VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis begins a historic six-day, bridge-building apostolic voyage today, during which he will visit some of the poorest and most marginalized parts of Mexico and become the first pope to ever meet a Russian Orthodox patriarch.

Following last week’s announcement that the Holy Father will meet Patriarch Kirill of Moscow today in Havana, Cuba, the Pope’s schedule has been moved forward five hours in order to meet the patriarch at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport at around 2:15pm local time.

The two-hour meeting, consisting of unscripted comments by both leaders, will be followed by a joint declaration. The text was negotiated by officials from both sides until “late last night,” Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Russian Orthodox Synodal Department for External Church Relations, said Feb. 11. The agreed declaration will now be given to the Pope and the patriarch ahead of Friday’s meeting.

For decades, popes have wanted to meet the Russian Orthodox patriarch, whose Church governs two-thirds of the 200 million Orthodox in the world. Pope St. John Paul II, always hampered by historically poor Russian-Polish relations, had dreamed of uniting the Churches of East and West by traveling to Moscow. Significant attempts were made to realize the meeting, but the Russian Orthodox Church always refused, repeating that “the time is not yet ripe.”

Various other neutral and predominantly European venues were considered, including Austria, a Benedictine monastery in Hungary and the cathedral where the Shroud of Turin resides. According to former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, plans were also afoot for Benedict XVI to meet the patriarch in Belgrade or Milan in 2012, to coincide with the 1,700th anniversary of Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan, but the idea ran aground. Cuba was eventually settled upon as being the most neutral venue and convenient for both sides.

In comments to the Register on the eve of the meeting, Bishop Borys Gudziak, head of the Department of Foreign Relations of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said he was “glad the Pope is meeting the patriarch,” but stressed the importance of understanding the context.

The meeting, which comes after two years of preparation, is “asymmetrical,” he said, with “many paradoxes and nuances.” He explained that the Pope, who is “probably the single most respected moral authority in the world,” is showing “great goodwill” because by meeting Pope Francis during his visit to Cuba, the Russian Orthodox leader “stands to gain great credibility at a time when his moral authority is not particularly high.”

Bishop Gudziak, whose Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church the Russian Orthodox have criticized for “proselytism” (the Vatican has always rejected the charge), said he believes the Holy Spirit will be at work, and “where there are meetings, progress can be made.” He is particularly hopeful that the patriarch “can be moved to take a prophetic position regarding the violence in Ukraine that’s been basically directed from Moscow.” So far, he said, the patriarch “hasn’t spoken about that.” He expects Francis to raise it privately in their discussions.

See more on Bishop Gudziak’s assessment of the visit here.

The Vatican and the Russian patriarchate hope the meeting will “mark an important stage in relations between the two Churches.” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the meeting shows that, “on various points, dialogue has matured and allowed some things that were once seen as obstacles to be overcome.”

 

Six-Stop Tour

Pope Francis is scheduled to leave Havana in the early evening and arrive at Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City around 7:30pm, where he will begin an intense six-stop tour of Mexico over five days, visiting places where none of his predecessors have been.

The Pope will use Mexico City as his base, returning there after each of visits to the other towns because it is less tiring and complicated, Father Lombardi said.

On Saturday, his first full day in the capital, the Pope will meet with civic leaders and diplomats, followed by Mexico’s bishops, and end with Mass in the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (he will have no other engagements that day and wants to spend time praying before the image of Our Lady instead).

The following day, the Pope will fly by helicopter to the Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec, known as one of Mexico’s most violent and dangerous locales. There, he will celebrate Mass, recite the Angelus and meet with seminarians. He’ll return to Mexico City in the early evening to visit a children’s hospital.

The Holy Father’s itinerary will span the extreme north and south of the country and include a visit to Mexico’s indigenous communities in the country’s poorest state, Chiapas, on the border of Guatemala and Belize. Pentecostal sects have grown rapidly in the state.

Francis will celebrate Mass there on Monday, with representatives of the indigenous communities in the picturesque and mountainous city of San Cristobal de las Casas, and lead prayers in indigenous languages.

He will also be meeting families in a stadium in Tuxtla Guttiérrez, a short distance away by helicopter.

The following day, the Holy Father will speak with young people and meet with clergy and religious in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan state that has been torn apart by drug-related violence in recent years. There to welcome him will be Cardinal Alberto Suarez Inda, whom Francis made a cardinal last year.

One of the highlights of the visit is expected to be a papal Mass Wednesday in Ciudad Juárez, on the border with El Paso, Texas. For several years, the town was one of the world’s most violent cities, due to drug-related crime.

The Mass, taking place when illegal immigration is high on the agenda of the U.S. presidential election campaign, is expected to draw at least 200,000 pilgrims on the Mexican side and 50,000 on the U.S. side. The liturgy is being intentionally held “right on the border so that it will be visible from both sides,” Father Lombardi told reporters. “It’s a fence; it’s not a Chinese wall.”

The Pope will also visit prison inmates in the city and will fly back to Rome late that day, following an evening departure ceremony at Ciudad Juárez International Airport.

 

Fleet of Popemobiles

Five popemobiles will be used for the travel-intensive trip, two of which were used during the Pope’s visit to the United States, and will be shipped over for this visit.

Father Lombardi told reporters there are “no safety concerns” about the apostolic voyage, which will be partly funded by the Mexican Maronite tycoon Carlos Slim. “The Mexicans love the Pope,” the Vatican spokesman said. “The problems of violence are internal to Mexico and do not affect his visit.”

In a video message to the Mexican people, Pope Francis stressed that he wished to “go as a mission of mercy and peace” and to be close, in a “special way, to all those who suffer, to embrace them and to tell them that Jesus loves them very much and that he is always by their side.”

“The Mexico of violence, the Mexico of corruption, the Mexico of drug trafficking, the Mexico of cartels is not the Mexico our Mother [Mary] wants,” he added. “Of course, I don’t want to cover up any of that. On the contrary, I exhort you to fight every day against corruption, against trafficking, against war, against division, against organized crime, against human smuggling.”

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his administration have been embroiled in corruption scandals and accusations of poor governance during the government’s first three years in office.

Like all papal visits, the Holy See views this one as an opportunity to encourage the faithful and bring them closer to Christ. But officials don’t see the Pope as seeking to provide any specific solutions to the country’s hardships.

“Many people think that the Pope will come to offer solutions to their problems, but, obviously, the Pope doesn’t come for that,” said Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to Mexico. “I think it is just a question of respect for the people — the people are responsible and should do whatever they can to resolve their problems.”

 

Proclaiming God’s Mercy

The nuncio observed that Mexico’s culture is “changing very rapidly,” and one characteristic of this change is a drift away from the faith. “This is affecting the young people,” Archbishop Pierre told Vatican Radio. “I think the Pope shares this concern.”

He also noted with interest that the visit is coming at the beginning of Lent. “Certainly, the Pope’s visit will be oriented towards proclaiming the mercy of God,” the nuncio said. “The Pope has said he wants to be a missionary of God.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.