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A Meeting Of World Historical Importance . . . Pope And Patriarch To Discuss Common Beliefs, Christian Persecution

February 16, 2016 Featured Today No Comments

By ROBERT MOYNIHAN

(Editor’s Note: Robert Moynihan is founder and editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican magazine. The article below was dated February 5, a week before the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill. This week’s issue of The Wanderer was published on February 11, one day before the meeting. Moynihan’s commentary is reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Dr. Moynihan holds a Ph.D. in medieval studies from Yale.)

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There are several points to keep in mind in the run-up to the two-hour meeting in Cuba between Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome — and so the head of the Roman Catholic Church — and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, scheduled for February 12 at the airport in Havana.
The Pope will be traveling from Rome to Mexico, where he will make a week-long pastoral visit. So the meeting has been added on to the beginning of his trip.
Kirill will be in Cuba for a visit to a Russian Orthodox community in the country, and after meeting the Pope, he will proceed to visit other Russian Orthodox communities in several countries in South America. So the meeting has been inserted into the middle of his continental visit schedule.
1) The importance of the meeting:
Such a meeting has never occurred before.
Because it is unprecedented, it is of world historical importance.
It is of importance for the history of the Church, that is, for the history of the Christian faith. It is also, therefore, important for salvation history.
Finally, it is important for the history of Western culture, and therefore for the history of the world.
2) Prior attempts to have such a meeting:
Such a meeting almost occurred 20 years ago between Pope St. John Paul II and Patriarch of Moscow Alexi II.
But that meeting was canceled at the last minute, for reasons that have never been made entirely clear, and it has been postponed each year since, for two decades now.
3) Reasons the meeting has not been held:
The postponement of such a meeting has largely been due to disagreements involving:
a) alleged Catholic “proselytism” among the Orthodox Russians in Russia;
b) theological and pragmatic disagreements between the two Churches over the existence and activity of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine.
Note: The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church dates back to 1596, when it reunited with Rome. Then, some 350 years later, Stalin suppressed the Church, declaring it illegal in 1946. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church went underground for 45 years, re-emerging only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It is based primarily in the western part of Ukraine, in the area close to Catholic Poland and Catholic Austria. It is a Church which celebrates its liturgies according to the Eastern (Byzantine) Rite — just as the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox do — but is in communion with Rome, and so is a part of the Catholic Church. The Russian Orthodox Church itself has a strong presence in Ukraine — about one-third of the Russian Church’s bishops are in Ukraine.
This is the background of disputes during the past 25 years over who owns churches which were Catholic prior to 1946, then Orthodox between 1946 and 1991, then Catholic again after 1991, and are today claimed by both Churches.
3) The “diplomacy of music” and of “exchange of gifts”:
In recent years, the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox have been in contact through many and diverse channels, creating a number of opportunities for conversation and improved mutual understanding.
These channels included exchanges of gifts, including musical exchanges (concerts), which were effective in allowing contacts to take place in a non-polemical context.
a) A key moment in this process was the decision of Pope John Paul II, in the last months of his life, to return to the Russians the much-revered Russian icon known as The Icon of the Blessed Mother of Kazan, a “wonder-working” icon which is known popularly in Russia as “the Protection of Russia.”
The icon returned to Russia on August 28, 2004, and is now in the Cathedral of Kazan.
b) Another key moment came in Rome on March 29, 2007, when a Russian orchestra and choir presented The Passion According to St. Matthew, composed by the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, who has now become the “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church (our magazine, Inside the Vatican, helped to organize that concert, which took place in the Auditorium on via della Conciliazione).
c) Another key moment came on December 17, 2007, when a second composition by Hilarion, called Christmas Oratorio, was presented in Washington, D.C., in the largest Catholic church in the United States, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, to a standing-room only audience.
At the same time, a moving exhibit on The Spiritual Renewal of Russia, which included a wooden icon of Mary pierced by bullet holes, was offered in the crypt of the basilica (Inside the Vatican also helped to organize that concert and exhibit).
d) Still another key moment came on May 20, 2010, when Benedict XVI attended a concert in Rome in which a number of the pieces had been composed by Hilarion.
Hilarion attended that concert and sat next to Pope Benedict during the performance.
e) A pivotal moment also came on November 12, 2013, when a “Concert for Peace” was presented in Rome in honor of Pope Francis following the Pope’s calling of a day of prayer for peace in Syria and the Middle East in September 2013 (Inside the Vatican and our Urbi et Orbi Foundation for Church Unity also helped to organize that concert).
f) Finally, on December 17, 2015, in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, the choir of the Moscow Patriarchate sang alongside the Sistine Chapel choir, the choir of the Pope, as a gift to Pope Francis on his 79th birthday, which fell on that day. Pope Francis was not in attendance at the concert, but Kurt Cardinal Koch was.
All of these events — and many others too numerous to list — made up the “diplomacy of music” and the “diplomacy of gifts” which helped prepare the way for this historic meeting in Havana, Cuba.
4) Why now?
It is not entirely clear why the meeting is being held precisely now, in Cuba, and announced publicly only a week before it takes place.
Both leaders are clearly concerned about the dramatic turn of events now occurring in Syria, and have publicly lamented and warned about the dangers of a wider war.
Since August, Russian troops have been directly engaged in Syria, in a battle against the forces of ISIS seeking to overthrow the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.
Recently, the events in Syria have taken on an even more dangerous complexion.
As of this writing, there are unconfirmed reports that thousands of Turkish troops are massing on the Syrian border in what seems to be a prelude to an incursion.
Since Russia is now in Syria, defending the Assad regime, such an incursion might lead to Russian casualties, with the possibility of igniting a conflict between Russia and Turkey.
Since Turkey is a member of NATO, such a conflict would have the potential of growing wider.
Pope Francis on several occasions has alluded to the danger of a “Third World War” developing from the various conflicts now occurring in the Middle East, Ukraine, and elsewhere.
It seems possible that, in this context, Francis and Kirill both desire to have a face-to-face talk, to exchange views and information without any intermediary.
It is well-known that Kirill is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has openly declared his support of Russian Orthodoxy in post-Soviet Russia.
In this context, the meeting takes on the significance of a possible effort by two religious leaders to forestall the eruption of a wider war in the Middle East, which could spread outside of the Middle East.
And the choice of Cuba for the meeting — the place where a conflict between the West and the Soviet Union almost erupted in 1962 at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis — seems, in this context, fitting.
5) What will be the result of the meeting?
It is impossible to know, of course, but clearly a new historical phase is opening up.
The two religious leaders are concerned first of all about spiritual matters, the lives of their Churches, the lives of Christian believers, the preaching of the message of Christ in the world, the ending of the Great Schism of 1054, which has divided Catholics and Orthodox since that time — now almost 1,000 years.
But they are also concerned about the events of our time, particularly the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, where 2,000-year-old Christian communities — some still speaking the Aramaic language used by Jesus Himself — are being threatened, scattered, and killed.
It is believed that the common statement that Pope Francis and Kirill will sign will address this ongoing persecution, and call for action to protect the Christians of the Middle East.
At the same time, even though some unresolved theological disagreements remain, the leaders of the two Churches are expected to call for collaboration in defense of certain fundamental values and institutions, like the dignity of human life and the defense of the traditional family.
So two important Christian leaders will be meeting for the first time, and the world is watching with considerable interest to see what results from their meeting.

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