HAVANA, Cuba – The head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, are set to meet this week in the Cuban capital in the first summit of this kind.
As Francis travels to Mexico and Kirill heads to Brazil and Paraguay, their paths will cross in Havana at the city’s José Martí International Airport.
The two men are set to speak about, among other things, the persecution Christians of all denominations are facing at the moment in the Middle East and parts of Africa. A scheduled joint declaration following their meeting will be signed by both heads, according to Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s External Relations Department.
The meeting is monumental, and will be the first time that the leaders of the two churches will personally meet since the Great Schism, or split of Christianity into the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, occurred in the 11th century, a span of nearly 1,000 years.
Given the disputes in ideologies (ecclesiastical, political and geographical to name a few) that have gone on since the two churches definitively broke relations in 1054, attempts at reconciliation have brought no solutions.
Attempts to keep the two sides in contact have continued despite the lack of progress, however, and Pope John Paul II became the first Pope since the Schism to visit an Eastern Orthodox-majority country, Romania, in May of 1999.
He followed with visits to other Orthodox nations including Georgia (November, 1999), Greece (May, 2001), Ukraine (June, 2001), Armenia (September, 2001) and Bulgaria (May, 2002). His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, visited Cyprus in June of 2010.
John Paul II expressed a will and desire to travel to Russia and meet his Orthodox counterpart, but a meeting never materialized. Benedict also spoke of the need for reconciliation between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, but again, no developments with Moscow occurred despite the fact that Benedict sent the then-enthroned Kirill as the Patriarch of Moscow (2009) a letter of congratulations.
Now, with Pope Francis showing strong initiative to mend relations with the Orthodox Church, Hilarion explained that “issues between the two sides remain but they have been put aside at the moment” given the “genocide of the Christian population in the Middle East and the northern and central parts of Africa.”
“The situation of these suffering Christians calls for urgent actions and closer cooperation between the Christian churches,” Hilarion continued. “Given the current tragedy taking place, our internal differences must be put aside and we must unite forces to save the Christians that are being persecuted cruelly in those regions,” he said.
As to why Cuba was chosen as the meeting place, Hilarion explained that Kirill did not want the encounter to take place in Europe because “in that continent, the events that caused the tragic division of Christians between East and West occurred.”
The “historical memory of many unfortunate events” between the two churches is “inextricably linked to Europe,” Hilarion said.
Instead, the Metropolitan explained, “Kirill wanted the meeting to take place in a region where Christianity has developed, and continues to develop, in a dynamic way, and Latin America is one of those regions.”
Indeed, the relationship between the two churches could blossom given this historic Cuban encounter.
Despite the fact that there have been previous meetings between various pontiffs and their Constantinople counterparts, this is the first meeting for a Pope with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose adherents (approximately 110 million people in Russia, 160 million worldwide) comprise well over half of the world’s entire Orthodox population.
Furthermore, the Russian Orthodox Church has become closer with long-time Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a devout Orthodox Christian who has been instrumental in supporting the re-building of churches (but also mosques and temples) that were partially or wholly destroyed during the Soviet Union era and the re-opening of religious schools.
Given his policies, Putin has enjoyed a high degree of support from Russia’s Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and of course, Orthodox leaders, and he has had a close relationship with Patriarch Kirill and his predecessor Alexy II.
As such, with the ties between the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church being so strong, the encounter in Havana has taken on a political flavor as well as religious.
With relations warming between the United States and Cuba, and tensions momentarily calming between Moscow and Washington as the former continues taking actions against the Islamic State, the meeting takes place at a vital point in time for all the nations and entities involved, including the US as an important observer.
The agreement for the meeting to take place began to shape in late 2014 when Pope Francis expressed his sincere desire to meet with the Russian Patriarch and to engage in fostering deepening dialogue between the two churches.
In his last General Audience at St. Peter’s Square before his trip to the West, Pope Francis asked for the prayers of believers that his meeting with “dear brother Patriarch Kirill” is fruitful.