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In an announcement that has stirred hopes for healing of a millennium-long rift, the Vatican said Friday that Pope Francis and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch will hold a historic meeting next Friday. It will be the first time in history that a Roman pope and a Russian patriarch have met.
But observers of Rome and Moscow are pointing out that there are religious and geopolitical considerations that suggest much more may be at play than ecumenism. They include the conflict in Ukraine, the existence of the Catholic Church there and in Russia, and the role Russia is playing in Syria.
The meeting will take place in Havana, Cuba, where Pope Francis will make a stop on his way to Mexico for a six-day visit. Kirill I, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, will already be in Cuba as part of a Latin American tour.
The meeting had been rumored for several weeks, but it still came as a surprise, as hopes for such an encounter had been dashed for recent popes. Kirill, who succeeded as Patriarch of Moscow after the death of Patriarch Alexei II, was thought to be more open to dialogue with Rome, since he had earlier been his Church’s point-man for ecumenical relations.
But one expert in Church-State relations described Kirill’s leadership as a “very conflicted patriarchy.”
“Kirill always wanted the Pope to come to Moscow, and part of that is because he wants to undermine the standing of Bartholomew as Ecumenical Patriarch,” said this expert. Like others interviewed for this article who did not want to be quoted by name because of their positions and because of sensitivities in state or Church affairs, he spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Moscow Patriarchate, which grew out of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the 15th Century and refers to itself as “The Third Rome,” sees itself as the “bulwark” of Orthodoxy, this expert noted, and considers Bartholomew and others as “too accommodating to western Christian influences.” The Ecumenical Patriarch, based in Istanbul, is considered “first among equals” of all the Orthodox patriarchs. Bartholomew and his recent predecessors, going back to Athenagoras I, have had friendly relations with Rome since the early 1960s.
This expert said that because the Vatican understands that Kirill might have been playing on the tension between him and Bartholomew, the Holy See was hesitant to accept an invitation to Moscow, should one be offered.
On the other hand, Kirill “didn’t really want the Pope to come to Moscow because if he did, it was going to be a sign to all his Russian Orthodox followers that Catholics are not evil persons with horns in their heads.”
Many Russian Orthodox consider Catholics as schismatic and heterodox. They also suspect Eastern Catholics, particularly the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which follows Orthodox rituals and spirituality, as encroaching on what they consider Orthodox territory and hoping to siphon off Orthodox believers.
“The Russian Patriarchate has really carved out a very anti-ecumenical position over the past few decades… as a very strong nationalist Church,” the expert said. “It’s wed itself even closer than other national Churches, like the Bulgarian Orthodox or Romanian Orthodox, to the current regime in its country. It’s an interesting relationship the way [Russian President Vladimir] Putin uses the Patriarchate, and the Patriarchate uses the Russian government, each of them to enhance their respective positions.
“They want to reestablish the stature of the Russian people in the world,” he continued.
Indeed, Russia’s ambassador to the Holy See, Alexandr Avdeev, interpreted the news Friday as confirmation of “Russia’s status in the Christian world.”
“In light of the Western sanctions, the meeting between the two celebrants is a confirmation of Russia’s role in Christian civilization,” he told TASS news agency.
Those sanctions were imposed as a result of Russia’s suspected support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine and of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. And that, says a Ukrainian Orthodox expert in political theology, may be behind the Pope-Patriarch meeting as well.
This Ukrainian observer, who also wished to be anonymous, thinks that Kirill is nervous about his tenure as patriarch and wants to demonstrate to Putin that he is “useful.”
He questioned why Kirill, for example, who was the leading voice for conservative Orthodox opposing an upcoming pan-Orthodox council, suddenly embraced the idea of meeting with the heterodox Pope of Rome.
In addition, Kirill recently sent his point-man for ecumenical relations and relations with states, Metropolitan Hilarion, to the US to lobby for sanctions relief.
“Important figures of the Russian political establishment don’t have access [to US officials] anymore,” he said. “So the Pope plays the role of a bridge. I think the Patriarch wants to use the Pope for that reason.”
In his own announcement of the Pope-Patriarch meeting, Hilarion said in Moscow Friday that the main topic in Havana would be “the situation of Christians in the Middle East and other regions in which they are subjected to persecution.” But he added that discussions also will involve “the pressing problems of the bilateral relations and international policy.”
Possibly, he too had Western sanctions in mind.
Is the Pope, then, being used? Francis, says the American church-state relations expert, is willing to risk that possibility because the meeting serves his agenda for diplomacy and engagement.
“It may take decades but it’s only through engagement that it’s going to be possible to have any sort of reconciliation,” he said. “I think what he’d like to see is that, as word spreads that he and Kirill are meeting, it will lessen the personal antipathy of the Russian Orthodox toward Catholics, whether Latin- or Greek-rite, in Russia, and possibly communicate to Putin that there is a positive role to be played by the Vatican in fostering dialogue on Syria.”
The Patriarchate of Moscow sees itself as one of the few defenders of Christians in the Middle East, and Russia has intervened on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he pointed out. “Just for reasons of self-preservation, the Christians in Syria have mainly placed themselves under the protection of Assad and are discretely supportive of the Assad regime. They do believe the alternative is ISIS or some al Qaeda affiliate that would make their lives short or hellish,” he said.
Pope Francis, he continued, understands that any sort of solution to the problem of persecution of Middle Eastern Christians has a lot to do with ending the fighting in Syria, and that means getting Putin to “consider a political solution to the conflict and recognize that the Vatican and others can serve as honest brokers.”
The Ukrainian Orthodox expert also finds that Havana will be a great opportunity for Francis.
“I think there is a consensus about the problematic direction the Russian Orthodox Church has taken,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to, in a brotherly way, say something about Ukraine. People in Ukraine are waiting for a clear message from Francis. People are very confused about his stand.”
Indeed, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, issued a statement hours after Friday’s announcement, expressing hope that the meeting will lead to a change in the “radical rhetoric from the Russian Orthodox, who do not recognize the Catholic Church as valid…and even called the whole process of seeking Church unity ‘heresy of ecumenism.'”
Archbishop Shevchuk also hopes the meeting will contribute to a settlement in the ongoing conflict in his country.
“God grant that Patriarch Kirill will, as a result of the meeting, give the necessary instructions to the faithful of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian authorities, to quickly stop the aggression of Russia against Ukraine and arrive at a just peace.”
His sentiments were echoed throughout the Ukrainian diaspora. In Ottawa, Father Peter Galadza, acting director of the Sheptytsky Institute at Saint Paul University, issued a statement with a litany concerns he hopes Pope Francis will bring up next Friday. At the top of the list is the “support by representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate for the Kremlin’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.”
“We believe that as a Christian institution the Moscow Patriarchate is obliged to challenge the Russian government’s violent activity in Ukraine, activity that has led to the death of thousands of innocent civilians,” Father Galadza said.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.