Catholic World News

Pope, Russian Orthodox Patriarch schedule unpredecented meeting

February 05, 2016

Pope Francis will meet with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow on February 12, in Cuba.

The Vatican and the Moscow patriarchate announced plans for the historic meeting on February 5. The meeting will be held at José Marti airport outside Havana. Patriarch Kirill is visiting Cuba next week, while Pope Francis will make a stop in Havana as he flies to Mexico for a pastoral visit there.

No Roman Pontiff has ever met with a Russian Orthodox Patriarch. St. John Paul II had longed to visit Moscow, and on several occasions during his pontificate the Vatican made an effort to arrange a summit meeting. But negotiations always broke down, with Russian Orthodox officials saying that a meeting would not be appropriate until conflicts between the Vatican and the Moscow patriarchate were resolved. Efforts by Pope Benedict XVI to arrange a meeting encountered the same resistance.

The Moscow patriarchate has repeatedly complained about "proselytism" by Catholics in Russia, and about the activities of the Byzantine-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church. Complaints on the latter subject have become particularly bitter recently, with the Moscow patriarchate charging that Ukrainian Catholic clerics have incited political tensions in Ukraine. The strength of the Eastern-rite Catholic Church in Ukraine has been a source of irritation for Moscow, which views all of Ukraine as the "canonical territory" of the Orthodox Church.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis has renewed efforts to arrange a meeting with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, who leads the largest of all the world's Christian groups outside the Catholic Church. In 2014, the Pope sent a personal message to Patriarch Kirill, saying that he was "willing to meet at any place."

In Moscow, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church said that the Patriarch and the Pope "had to meet" because of the urgent need for joint action to address the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, who heads the ecumenical department of the Orthodox patriarchate, said that the genocidal campaign against Christians by Islamic extremists prompted both Rome and Moscow to press forward with plans for a meeting. 

Metropolitan Hilarion also observed that a meeting in Cuba, on "neutral territory," furnished an attractive possibility. He pointed out that Cuba, unlike Europe, has no history of conflicts between separate Christian bodies.

Although there had been virtually no public discussion of a potential summit, rumors of a possible meeting in Cuba arose in January, when Vatican journalist Sandro Magister of L'Espresso predicted the announcement. At first, Russian Orthodox officials downplayed the report, observing that although the Pope and the Patriarch would both be in the Western hemisphere at the same time, they would be visiting different countries.  

In announcing the meeting, the Vatican released a statement in several languages-- including Russian, in an indication that Rome and Moscow had been carefully coordinating plans.

The announcement indicated that the Pope and the Patriarch will sign a joint declaration after their conversation. 

"The Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate hope that it will also be a sign of hope for all people of good will," the announcement said. "They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits."

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  • Posted by: Bernadette - Feb. 08, 2016 2:11 PM ET USA

    This is historic. Close to a thousand years of separation from our Orthodox brothers and sisters hangs in the balance! Pray fervently for eventual reunification. Think of what this could mean worldwide for undivided unity - at a time when Christianity is being persecuted like never before in every area of our lives. As my priest son often has said:: "Wow! Think of how we could 'kick butt' if we were united with the Orthodox!" There are definite doctrinal and moral differences to work out.

  • Posted by: Gregory108 - Feb. 05, 2016 7:40 PM ET USA

    Catholic farmer, Ihor, better not invite his Orthodox neighbor, Vanya, to his church this Sunday! This "impermissible proselytizing" by Ukrainian Catholics in the Patriarch's "Canonical Territory" might derail the entire meeting! Keep it on the up and up, Ukrainian Catholics! The Patriarch's excuse to cancel yet another time is in your hands now! Don't give him an easy out!