Leaders agree: A broken world needs united witness of Eastern and Western Churches
The world needs its two ancient branches of Christianity, East and West, to work together not only to overcome problems faced by peoples all over the world but to give a strong witness to the Gospel.
So said the leaders of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Friday. Following a private, two-hour meeting at Jose Marti Airport in Havana, Cuba, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill I signed a joint declaration that said they “experience with a particular sense of urgency” the need for the shared labor of Catholics and Orthodox.
The two lamented the fact that, despite being in communion for the first 10 centuries of Christianity, nearly a millennium Catholics and Orthodox “have been deprived of communion in the Eucharist.”
“We have been divided by wounds caused by old and recent conflicts, by differences inherited from our ancestors, in the understanding and expression of our faith in God,” the 30-paragraph document said. “We are pained by the loss of unity, the outcome of human weakness and of sin, which has occurred despite the priestly prayer of Christ the Savior: ‘So that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you … so that they may be one, as we are one.”
But a restoration of communion may be a step closer after today’s meeting, the two Christian leaders said.
“Mindful of the permanence of many obstacles, it is our hope that our meeting may contribute to the reestablishment of this unity willed by God,” they declared.
Indeed, the encounter is one that has been long hoped- and prayed-for, and one that until recently was thought by some to be nearly impossible. Pope Francis himself expressed it best, perhaps, when he was heard to exclaim upon the first moment of meeting Kirill, “Finally!”
Officially, at least, the meeting came about because of urgent problems such as the secularization of societies and the persecution of Christians. “Human civilization has entered into a period of epochal change,” the declaration warned.
At the forefront was concern about wars in the lands where Christianity was first preached, and where a fragile remnant of the Church remains. The declaration called upon the international community to “act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East,” and to bring an end to the violence and terrorism there.
But it also called on individual Christians everywhere to remain true to the faith. In particular, it asked young people to use their talents to “confirm Christ’s truth in the world” and to instill in their children the same faith that has been handed down to them from generations.
While the document expressed joy for the revival of Christianity in Russia and other countries previously dominated by atheistic communism, it warned of an increasing alienation of Western Europe from its Christian roots.
“It is our conviction that Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots,” the document said. “In order to ensure a solid and enduring peace, specific efforts must be undertaken to rediscover the common values uniting us, based on the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The declaration decried attacks on the traditional understanding of marriage and family, as well as the sanctity of unborn human life and the threat of euthanasia.
“We regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as this union, while the concept, consecrated in the biblical tradition, of paternity and maternity as the distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience.”
Catholics and Orthodox will likely find that the issues delineated in the document are shared concerns. But the document, drafted by delegates from both the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Holy See, also referenced two issues that continue to bother the Russians: an internecine dispute among Orthodox Christians in Ukraine and the alleged proselytizing of Orthodox by so-called “Uniates,” members of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, whose forbears were Orthodox but entered into communion with Rome through the 16th-century Union of Brest. Metropolitan Hilarion, the Moscow Patriarchate’s chief foreign affairs and ecumenical officer, who stood behind Patriarch Kirill during Friday’s signing ceremony, had devoted most of his speech at the 2014 Synod on the Family gathering in Rome to lash out at the “Uniates,” even though the subject was off-topic.
The statement also touched on the war in Ukraine, inviting “our Churches in Ukraine to work toward social harmony, to refrain from taking part in the confrontation and to not support any further development of the conflict.”
Father Peter Galadza, acting director of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in Ottawa, said in a statement that the inability to get “any kind of reference in the joint statement to foreign aggression in Ukraine is a major flaw in an otherwise decent statement.”
Yet a former official of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, Father Cyril Hovorun, noted that the document upholds the Ukrainian Greek Catholics’ right to exist.
Signing the declaration in the presence of Cuban president Raul Castro, other Church officials, journalists, the pope and the patriarch took turns making brief statements about their meeting and the document they signed.
