There are several reasons why the meeting in Cuba between the main representatives of the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches – Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis – could be beneficial for both.


Pope Francis, left, embraces Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill after signing a joint declaration on religious unity in Havana, Cuba, Feb. 12. Photo: AP

A historic event took place in Cuba On Feb. 12: Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill met at Havana’s José Martí International Airport. The fact that the meeting took place is much more significant than its content, for in spite of the importance of signed documents, the meaning of the rendezvous of two Christian leaders goes well beyond declaratory agreements.

Setting aside the historical implications of dialogue for the Christian world, what is even more monumental is that we witnessed a rare political phenomenon when both sides compromised and benefited from this course of action.

Three myths behind the historic meeting

Analysts and the media have already produced a vast amount of rumors and speculation regarding the meeting in Cuba and thus obscured its context. There are several myths that are essential to understand for any accurate analysis of the situation.

The first and rather popular myth assumes that the meeting in Cuba is the first and only one of its kind. It is believed that since the East-West schism of 1054 the heads of the two Christian churches have never come together, even though Catholic and Orthodox Christians maintained their communication channels.

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This misconception is based on an inaccurate interpretation of facts: the meeting is truly historical precisely because since the Schism, the Russian Orthodox Church resolutely refused to interact with Rome, but the Russian Orthodox Church is only one of several branches of Orthodoxy that exist today. Representatives of other branches, for example, the Constantinople clergy, met with the Pope quite often, even without the support of other Orthodox churches.

The second myth can be referred to as the "surprise myth." It has been often stated that the spiritual leaders unexpectedly found the time for the meeting, but this opinion is arguable not only in the context of 21st century events (the need for a meeting was being discussed for decades), but also from the perspective of basic protocol, which definitely factors into the Pope's and Patriarch's schedules. Besides, the latest information from the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate confirms that the meeting was being prepared for two to three years, but the preparations were made in secret for security reasons.

The third myth is related to a rather twisted perception of reality exhibited by a number of experts and reporters who believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin arranged the meeting personally. This myth gained momentum in the Russian and world media keen on finding "the hand of the Kremlin" in any significant event.

Without denying the possibility of Putin's involvement, it is necessary to understand that limiting Russia's political life to the figure of President Putin is an oversimplification, especially since the extent of the Kremlin's influence on the Moscow Patriarchate is often exaggerated and is probably one of the most controversial matters pertaining to the interaction of church and state in modern Russia.

Currently, there is no official data on the number of people who identify themselves with the Russian Orthodox Church. Various sources cite very different numbers ranging from 100 million to 165 million people.

In any case, we can be sure that the Russian Orthodox Church has the largest amount of followers out of all Orthodox Churches combined and is the third largest Christian Church after the Catholic and Protestant Churches (the latter, though, do not have a unified structure). This fact definitely lends the meeting its scale and significance and explains the intense interest in it throughout the world.

What does the Pope have to gain from the meeting?

Pope Francis may be the most popular pontiff in recent memory. He is widely known for his numerous initiatives on bringing the church closer to its congregation and the promotion of modesty and temperance.

Leading by his own example, the Pope regularly proves that Catholicism is capable of keeping up with the times and meeting the expectations of believers living in different parts of the world. Still, this positive image could be built up further, and the meeting with the Patriarch of Moscow supplies another characteristic, that of an active supporter and successful promoter of ecumenism, the movement aimed at bringing closer and uniting various Christian denominations.

Since the Schism, Rome has run into serious problems when looking for ways to communicate with its Eastern counterparts and has come up with various solutions. One such solution is the ecumenical concept, which involves the unification of all Christians, and this idea has been popular with many pontiffs, including Pope Francis.

Within this context, the meeting with Patriarch Kirill can be interpreted as a major step towards the creation of this all-Christian unity because the ROC with its resources, congregation and influence is capable of lending the ecumenical dialogue the significance and prominence sought by the Vatican. Besides, the meeting with Patriarch Kirill contributes to Pope Francis' image of the pontiff that is actively engaged in resolving global social, economic and political issues.

