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In historic statement, Pope and Russian Patriarch speak for persecuted Christians, defense of family

February 12, 2016

“We are not competitors but brothers,” Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill declared in a joint statement that punctuated their historic meeting on February 12.

After a lengthy private conversation—the first meeting ever between a Roman Pontiff and a Russian Patriarch—the two leading prelates of the Christian world issued a statement that stressed the suffering of persecuted Christians in the Middle East. The Pope and the Patriarch also called for a strong defense of religious freedom in the Western world, as well as defense of human dignity, marriage, and the family.

“Finally!” Pope Francis said as he met Patriarch Kirill in the Havana airport. Their face-to-face meeting was the product of lengthy negotiations, breaking down barriers of hostility and distrust between Moscow and Rome. As the Pope remarked after his initial embrace with the Russian prelate, “Now things are easier.”

”We give thanks to God, glorified in the Trinity, for this meeting, the first in history,” the two prelates said at the beginning of their joint statement. Underlining their determination to work together for Christian unity, they said that the world needs a strong and united Christian witness in a period of “epochal change.”

The first major concern listed in the joint statement was the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq. “Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed,” the Pope and the Patriarch said. They called upon world leaders “to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East.” They continued:

We bow before the martyrdom of those who, at the cost of their own lives, have given witness to the truth of the Gospel, preferring death to the denial of Christ. We believe that these martyrs of our times, who belong to various Churches but who are united by their shared suffering, are a pledge of the unity of Christians.

The two prelates offered thanks “for the current unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith in Russia, as well as in many other countries of Eastern Europe, formerly dominated for decades by atheist regimes.” But they expressed keen concern about the deterioration of religious freedom in other countries, in an apparent reference to the Western world. That reference became explicit when they said that “it is our conviction that Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots.”

Turning to the family, the Pope and the Patriarch issued an unmistakable call for defense of marriage:

The family is based on marriage, an act of freely given and faithful love between a man and a woman. It is love that seals their union and teaches them to accept one another as a gift. Marriage is a school of love and faithfulness. 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.

After clear statements on public issues on which they were in full agreement, the two prelates were more measured in their treatment of topics that have troubled relations between the Vatican and the Moscow patriarchate—most notably the status of the Eastern churches in communion with Rome, especially in Ukraine. For decades, the Moscow patriarchate had said that no “summit” meeting between Pope and Patriarch would be possible until tensions were resolved over the activities of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, in a country that the Russian Orthodox Church considers its own “canonical territory.” In their joint statement the two prelates avoided a direct disagreement.

It is today clear that the past method of “uniatism”, understood as the union of one community to the other, separating it from its Church, is not the way to re–establish unity. Nonetheless, the ecclesial communities which emerged in these historical circumstances have the right to exist and to undertake all that is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful…

Ukrainian Catholics had admitted to nervousness about the summit meeting, fearing that the Russian Patriarch would use the occasion to advance the aggressive policies of Russia regarding Ukraine. Addressing the political struggle in that country, the Pope and the Patriarch again sought common ground, saying: “We invite all the parts involved in the conflict to prudence, to social solidarity and to action aimed at constructing peace.”

One other source of concern about the Pope-Patriarch meeting was the skepticism of some Orthodox leaders, who believed that the Moscow patriarchate was seeking to burnish its credentials as the leading voice of the Orthodox world, in anticipation of the unprecedented worldwide council of Orthodox patriarchs that has been scheduled for June. But in a Twitter message, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the acknowledged “first among equals” of Orthodox patriarchs, welcomed the meeting in Cuba.

Still, the message of Patriarch Bartholomew seemed intentionally designed to reminder readers that unlike Russian Patriarchs, the Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople have been in ecumenical talks with Roman Pontiffs for more than 50 years. In applauding the summit meeting in Cuba, Patriarch Bartholomew said: “Pleased 1964 dialogue started by Athenagoras & Paul VI continues to bear fruit.”


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