“We speak as brothers, we have the same baptism, we are bishops,” the pope said. “We speak of our Churches, and we agree that unity is achieved by walking forward. We speak clearly, without ambiguity, and I must say I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in our conversation. I give thanks for Your Holiness’ humility, your fraternal humility and your real desire for unity. We have taken up a series of initiatives which I believe are viable and can be realized.”
“For the past two hours the two of us have had an open discussion, with full understanding of the responsibility for our Churches, for our believing people, for the future of Christianity and the future of human civilization,” Kirill said. “It was a conversation filled with content, which gave us the opportunity to understand and feel each other’s positions. And the results of the conversation allow me to assure you that currently, the two Churches can cooperate together to defend Christians throughout the world, and with full responsibility, to work together, so that there will not be war, that human life is respected around the world, so that the foundations of personal, family and social morality are strengthened, and through the participation of the Church in the life of modern, human society be purified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.”
Reacting to the meeting and the joint declaration, Msgr. Paul McPartlan, who has been a member of the International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church since 2005, said it was an “outstanding example of the ‘culture of encounter’ that Pope Francis has emphasized so many times.
“The meeting required particular efforts on both sides, but it enabled the deep rapport between these major Church leaders with regard to the demands of Christian witness today to be expressed for all the world to see,” Msgr. McPartlan, who is also a professor of theology and ecumenism at The Catholic University of America, said in an interview. “The evident warmth of the meeting was a sign of grace and hope, not just for progress toward Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation but for the world at large, in which there is so much suffering and conflict.”
He added that the meeting marks a “big step forward in the dialogue of charity between Catholics and Orthodox. Almost all the primates of the major Orthodox Churches have now held meetings with the bishop of Rome in recent times, and we pray that we can now move ahead strongly together.”
Father Hovorun, who now teaches at the Stockholm School of Theology in Sweden, found it to be “more Christian” and “less political” than official statements that have recently appeared on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“What catches the eye in the first place is the theme of Christian unity,” he said in a statement to Aleteia. “It is presented in the text both traditionally — through references to the first millennium and in an innovative way — through the martyrs of our time. Although they are primarily Coptic, Syrian and Ethiopian Christians belonging to a different tradition than those represented by the pope and the patriarch, both appeal to those martyrs like the witnesses of the Orthodox and Catholic unity.”
In fact, the meeting took place on the first anniversary of the martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians, slain by militants of the Islamic State group on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in Libya.
As for relations between Catholics and Orthodox, Protopresbyter Leonid Kishkovsky, director of External Affairs and Interchurch Relations for the Orthodox Church in America, in a statement supplied to Aleteia, called the meeting “a step toward affirming a better and more constructive atmosphere in the relations” of the two Churches.
“This is a welcome development, offering hope for common Catholic-Russian Orthodox contributions toward addressing some of the tragic challenges in today’s world,” Father Kishkovsky said. He called relations between Catholics and Orthodox in the United States, a “model of mutual respect and Christian collaboration.” The OCA has historical and spiritual ties to the patriarchate of Moscow but is autonomous.
“His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, together with the Holy Synod, have consistently welcomed collaboration with the Catholic Church in the context of common Christian witness in the United States,” he said.
But Aristotle Papanikolaou, co-founder of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, believes that while the Cuba encounter is “an important step within Russian Orthodoxy, as it signals a more open and ecumenical approach of the Church against the conservative, anti-ecumenical fundamentalists” with it, what is important in the advancement of Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation is a meeting between a pope and an ecumenical patriarch. There have been several of those now, dating back to Pope Paul VI’s meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople in Jerusalem in 1964, an event that led to the cancelling of the mutual excommunications of 1054. The ecumenical patriarch, who is considered “first among equals” of all the Orthodox patriarchs, is “the only autocephalous leader that can represent global Orthodoxy,” Papanikolaou said. “The Russian Orthodox patriarch simply represents Orthodoxy in Russia, not global Orthodoxy. In my opinion, this is simply another meeting of the pope and the leader of a national Orthodox Church.”
John Burgeris news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.