The Russian Patriarch gains ground

Patriarch Kirill is a rather controversial figure in Russian social and political life. On the one hand, he is credited with strengthening the Russian Orthodox Church positions, developing its economic operations, and successfully promoting Orthodox values at the federal level.

On the other hand, the Patriarch is accused of building a rigid vertical of power in the church system (akin to Putin's power structure), hushing up church problems, seeking wealth and material possessions, and suppressing pluralism within religious institutions.

In this context, the meeting with the Pope is critical to Kirill's image, as it raises his status and importance not only on a regional or national level, but also all over the world. The public believes that Pope Francis' willingness to meet with Patriarch Kirill expressed in the world famous "I'll go wherever you want. You call me and I'll go" distinguishes the Moscow Patriarch as the first among equals, i.e. numerous Orthodox patriarchs.

De facto the meeting makes Patriarch Kirill the spokesperson for the entire Orthodox world, even though such assessment is contested by the heads of other local churches, especially Kirill's bitter rival Bartholomew I of Constantinople, who contends not only for being the first in honor among all Eastern Orthodox bishops, but also for communicating the will of all Orthodox Christians.

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The Economist referred to the Moscow Patriarchate as the new kids on the block, thus hinting that the Russian Orthodox Church is secondary compared with older patriarchal seats, including Constantinople. This is a fair statement from the historical viewpoint because Russia got its own patriarchate relatively late. Still, by its influence on the Orthodox world, its resources and state support, the Moscow Patriarchate has long since surpassed all "old churches," and the meeting with the Pope and its agenda only testifies to the prominence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In June 2016, Crete will be hosting the All-Orthodox Council, where representatives of all local Orthodox churches will be discussing potential areas of cooperation and matters of faith. With the Council coming up, the timing of the meeting with the Pope was perfect. Undoubtedly, the Moscow Patriarchate will play the millennial meeting card, try to maximize the image benefits from this PR campaign, and utilize them to promote the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Moscow's positions among local churches are already solid, but being praised by the head of the Catholic Church may not only strengthen them, but also deal a crushing blow to Constantinople, its arch-rival.

According to Daniil Parenkov, lecturer of the Department of Political Theory at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University) and church policy expert, the Russian government will also reap certain benefits of the past meeting.

Parenkov told Russia Direct, "It is difficult to agree with those who think that in this case the Patriarch is acting only as an agent of the Kremlin that promotes Russia's general and Putin's individual agenda. Both the text of the declaration and the assessment of the meeting by the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate indicate that Kirill is trying to position himself as a global religious figure. However, given the history of relations between church and state in Russia and the Western view of the Moscow Patriarch as a spiritual leader close to the President, it is clear that the meeting with the Pope strengthens Russia's global positions.”

Moreover, the pontiff's positive image and popularity are helping improve Russia's general image. On top of that, if the Moscow Patriarch gains the status of a major religious figure of our time, the Russian authorities will be presented with new opportunities for the creation of a global agenda, i.e. claiming the leading role in defending Christians and traditional Christian values worldwide."

Official results of the meeting

The joint declaration signed by the Pope and the Patriarch after the meeting came as a surprise to journalists and experts. Prior to the dialogue at José Martí International Airport, most analysts agreed that the declaration's content would be insignificant because the very occurrence of the meeting was a lot more important. They speculated that the final document would address the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and urge the global community to unite and come to their aid. The reality could not be more different.

The document's 30 clauses (by the way, this declaration is several times longer than any other Pope's declaration finalizing negotiations with other patriarchs) touch upon a wide range of issues and display the churches' mutual interest in cooperation.

The essentially ecumenical declaration does not say much on defending Christians in the Middle East, but expands on the need to re-establish unity in the face of a new threat: the destruction of religious values and moral pillars of the modern society.

