Last Friday, Pope Francis and Russian Patriarch Kirill made history as the first leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox churches to meet in solidarity.
Just minutes after his plane landed in Havana, Francis was eagerly greeting Kirill, who arrived days earlier. The Pope exclaimed “finally!” before giving the Patriarch a hug and exchanging three kisses on the cheeks, as per Russian tradition. After the embrace, Kirill said “now things are easier,” in regards to what could have been an extremely intense encounter. Pope Francis agreed, adding that they’re brothers under Christ and that “this [meeting] is the will of God.”
Their exchange, which lasted less then 3 hours, took decades to negotiate. Russia’s Orthodox Patriarch finally agreed to it after the Catholic Church offered to hold the encounter on neutral territory – Cuba. The communist island-nation is Russia’s political ally that has recently begun improving relations with the West. Most Cubans are Catholic, yet there’s has been a Russian Orthodox Church in Havana for over 50 years.
It’s hard to imagine another fitting location. The Russian Patriarchy hasn’t visited Europe or the Americas since 1054. And, since no Pope would ever be allowed inside Russia’s ever-changing borders, Orthodox and Catholic leaders haven’t met for almost 1,000 years. The 11th-century conflict, now called the Great Schism, is the real origin of the divide between the Western and Eastern worlds.
Cardinal Koch, the head of Vatican’s Orthodox relations department, explained that Patriarch Kirill had some clear demands for Pope Francis. The meeting was a symbolic step toward open dialogue but this particular discussion was just a cynical diplomatic negotiation. Kirill is obviously pursuing a political goal – he has always played a major part in Putin’s anti-West propaganda.
Russia wants to avoid losing the last of their Ukrainian supporters, who are traditional conservative Christians raised in the USSR. All of Ukraine’s Orthodox and Catholic Church leaders are united against Kremlin’s aggression, steadily diminishing Patriarch Kirill’s following in the region. Now, Kirill hopes to make his meeting with Francis seem like a sign of Catholic solidarity with Russia.
In exchange, the Pope wants the Russian Church’s support for his efforts to unite all Christian leaders, as a response to the Islamic State’s barbaric assault on Middle Eastern Churches. He can’t do so without Kirill because, although there are 14 Orthodox churches, the Russian Patriarch is the only one who can speak for all Orthodoxy. His following includes 160 million of the 250 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. Kirill is also the most powerful and the wealthiest religious leader on the planet.
Whats Next For Christianity’s Leaders
After the encounter, Pope Francis continues his journey to Mexico, where he will address the cartels, drug trafficking and corruption, among other causes of widespread violence in the country. During a 5-day period, he plans to visit the most notoriously crime-filled Mexican cities. He will give a final statement in Juarez, North America’s deadliest town, focusing on Mexicans who are shot down while attempting to cross the U.S. border.
Meanwhile, Kirill wants to present himself as the Pope’s equal, so he couldn’t admit coming all the way there for 3 hours of Francis’s time. The Patriarch claims he came to Cuba early in order to visit the nation’s Russian Orthodox Church and speak to its congregation. He could have tried matching the Pope’s efforts but, even in Moscow, Kirill doesn’t appear publicly without a dozen police cars and about 50 KGB agents escorting him. As such he will stay in Havana for a week instead.