Unprecedented is the only word to describe the meeting in Havana on Friday, Feb. 12, between the primates of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches. Pope Francis will stop over at Havana en route to Mexico City. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill will be in the second day of a planned visit to three Latin American nations. St. John Paul II first expressed hope for such a meeting shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and similar hopes have been expressed by both Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis.
The two-hour conversation at the Havana airport will be the first time that primates of the two churches have met. Officials at the Moscow Patriarchate reported that the persecution of Christians would be the central theme of the discussion. Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholics have borne the brunt of Christian persecution and oppression in the Middle East. The meeting will conclude with the signing of a joint declaration.
Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, director of foreign relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, told reporters, “The statement will not be of a theological nature since that dialogue takes place in the framework of the International Commission for Dialogue between the Catholic Church and all the Orthodox Churches.” Instead, he says, it will be a declaration on different aspects of collaboration and testimony that the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church can give in our world today. These may include the problem of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, secularization, the protection of life, marriage, the family and other issues of shared concern.
Dominican Father Hyacinthe Destivelle, who is in charge of relations with the Slavic Orthodox Churches at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, stated, “The role of the meeting is within the framework of the dialogue of charity since Pope Francis has often said he is willing to promote a culture of encounter, especially in this Jubilee Year of Mercy – adding, there will be no unity without mercy.”
Meeting of the primates in Havana will mark an important stage in relations between the two churches, which have experienced tension due to the Russian Orthodox claims of Catholic proselytism and the matter of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, which left Orthodoxy in 1595 and restored communion with Rome. Patriarch Kirill brought extensive ecumenical experience to the Russian Patriarchy and has long been seen as more open to closer relations with Rome and other Christian churches.
Separation of Rome from the Orthodox patriarchate in the East occurred in 1054, in the Great Schism. Several attempts at reconciliation failed. Prince Vladimir I (St. Vladimir) of Kiev, whose grandmother had been baptized in Constantinople, was baptized in the Byzantine rite in 988 and led Russia into Eastern Christianity. The Russian Orthodox Church became autocephalous (independent) in 1589.
Father Destivelle also noted that “Beyond an encounter between two Christian leaders, the February meeting also signals a significant and historic move toward wider Christian unity between the long-separated Eastern and Western churches.” The warming of relations began with St. John XXIII inviting Orthodox observers to Vatican II. They were significantly improved by the meeting of Blessed Pope Paul VI with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964–the first such meeting since 1438. About 20 such encounters have since occurred, culminating in a close friendship between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, the current ecumenical patriarch.
This is also an historic time for Orthodoxy because in June the first synod meeting of the various Orthodox churches in more 1,000 years will take place in Crete.
Please join me in praying for God’s blessing on the primates’ meeting in Havana and on the continuing steps toward unity.