These general challenges include abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriages and biomedical reproduction technologies that are manipulating human life, as well as the crisis of Christianity in Europe, the cradle of Christian civilization, which now needs to be rescued through joint efforts of both Orthodox and Catholic Christians.

Another important clause is dedicated to the issue of so-called "uniatism" (Greek Catholicism) that has long bothered the Moscow Patriarchate as a Catholic project meant to spread the Vatican's authority over traditionally Orthodox territories. The declaration states that "uniatism" methods should give way to dialogue and mutual respect that would ensure peaceful co-existence of Christian denominations.

It would be naive to expect that such a voluminous declaration would include detailed coverage of major contradictions between Catholic and Orthodox Christians over matters of faith. In this particular case, it is much more important that the dialogue began and will most likely result in further actions from both parties.

Parenkov offered the following comments on the final declaration, "Russian and foreign media alike were suggesting that in spite of the historic significance of the meeting the signed document would be a simple formality.

However, the ten-page joint declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill became the most prominent document of its kind in the entire history of intra-Christian dialogue. Indeed, the issues raised in the declaration have been around for quite some time.

Nevertheless, the document signed in Cuba definitely stands out. It is the longest and most comprehensive statement of Catholic and Orthodox church leaders and the first general declaration signed by the representatives of the world's first and second largest Christian communities."

Parenkov points out three important things about the declaration. First, the text positions the Pope and the Patriarch not only as heads of their respective churches, but also world leaders announcing their common understanding of global challenges and threats and a shared opinion on ways of overcoming crises in this "period of epochal change."

Second, for the first time, such a document does not criticize secularization in general terms, but takes a firm stance on family, marriage, abortion and euthanasia. Third, the declaration addresses the situation in Ukraine, states that “uniatism” policies hamper the reunification of churches, and calls on both churches to "refrain from taking part in the confrontation, and to not support any further development of the conflict," and that is definitely a major achievement for the Moscow Patriarchate.

What comes next?

The meeting and signing of a joint declaration are clearly beneficial for both Christian leaders, but future dialogue will not be easy, for both Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill will have to overcome a few obstacles on the path to building a fruitful cooperation.

These obstacles include the internal resentment towards an all-Christian dialogue and existing differences on fundamental matters of faith. For Patriarch Kirill, for example, the largest threat comes from the most conservative ROC circles that see any talks which even remotely sound like ecumenism as betrayal and another attempt at creating a union with the Catholic world.

Pope Francis will also have a difficult time explaining such heightened attention to the Russian Orthodox Church and its Patriarch to his cardinals. They are not likely to make concessions for their Eastern neighbors, and some clauses of the declaration can definitely be interpreted as such. Moreover, there is reason to expect that the Pope will also struggle to justify the clauses on family and same-sex marriage because in the beginning of his rule the pontiff exhibited if not a friendly, then a highly understanding attitude towards the LGBT community.

In spite of all problems with the opposition, the main obstacle is still related to matters of faith and doctrine. It is unlikely that after a thousand-year-long Schism, Catholic and Orthodox Christians will be able to resolve all fundamental differences. Unfortunately, even the strong will of two Christian leaders will not overcome that.

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Even in theory, it is hard to imagine the unification of separate independent religious formations. In this respect, the search for an acceptable cooperation option that would bypass all delicate issues is the most urgent task for Catholic and Orthodox Christians alike, and that is the concept supported by the authors of the signed declaration.

Parenkov is of a different opinion. He believes that the main challenge is not the opposition or theological and political differences.

As he points out, "By defining their real intentions on overcoming the Schism, the Pope and the Patriarch got caught in the trap of their own ambitions. It took them two hours to determine a set of initiatives that they are hoping to implement. Now Catholic and Orthodox congregations will be anxiously awaiting specific actions and steps that may follow not as quickly as they would have liked."

One way or another, the meeting in Havana is truly historic and presents new opportunities to the Christian world. Now we just have to wait and see whether the world is going to take advantage of them.