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Expert comment: Pope Francis and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch

Taras Khomych Tuesday 16 February 2016

Lecturer in Patristic and Byzantine Theology Dr Taras Khomych discusses the recent meeting between the Pope and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch.

“At the right time and in the right place” - with these words Patriarch Kirill characterized his meeting with Pope Francis last week. Divisions among Christians seriously undermine the essence of the witness, which is succinctly formulated in Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one; as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Therefore Christians, in principle, should welcome any initiative that aims to bring them closer together, especially if it involves the leaders of different Christian Churches.

The meeting between Pope Francis and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill, which took place last Friday in Havana (Cuba), however, has a special spin in it. It is worth mentioning that this is the first meeting of the leaders of these two Churches. To put it in context, this Pope, as well as his predecessors, met regularly with the leaders of various Christian denominations. As a matter of fact, after the historic meeting of Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch of Constantinople Athanagoras I in January 1964, when the two hierarchs cancelled out the mutual excommunications of 1054 that marked the division between Eastern and Western Christendom, Popes have regularly met with different Orthodox leaders, except for the Russian Orthodox Patriarch. NB: commentators tend to rehearse one after another that this was the first official meeting of the Pope and the Russian Patriarch after the division of 1054. 

Historically, this statement is simply highly inaccurate, to put it politely. Moscow is first mentioned in a historical document only in 1147 (sic!), almost a century after the division between the Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches, as a relatively insignificant town. It took several centuries for Christianity to take root on these territories until the establishment of the Patriarchate in 1489 (a highly controversial event on its own, by the way, but it should not distract us from the main point here).

Numerous requests from Pope Francis’s predecessors, including John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were simply rejected by the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. The official reason habitually given for that rejection was the so-called “Uniate problem”. It refers to the resurgence of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, pejoratively called “Uniate”, which after severe persecutions during the communist period, restored its position on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Russian Patriarchate interprets this restoration as an encroachment of the Vatican on the so-called “canonical territories” of the Russian Orthodox Church. Not so long ago, Patriarch Kirill himself stated that his meeting with the Pope was contingent on the solution of this problem. In the meantime, the “problem” has not been solved. So what made Patriarch Kirill suddenly change his mind? Why did this meeting happen “at the right time”, according to Kirill? In this respect, it is worth remembering that the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in general and Kirill, in particular, have close ties with the Kremlin. Is it a coincidence that the meeting happened at the time when the Kremlin is desperately looking for the ways to get out of the international isolation? Can Putin’s geopolitical ambitions shed light on this whole event?

Among the issues, which fuel this suspicion, is the country of the meeting, suggested by the Russian Patriarch. Cuba is a symbolic place. It is the last outpost of the Soviet Union, which Putin desperately tries to rebuild, waging wars in Europe and beyond. Will the Havana meeting be remembered just as yet another attempt at realizing the Kremlin’s global aspirations or will it truly become a historical step in the rapprochement between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches? “Each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:43). This meeting is the test case for the leadership of the Russian Orthodox but also of the Roman Catholic Church.

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