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Francis and Kirill: Meeting in Cuba a Continuation of Petrine Outreach

Antoine Mekary/ALETEIA Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP

Bishop Borys Gudziak - published on 02/11/16

May the historic meeting between Francis and Kirill be guided by the Holy Spirit

The meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill is important for a number of reasons and we should pray that it be guided by the Holy Spirit.

For Christians and all people of good will it is 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, one that undermines the witness of all Christians. It reflects an ignorance of Christ’s prayer on the eve of His Passion (Jn 17:21): “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You!”

The meeting in Havana should be neither hyperbolized nor underestimated. It is historic. But the two hierarchs come with different legacies. Francis is the leader of a billion Catholics and is the single most respected moral authority in the world. He is meeting the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), still limping from a century of persecution, still looking for its moral voice in post-Soviet Russian society.

Today, Patriarch Kirill’s civic standing in the Russian population is much lower than that of Vladimir Putin. The role in society of the ROC is rather marginal. Sunday liturgical participation among the Orthodox in Russia is less than 2%, lower than that in the most secularized countries of the West, while abortion, divorce and alcoholism rates are among the highest in the world, not to mention the corruption at every level in 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 world view or way of life in Russia.

The asymmetry of the encounter between pope and patriarch—who they represent and what they stand for—needs to be understood in order to avoid misconstruing the nature and impact of the Havana rendezvous. The encounter does have serious ecumenical import and potential, but it should be remembered that significant and more substantive meetings between pope and patriarch have occurred long ago. The groundbreaking meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I, in 1964 led to the mutual lifting of mutual 900-year-old anathemas. Over the last half century Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have regularly met with the senior Orthodox Patriarchs—the Patriarchs of Constantinople—in Rome and Istanbul and Jerusalem, if not in Cuba.

This brings us to the significance of the location. 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 explicitly is trying to reconstruct at great political expense and human cost. The Pope, heading to Mexico, makes 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, Francis makes good his promise.

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 not only for the Catholics and Christians. He speaks to the hopes and suffering of all humanity. His solidarity with the poor, passionate global peacemaking, and eschewing of trappings in ecclesial service appeal to a universal audience. These papal priorities, implicitly or explicitly, will be presented to Kirill whose nationalistic ecclesial ideology of the “Russian World” bolsters Putin’s military actions for empire and who has been more that susceptible to power politics and church-state entanglement.

The meeting is a symbolic breakthrough which could allow for substantial steps in the future. Over the last 25 years the Russian Orthodox rejected Rome’s proposals for a meeting of pope and patriarch based on objections to the revival and vitality of the Eastern Catholic Churches, especially the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Whatever these objections might be it is finally clear that they are no longer as real as once claimed. The fact of the meeting is recognition of the fact that the Ukrainian Catholics will not simply disappear.

The topics of discussion will not be explicitly political ones. Rather 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.

Bishop Borys Gudziakis head of the department of external church relations of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and president of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine. A native of Syracuse, N.Y., he is also Eparch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Paris, France. This article is an abridged version of one that appeared in Kyiv Post and is reprinted here with permission.

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