The February 12 meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill is important for a number of reasons, and we should pray that it will be guided by the Holy Spirit. For Christians and all people of good will, it is always a welcome sight when estranged brothers take a new first step towards each other. The separation between Christian Churches and denominations is the greatest scandal among the followers of Christ and undermines the witness of all Christians. It reflects an ignorance of Christ’s prayer on the eve of His Passion: “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You!” (Jn 17:21).
The significance of this meeting should not be exaggerated or underestimated. It is historic: an encounter of Church leaders, who are emblematic characters in an asymmetric relationship with many paradoxes and nuances. No Church has a monopoly on the virtues or the vices. In God’s eyes, a Church’s qualities are not necessarily a question of quantity. But the two protagonists in this drama come to it bearing different legacies. Francis is the leader of a billion Catholics and is the single most respected moral authority in the world. Kirill is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church [ROC], which is still limping from a century of persecution and still looking for its moral voice in post-Soviet Russian society.
Many Russian observers say that, in the Putin years, the leadership of the ROC, increasingly wedded to state power, has sacrificed its freedom and undermined its prophetic vocation while receiving lucrative government support. Today, Patriarch Kirill’s civic standing in the Russian population is much lower than that of Vladimir Putin, and the ROC’s role in society is rather marginal. Sunday liturgical participation among the Orthodox in Russia, at less than 2 percent, is lower than in the most secularized countries of the West, while abortion, divorce, and alcoholism rates are among the highest in the world; furthermore, corruption continues to infect every level of every institution in Russian society. While critical of moral problems in the West, Kirill, the ROC, and Vladimir Putin have not had much success in promoting a Christian worldview or way of life in Russia.
Pope Francis’s ecclesial mandate in the Catholic communion and his role in the world are clear; Patriarch Kirill represents just part of a global Orthodox community struggling to establish unity. Moreover, he has been in continual tension with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople over influence in the Orthodox communion. The tension creates difficulties that undermine the possibility for real accomplishment at the first Pan-Orthodox council in centuries, now scheduled to be held in Crete in June.
The ROC presents itself, and is typically described, as the largest Orthodox Church. But approximately half of the flock claimed by the ROC is in Ukraine. Ever more vocally, Ukrainian Orthodox believers are expressing their desire for real ecclesial independence from Moscow, from which war is being waged against them. And in fact, there may well be more practicing Orthodox in Ukraine than in Russia. An autocephalous and united Ukrainian Orthodox Church would probably be the most populous Church in world Orthodoxy, and that is something both Putin and Kirill are determined to prevent at all costs. The asymmetry of the encounter between pope and patriarch—whom they represent and what they stand for—must be understood in order to avoid misconstruing the nature and impact of their rendezvous.
Their encounter does have serious ecumenical import and potential. But it should be remembered that more significant and more substantive meetings between Roman pontiffs and Orthodox patriarchs have occurred for over half a century. The groundbreaking 1964 meeting between Pope Paul IV and Athenagoras I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, led to the joint lifting of mutual 900-year-old anathemas. Over the last four decades, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have regularly met with the Patriarchs of Constantinople—the first-among-equals in the ranks of Orthodox Patriarchs—in Rome and Istanbul and Jerusalem, if not in Cuba.
This brings us to the significance of the location of the Francis-Kirill meeting, which is taking place in Havana. The Pope is demonstrating humility: he is going to the territory of the other. In the eyes of nostalgic Russians, Cuba is almost home territory, a last outpost of a lost Soviet empire that Putin is explicitly trying to reconstruct at great political expense and human cost. The Pope is travelling to Mexico—the place of his scheduled pastoral visit—making a stop in Cuba where the patriarch will be waiting for him. In a very real sense the Pope is going to the Patriarch. In November 2014, Francis publicly stated his unconditional readiness to meet Kirill. “I will go wherever you want. You call me and I'll go.” In coming to Cuba again, five months after last year’s visit, Francis makes good his promise.
During this Jubilee Year of Divine Mercy, Pope Francis is carrying the message of God’s grace, solidarity, and limitless love everywhere. The visit to Mexico promises to be an emotional pastoral trip, and the call for mercy will resonate throughout the entire Latin American world. Before embracing and being embraced by millions, the Pope will fly to a private meeting one-on-one.
Francis need not, and probably will not, say much. His pontificate is marked by symbolic gestures and simple words that compel the attention and respect of the world. The pontiff has a special charisma and mission that does not only touch Catholics and Christians: he speaks to the hopes and suffering of all humanity. His solidarity with the poor, his passionate global peacemaking, and his simplicity appeal to a universal audience. These papal priorities, implicitly or explicitly, strike a contrast with Kirill, whose nationalistic-ecclesial ideology of the “Russian World” bolsters Putin’s military aggression, whose ministry has been more than susceptible to the power politics of deep church-state entanglement.
The meeting is a symbolic breakthrough that could allow for more substantive steps forward in the future. Over the last twenty-five years, the Russian Orthodox leadership persistently rejected Rome’s proposals for a meeting of pope and patriarch, and based those rejections on its distress at the revival and vitality of the Eastern Catholic Churches (and especially the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church), which are Byzantine in liturgy and polity but in full communion with Rome. Whatever these objections might have been, it is finally clear that they are no longer as real as once claimed. The very fact of the meeting between Francis and Kirill involves the latter’s recognition of the fact that Ukrainian Catholics and other Eastern Catholics will not simply disappear.
Finally, one may hope that the encounter with Pope Francis, a man of peace, might lead Patriarch Kirill to take a more prophetic position in response to Russian military aggression in Ukraine. The Russian role in the devastating violence in eastern Ukraine is clear to the global community; so is the grave violation of international law involved in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The Holy See has referred obliquely to the violation of international law in speaking about the situation in Ukraine. But by meeting Patriarch Kirill, Pope Francis gives the Russian Orthodox Church leverage, and a new window of opportunity to articulate a new position, breaking with its traditional role in buttressing Russian colonial rule. Ukraine has emphatically declared that it is no longer a colony. It will be important if the ROC begins to recognize Ukraine’s political and ecclesial self-expression and self-determination.
The topics of discussion between Francis and Kirill will not be explicitly political. Rather, their meeting will be one of Church leaders who represent very different experiences, agendas, styles, and spiritualities of ecclesial leadership. Revolutionary results are unlikely. Yet, it is through encounter that spiritual change occurs. Let us pray for good spiritual fruit.
Bishop Gudziak leads the Eparchy of St. Volodymyr the Great in Paris, which serves Ukrainian Greek Catholics in France, the Benelux countries, and Switzerland. In addition, he is the Head of the Department of External Church Relations of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and President of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.