Since his election to the papacy nearly three years ago, Catholics and others have often been surprised by the words and the gestures of Pope Francis. Many of his utterances and deeds are called—rightly or wrongly—“unprecedented” or “historic.” Last week, an official announcement was made regarding a truly unprecedented and historic meeting between the Roman Pontiff and Patriarch Kirill, the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church. This encounter will take place on February 12th in Cuba. (The choice of venue is explained by the fact that both leaders had already planned to be in Latin America at the same time.)
This will be the very first meeting in history of a Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch. Over the past fifty years, popes have met with other Orthodox leaders, including patriarchs of Constantinople. Popes have met with other Russian Orthodox bishops. An encounter between a pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch, however, has proved elusive.
The origins of the tensions between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, including the Russian Orthodox Church, are complex. The “Great Schism” between Catholics and Orthodox is usually said to have begun in 1054, when the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, and a papal representative issued mutual excommunications. However, the disagreements between Eastern and Western Christians date back much further. Although there were some theological differences between East and West, the main controversy concerned the extent of the pope’s authority.
Tensions between Catholics and Orthodox grew unabated for centuries after the mutual excommunications. One particularly bitter controversy has surrounded the Eastern Catholic Churches. These churches are in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, though their worship and traditions mirror those of their Orthodox counterparts. These churches are sometimes called “uniate churches.” Some Orthodox leaders have accused Catholic missionaries at times of trying to recruit Orthodox believers into the Eastern Catholic Churches.
Relations between Catholics and Orthodox have greatly improved since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a meeting of the world’s Catholic bishops. The mutual excommunications have been lifted. Catholic and Orthodox leaders and faithful meet regularly to discuss important issues. Many controversies have been settled. The upcoming meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill marks a significant step forward in efforts to restore unity between Catholics and Orthodox.
The topics of discussion between the Pope and the Patriarch will not be known until after the meeting takes place. It is safe to assume, however, that the persecution and slaughter of Christians in the Middle East and Africa will be one of the principal discussion points. Indeed, Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church has stated that Patriarch Kirill decided to meet with Pope Francis precisely because of this heinous situation. The Metropolitan stated that “it is necessary to put aside internal disagreements and unite efforts for saving Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to the most severe persecution.”
The encounter between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill will surely call more attention to the plight of Christians throughout the world facing extinction, especially those under attack from Islamist extremists. It will signal the commitment of Christian leaders to the difficult, but necessary work of unity. It will show the world that even ancient divisions can be overcome when parties are committed to serious dialogue.
Father Zwosta serves as Associate Vicar for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.