In Cuba this week, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill will meet to build bridges between Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches. So why now?

Russia's Patriarch Kirill conducts a religious service marking the People's Unity Day inside the Cathedral of the Assumption at Cathedral Square in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Photo: AP

Last week, the historic first meeting of the leaders of the world’s two biggest church bodies was finally announced: a meeting between the Roman Catholic Pope and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch will take place on Feb. 12 at a surprise location – in the airport in Havana, Cuba. This announcement comes after more than 20 years of disappointments. Over the years, time and again, the Moscow Patriarchate either denied the reports of a planned meeting as unsubstantiated or struggled to explain why the encounter was premature.

So, why is it that such a meeting was not possible for 20 years and why is it suddenly happening now?

How the conflict between Orthodox and Catholic churches started

The long journey began with Pope John Paul II, who was very keen to reach out to the Christian East and had a dream of visiting Russia. His was the famous maxim that “the Church must breathe with her two lungs.” The reason was not only his Polish origins and the significant role he played in the crumbling of the Iron Curtain and Communist system in Eastern Europe.  At a personal level, he was also deeply connected with the so-called Fatima prophesies, one of which had to do with a re-conversion of Russia.

Yet this same very eastward drive of the Polish Pope created a problem for the Russian Orthodox ChurchIn the 1990s, as the constraints of the Soviet atheist state crumbled and Russia was in a search of a new identity, the church enjoyed tremendous growth (which came to be known as the “Russian religious revival”) while at the same time competing against a legion of foreign missionaries.

Among them, the Roman Catholic Church was not the largest force, but certainly the most notable, with the richest tradition of centuries-old and often state-sponsored Orthodox-Catholic competition in Eastern Europe and the only one the Orthodox church takes seriously ecclesiastically, as one of the original five patriarchates. The defensive position, in which the Russian Church found itself, fed a strong grassroots anti-ecumenical movement that put pressure on the hierarchy to restrict their ties with non-Orthodox Christians.

There were occasional problems as the Vatican re-established its structures in Russia. But the real wound was Ukraine, whose western part, originally Orthodox, was converted to Catholicism, under the auspices of the Polish state, in the Union of Brest-Litovsk in 1596. The church that took root there over 400 years combines Byzantine ritual with Catholic dogma and loyalty to the Pope. It came to be known as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), often referred to as the “Uniate,” and eventually became a major element of the Ukrainian national movement.

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In 1946, the Soviet state took advantage of the local movement for a return to Orthodoxy and officially subjugated the UGCC to the Moscow Patriarchate. Despite coercion and repressions, part of the church remained in catacombs. After its legalization in 1989, a period followed that was far from the “ecumenical spirit” that was nurtured by the Catholic and Orthodox elites since the 1960s. The Greek Catholics reclaimed their properties, often violently, in a process that the Orthodox described as the destruction of their three dioceses in Western Ukraine. Moscow and the Vatican tried but could not control the conflict.

Against such a background, Moscow Patriarchate found it impossible to agree to a papal visit to Russia, despite repeated invitations issued to the Pope first by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and then by first Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The Patriarchate did not rule out a meeting in a third-party, neutral country, but wanted it to seal an agreement on the Ukraine issue, in which the Vatican would somehow guarantee the rights of the Orthodox in Western Ukraine and, while recognizing the rights of the historical Greek Catholic Church, declare that the methods employed in the past centuries to co-opt the Orthodox into the Roman Church would not be used again.

That, in turn, was a no-go for the Vatican, which could not betray its faithful in Ukraine. In 2004, late Patriarch Alexy said with a sigh, when asked why he had not met with the Pope: “My flock would not have understood me.” Pope John Paul could probably say the same if he ever considered concessions Moscow wanted him to make.

A new page in the relationship

That doesn’t mean that no attempts were made to break out of the deadlock. When with the death of Pope John Paul the “Polish factor” disappeared from Moscow-Vatican relations and conservative Pope Benedict XVI, who enjoys a high esteem among the Orthodox Church as a theologian, a serious attempt was made to open a new page in the relationship. A conference in Vienna co-chaired by then Metropolitan Kirill and Cardinal Paul Pupard set in 2006 a new agenda: common witness of traditional Christian values in the increasingly secularized Europe. Contacts on this matter intensified when Metropolitan Kirill, the former “foreign secretary” of the Russian Church, known for his longstanding sympathies to Rome, became Patriarch in 2009.

But the much-awaited historical meeting was still a far cry, particularly since the Euromaidan and the ensuing turmoil in Ukraine reignited church politics in the country. The Moscow Patriarchate officials increased their criticism of what they described as the Greek Catholic Church’s involvement in Ukrainian politics on the side of the pro-Western and nationalist forces.

