IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring
By Cindy Wooden
HAVANA (CNS) — At long last, Pope Francis and Russian
Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow embraced, kissing each other three times.
“Finally,” the pope told the patriarch Feb. 12 as
they met in a lounge at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. “We are
brothers,” he told the patriarch.
Amid the clicking of cameras and multiple flashes, Patriarch
Kirill was overheard telling the pope, “Things are easier now.”
“It is clearer that this is God’s will,” Pope
Francis told him.
A flight of almost 12 hours capped months of intense
negotiations and more than two decades of Vatican overtures to bring a pope and
a Russian patriarch together for the first time.
Cuban President Raul Castro played host to the pope and
patriarch, who was on a visit to Russian Orthodox communities on the
island-nation. Pope Francis had a pastoral visit to Mexico planned for months; the
stop in Havana was announced only a week before the meeting.
The addition of a stopover in Cuba was widely seen as a sign
of Pope Francis’ willingness to go the extra mile to reach out a hand in friendship.
At the same time, observers said, it gave those Russian Orthodox opposed to
ecumenism a sense that their church is special and that it bowed to no one in
agreeing to the meeting.
In a commentary distributed Feb. 11, Ukrainian Catholic
Bishop Borys Gudziak of Paris said: “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.”
For decades, the Russian Orthodox told the Vatican that a
meeting between the patriarch and pope was impossible because of the activities
of Latin-rite Catholics in Russia and, especially, the Eastern-rite Catholics
The Moscow Patriarchate had said that while those problems
still exist with the Catholic communities, they take a backseat to the urgency
of defending together the rights and very existence of persecuted Christians in
the Middle East.
The harsh persecution of Christians and other minorities in
Syria, Iraq and other parts of the region has been a cause Pope Francis has
pleaded before world leaders and for which he has rallied the prayers of
Christians across the globe.
He speaks often of the “ecumenism of blood,” the
fact that Christians are killed for believing in Christ with the persecutors
not knowing or caring what denomination or church they belong to. Christians
are fully united in that suffering and, the pope has said, those who die for
their faith are in full communion with each other and with centuries of martyrs
now in the presence of God.
But the fate of persecuted Christians was not the pope’s
primary motive for meeting Patriarch Kirill. Simply meeting him was the point.
Metropolitan Hilarion Volokolamsk, head of the Moscow
Patriarchate’s external affairs department, told reporters a week earlier that
Patriarch Kirill chose Havana in the “New World” because Europe, the
“Old World,” was the birthplace of Christian division.
Ukrainians, Catholic or not, have expressed concerns about
Pope Francis’ meeting with Patriarch Kirill given the patriarch’s apparently
close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a time of ongoing fighting in
“The topics of discussion will not be explicitly
political ones,” Bishop Gudziak wrote. “The gist of the rendezvous
will be the encounter of church leaders representing very different
experiences, agendas, styles and spiritualities of ecclesial leadership. One
can hardly expect revolutionary results. Yet, it is through encounter that
spiritual change occurs. Let us pray for good spiritual fruit.”
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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.
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