was also intended as a sign of graciousness, since many Russians still think of Cuba as their “home turf” in the Western hemisphere”.

Pointedly he notes “The Russian Orthodox Church, however, claims roughly two-thirds of the 225 million Orthodox Christians in the world, and it has long taken a wary view of a meeting between its spiritual leader and a pope, the vestige of suspicions that Catholics want to convert Orthodox. St. John Paul II, the first Slavic pope in history, dreamed of reuniting Eastern and Western Christianity, and for the better part of a quarter-century during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, he voiced a desire to either visit Russia or to meet the patriarch of Moscow at a neutral site. For reasons both theological and political, such a meeting never occurred. Despite the historic nature of Friday’s meeting, few ecumenical experts believe it will lead to the swift restoration of full unity between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy. Even the run-up brought reminders of the lingering theological and political divides. On Feb. 5, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church told reporters that the meeting would take place “despite the problem of the uniates,” a reference to the 22 Eastern churches in communion with Rome, which some Orthodox leaders regard as “Trojan horses” designed to peel away Orthodox faithful. Hilarion also took pains to insist there would be no joint prayer between the pope and patriarch, noting that the meeting would take place not in a church, but an airport departure lounge”.

The piece goes on to add that “not quite everyone was prepared to celebrate Friday’s meeting – especially in Ukraine, home to the 5-million-strong Greek Catholic Church, which has long been ground zero for tensions between Catholics and Russian Orthodox. While welcoming the meeting and praying for its “spiritual fruit,” Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church warned in a statement issued two days beforehand that it should not be “hyperbolized.” In part, Gudziak argued, that’s because the Russian Orthodox Church is carrying significant baggage. “In the Putin years, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, increasingly wedded to state power, has sacrificed its freedom and undermined its prophetic vocation while receiving lucrative government support,” he said. Gudziak also implied that Moscow has political motives within the Orthodox world to exploit a platform with the pope. “The Russian Orthodox Church presents itself as the biggest Orthodox church, but approximately half of the flock it claims is in Ukraine,” he said. “Ukrainian Orthodox are expressing their desire for independence from Moscow, from whence war is being waged against them.” “[Independence] is something both Putin and Kirill are striving to prevent at all costs,” Gudziak said. “The asymmetry of the encounter between pope and patriarch — who they represent, and what they stand for — needs to be understood in order to avoid misconstruing the nature and impact of the Havana rendezvous.” In an essay for Crux on Thursday, another Greek Catholic cleric, the Rev. Andriy Chirovsky of Ottowa, expressed similar concern that both Putin and the patriarch might seek to turn the tête-à-tête with the pope into a PR coup”.

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