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Tamara Grdzelidze: On the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill

An historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill is now in progress. There has been speculation about this meeting since last spring, when officials of the Moscow Patriarchate made several visits to the Holy See. More recently, information was leaked about a forthcoming meeting through non-official press channels, but even for experts it was hard to imagine that this could be accurate. The “unpredictable” Pope Francis has again surprised his flock and the world!

What is at stake in this meeting?

First, let us consider the official joint press release of the two churches:

The Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow are pleased to announce that, by the grace of God, His Holiness Pope Francis and His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia will meet on February 12. Their meeting will take place in Cuba, where the Pope will make a stop on his way to Mexico, and where the Patriarch will be on an official visit. It will include a personal conversation at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, and will conclude with the signing of a joint declaration.
This meeting of the Primates of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, after a long preparation, will be the first in history and will mark an important stage in relations between the two Churches. The Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate hope that it will also be a sign of hope for all people of good will. They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits.

The Roman Pontiff is making a special effort to meet the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, stopping on his way to Mexico. The decision to meet at an airport (which is not a common venue of formal encounters between primates of churches!) says something about the desire to keep an informal, low profile. But the official press statement suggests the opposite: the church leaders will sign a joint declaration, which they have been discussing during a long preparation process. The symbolism of meeting in Cuba is also to be noted. For many years, Cuba was a close ally of Soviet Russia, especially during the Cold War; and only last year, Pope Francis played a significant role in the restoration of relations between Cuba and the USA.

Two formal comments have been made by official spokesmen of the Churches since the meeting was announced: both Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, and Father Hyacinthe Destivelle, a Dominican friar who is responsible for relations with the Slavic Orthodox Churches at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, have given interviews. The interview by Fr. Destivelle shared much rhetoric with Metropolitan Hilarion’s comments. According to both, "divisive issues” between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, i.e. theological and doctrinal questions, will not be addressed, despite the importance already being attributed to the meeting.  In addition, Cardinal Péter Erdő, president of the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe, expressed great joy over the news of the meeting, which he assesses as a step towards unity.

The major theme of the discussion is set to be the situation of Christians in the Middle East. What agreement will be possible between the two leaders? The geopolitical area under discussion is vast and the conversation cannot avoid the fact that defending persecuted Christians is an issue related to fighting radical forms of Islam. But the Holy See has never agreed to solutions through military operations; it always looks for dialogue and a peaceful resolution to conflict. This is what the Holy See stands for in the International Community. Yet, the Russian Ambassador to the Holy See, who is most probably behind the negotiations leading to this meeting, said in an interview with the Russian News Agency TASS that this meeting “confirms Russia’s role in Christian civilization in light of the ongoing sanctions against Russia.” Thus, the Russian state sees the meeting of two church leaders as an affirmation of its role in contemporary “Christendom.” It is a rather vague statement and it is of political concern.

In addition, some other pastoral issues are listed on the prospective agenda, such as protection of life, marriage, and family. Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill are expected to demonstrate a common witness to the world on these matters. Ecumenically speaking, listing the pastoral issues on the agenda is an ambitious step, although it has not been highlighted in commentaries. The witness of the Pope and Patriarch is expected to confirm parallel approaches to important issues in both Churches, even though Patriarch Kirill cannot speak on behalf of the whole Orthodox world.

On a different note, for many years, the issue of Eastern Rite Catholics has been named by officials of the Russian Orthodox Church as a stumbling block to any meeting between the leaders of the two Churches. How much has this situation changed? Strong accusations on the part of the Moscow Patriarchate are still being made, as Metropolitan Hilarion repeated on the day of announcement of the meeting: “Regrettably, the problem of the Unia is still there, with the Unia remaining a never-healing, bleeding wound that prevents the full normalization of relations between the two Churches.” For the Moscow Patriarchate, the Unia is named as the number one obstacle to the improvement of relations, and so it is presumably one of the primary issues that the leaders will carry with them into this meeting. However, Metropolitan Hilarion also mentioned that the present tragic persecution of Christians make it necessary “to put aside internal disagreements and unite in efforts to save Christianity where it is subject to the most severe persecution.”

There are a number of other points of commonality between the interviews given by Fr. Destivelle and Metropolitan Hilarion, who said that this meeting “will open a new page in relations between the two Churches.” In the Russian version of his interview, Fr. Destivelle pointed to a parallel between this occasion and the historic meeting, now 50 years ago, between Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople and Pope Paul VI. He believes that it will help to improve Catholic-Orthodox relations in Russia and elsewhere.

Finally, Ukraine remains a serious issue. This situation is complicated and, in truth, it extends far beyond the problems attributed to the Catholic Church. As Ukraine is an independent state, according to Orthodox ecclesiology, the local Orthodox Church should be given autonomy if not autocephaly. This, however, will considerably downsize the Russian Orthodox Church. Drifting away from Moscow will also mean getting closer to Constantinople, which is a threat to the “numbers” of Russian Orthodox faithful. Big numbers constitute the most important aspect of the Russian ecclesiology and it is not difficult to trace this affection to the legacy of imperialism and church-state symphōnia. At the January meeting of Primates of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches in Chambésy, Geneva, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew expressed his concern about the Church in Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill later “quoted” Bartholomew, saying that the Moscow Patriarchate was the only canonical jurisdiction in Ukraine. 

While the “first” Rome, fortunately, is secure in its own place, the second and third “Romes” (Constantinople and Moscow) continue in silent rivalry: who is more powerful? Constantinople, certainly, does not have the resources to match those of Moscow, but the former makes friends in a much more authentic way than the latter. Very much in line with its government, the policy of the Russian Orthodox Church is aggressive and threatening. With this in the background, we should remember that the Patriarch of Moscow agreeing to meet the Pope is an attempt to prove something new about himself and the Church over which he presides.

Strong voices are now claiming that, through this meeting, the Russian patriarch is seeking approval from the Vatican for Moscow’s aggressive geopolitics. Experts on Ukraine refuse to call the conflict a “fratricidal” civil war, and they do not envisage that this language will be used by the Pope after this meeting, but the language of “holy war” has been sounded from official representatives of the Patriarchate for several years. Pope Francis will do well to remember Patriarch Kirill’s commitment to the ideology of Russkii mir (“the Russian World”) and the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church does not stray far from the current politics of the Kremlin. It is possible that this meeting will be of greater benefit to the agenda of President Putin than that of Christian unity.

Dr Tamara Grdzelidze is Ambassador to the Holy See (Vatican) for the Republic of Georgia. She is a graduate of Tbilisi University, St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, and the University of Oxford. She has published extensively on Maximus the Confessor, scriptural hermeneutics and authority in the early church, and other topics. She previously served on the Faith & Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. Visit the website of the Embassy of Georgia to the Holy See here and Ambassador Grdzelidze's blog (in Georgian) here.