The meeting in Cuba is thus a result of a total paradigm shift. The problems in Ukraine remain unsolved, an “unhealed bloody wound that prevents the full normalization of relations between the two churches,” Metropolitan Hilarion, the Moscow Patriarchate’s chief external relations official said last week announcing the meeting. But the catastrophe of Christians in the Middle East, extremists perpetrating a “real genocide” of Christians in North and Central Africa require urgent measures.

“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,” he said.

Its venue in Cuba - away from the two churches’ traditional battleground in Europe is meant to emphasize the new, global agenda of the meeting. Pope Francis would stop over on his way to Mexico, while Russian Patriarch Kirill would begin his visit to Cuba, Paraguay and Brazil. Patriarch Kirill was deeply involved in the construction of the imposing Russian Orthodox Church of Our Lady of Kazan on one of Havana’s central embankments and maintained personal ties with Fidel Castro even when the Kremlin did not. Pope Francis, on the other hand, is lauded for brokering the resumption of diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington.

So, it is a neutral enough place where both prelates are welcome and would feel at home. Furthermore, the airport hall, deprived of any sacred symbolism as a church or a monastery would, is meant to emphasize the businesslike attitude and calm down the fears among the vocal arch-conservative and anti-ecumenically minded Orthodox that a common prayer or any other encounter with the Pope involving an element of ritual would compromise the Orthodox church.

Building bridges between Orthodox and Catholic churches  

Quiet talks to organize the meeting have been under way for at least two years.

"I just said that I wanted to meet and embrace my Orthodox brothers. Just that. Then there were two years of secret negotiations, conducted well by great bishops," Pope Francis was quoted as saying in an interview with Corriere della Sera newspaper.

He also said the meeting was to build bridges. "They must be constructed step by step until you are able to shake the hand of the person on the other side," he said.

Many Western media have led reports about the meeting announcement by calling it a “historic step in healing the centuries-old division.” In fact, the theological issues separating the churches, such as the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the procession of the Holy Spirit or the immaculate conception, can hardly be touched upon in the several hours of the meeting. These issues are tackled endlessly in theological consultations, not in a meeting of the two socially engaged church leaders, although the senior Moscow Patriarchate official Vladimir Legoida insisted the meeting would last as long as the senior prelates will need.

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On the other hand, it is easy to predict that the joint declaration the pontiffs are to sign will either say nothing about Ukraine or be limited to a most general call for peace, although the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said in an interview with the Catholic News Service he hoped the situation in Ukraine would be discussed. However, in the past two years, Pope Francis has gone out of his way not to be seen as supporting either side in the Ukraine conflict.

What will the historic meeting result in?

What is likely to appear in the declaration, though, is not only an expression of solidarity with the suffering Christians around the world, but also a joint stance on the issues of family and other traditional Christian values as they are increasingly questioned by liberal policies.

“We have one Gospel, one Christ, the same Commandments and we similarly perceive the refusal to follow these Christian Commandments that we observe, for example, in the countries of Western Europe,” Metropolitan Hilarion said on Russian television.

So, a historic meeting it will be, because it will demonstrate a common witness of the world’s two biggest churches that have been at odds the longest and whose earthly conflicts are not yet fully exhausted. And it may open the window to future, more regular contacts.

There is one side element to the “why now” question. Relations between Moscow and the Vatican have always been part of a triangle of three “Romes”: Rome, the “New Rome” – Constantinople, and the “Third Rome” – Moscow. The Ecumenical See of Constantinople (Istanbul), the “first among equals” of Orthodox patriarchates, is always a third in this relationship, and the one that has enjoyed regular meetings with consecutive popes since the 1960s.

In June this year, the Great Pan-Orthodox Council is convened on the Island of Crete – an unprecedented gathering in the modern history of the Orthodox Church. And although the Moscow Patriarchate denies today that it was the intention, Patriarch Kirill’s meeting with the Pope would inevitably increase the weight of the world’s biggest Orthodox Church in its uneasy relationship with the traditionally senior one.

As for the doctrinal matters – and there are already voices heard among the Russian archconservatives protesting the meeting with the “heretical” Pope as a betrayal of Orthodoxy – one episode comes to mind. A week or so ago, a Russian Orthodox priest was giving a tour of the Russian Cathedral in Vienna to a group of Austrians.

“What are the doctrinal differences between the Orthodox and the Catholic churches?” someone asked. “For you, there is none! And for theologians, it will take another 500 years to discuss,” the priest answered.