Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Counterpart Plan Historic Meeting in Cuba

PHOTO:Patriarch Kirill of Moscow reads a payer during Christmas service in Moscow, Jan. 7, 2016. Pope Francis prays during a special audience at the Vatican, Jan. 30, 2016. PlayEPA| AP Photo
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Pope Francis and his counterpart in the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, will meet next week in Cuba for a historic meeting that will bring the heads of the Russian and Catholic churches together for the first time since Christianity split almost 1,000 years ago, both churches announced today.

Statements from the Vatican and the Patriarch’s office said the two will sit down during a visit to Cuba next Friday for a meeting meant to help heal the millennium-old schism that has divided Christianity into eastern and western branches.

The meeting will take place in Havana airport, when Francis stops there on his way to Mexico, and while Kirill is on an official visit to Cuba, according to a joint statement from the Vatican and the Patriarch’s office. The two will then sign a joint declaration, the statement said.

The basic subject of discussion will be the plight of Christianity in the Middle East, where religious violence has prompted a mass exodus among Christians.

Both churches said they hoped the meeting would open a “new stage” in relations, suggesting they wanted to ease centuries of mistrust.

Popular convention dates the split between the Catholic and Orthodox churches to the so-called Great Schism in 1054, when the western pope excommunicated the head of the eastern church in Constantinople -- now Istanbul -- over differences in worship practices. The split solidified into centuries of deep hostility, with the two sides differing over a number of doctrinal issues, most importantly the pope’s status as Christianity’s supreme authority on earth. The Russian Orthodox Church long taught that the pope was the antichrist.

Hatreds have cooled in the past century, and both sides now tend to avoid publicly calling each other heretics. Next week’s meeting will, in fact, not be the first between an Orthodox church leader and a pope; in 1964, Pope Paul VI met with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, formally recognized as Orthodoxy’s spiritual leader but whose authority is contested by the Russian church.

The two lifted the excommunication that had first prompted the split but, in practice, hostility between the churches has remained strong.

Although next week’s meeting is significant, observers of both the Russian and Western churches said it represented more of a pragmatic step to unite efforts to preserve Christian communities threatened with annihilation in the Middle East, rather than a serious move toward reunification.

“The meeting has a political, a humanitarian significance,” said Yevgeny Nikiforov, a prominent Russian historian of the Church who helps run an Orthodox radio station. “But it has no divine significance.”

The reasons why the two have decided now to meet are complex. The initiative for the meeting appeared to have first come from the Vatican, with Francis telling Kirill in 2014, “I’ll go wherever you want. You call me and I’ll go,” according to The Associated Press.

John Julius Norwich, a bestselling historian of the Byzantine Empire, as well as of the papacy, said he believed the meeting was likely part of a broader effort by Francis to try and strengthen a Catholic church under assault by changing lifestyles in South America and mass violence in the Middle East.

“Christianity is being threatened on every side and he wants to strengthen all the internal bonds he possibly can,” Norwich said.

But Diarmaid MacCulloch, an Oxford University professor and author of an authoritative history of Christianity, believes the rapprochement is, in fact, the result of a fracture within Orthodoxy itself.

MacCulloch said he thought the Russian side’s participation was likely part of a “grand strategy” to position the Moscow Patriarchate as the supreme representative of Orthodox believers, displacing the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, who currently formally heads the faith but whose influence in practice falls far short of Moscow’s.

“It’s a huge, bitter power struggle,” MacCulloch said. “What’s going on in the Orthodox world is that the Moscow Patriarchate is waging a very determined bid to be supreme in the Orthodox world.”

The Moscow Patriarchate oversees the world’s largest number of Orthodox believers and views itself as having inherited the seat of the church after Constantinople was sacked by Muslim armies in the 15th Century. Under President Vladimir Putin’s rule, the Russian church has become increasingly assertive, MacCulloch said, and that by meeting with the pope, it hoped to present itself as the voice of Orthodoxy.

MacCulloch said the Russian church was effectively “parking tanks on the lawns of other churches.”

Still, most observers viewed the meeting as a positive development, although they said they struggled to see how far reconciliation could go, given the centuries of hostility and compacted dogmatic dispute between the two churches.

“It is a step towards reconciliation, there is no question about it,” Norwich said. “But I think it’s going to be very much on the surface.

It’s angels dancing on the head of a pin. But they’ve been involved in it for 1,700 years. It’s going to take an awful long time to get over that. I can see it maybe getting to where they are much, much nicer to each other than they have ever been, but deep, deep down still hating each other’s guts.”