With Nations and Churches in Turmoil, Could a Meeting of Francis and Kirill Help Bring Peace?

Amid war and ecumenical turmoil, will this summer see a historic meeting between the Pope and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch?

LEFT: Pope Francis releases a dove during a meeting with the Chaldean community at the Catholic Church of St. Simon Bar Sabbae in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Sept. 30, 2016. RIGHT: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill releases a dove after a Divine Liturgy marking the Feast of the Annunciation in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow on April 7.
LEFT: Pope Francis releases a dove during a meeting with the Chaldean community at the Catholic Church of St. Simon Bar Sabbae in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Sept. 30, 2016. RIGHT: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill releases a dove after a Divine Liturgy marking the Feast of the Annunciation in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow on April 7. (photo: Vincenzo Pinto and Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP via Getty Images)

A few days before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to invade Ukraine, the Russian Ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeyev, announced a possible second meeting between Pope Francis and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill. Tass Russian News Agency, citing the ambassador, announced Feb. 18:

Preparations for a second meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill are underway now for around June-July. The place hasn’t been chosen yet.

Coincidentally, on Feb. 13, Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, had visited the Russian Orthodox Seminary in France to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the first meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill on Feb. 12, 2016, at Havana Airport in Cuba — a meeting that, according to Cardinal Koch, “marked an historic epoch in the relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church.”

The ongoing war in Ukraine might be another incentive for the leaders to meet. On Twitter in February, Pope Francis invited “everyone to make this coming 2nd March, Ash Wednesday, a Day of Fasting for Peace: let believers dedicate themselves intensively to prayer and fasting. May the Queen of Peace preserve the world from the madness of war.” On Feb. 24, Patriarch Kirill likewise asked the clergy and faithful of the Russian Orthodox Church to offer a special, fervent prayer for the speedy restoration of peace.

Is it coincidental or providential that less than a week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine the announcement was made of a potential meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch in a place still to be identified? What would be the possible outcome of such a meeting? Would it stop the war? Would the meeting between Francis and Kirill reduce tensions between Constantinople and Moscow, the “New Rome” and “Third Rome?” Would it build bridges between Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Kirill, Patriarch of All Russia? How would it affect the desire, widespread among Ukrainian Greek Catholics, to establish a new patriarchate for their Church? Can the Supreme Pontiff live up to the roots of his title and be a bridge-builder between East and West in this time of crisis and war?

War in Ukraine might continue through the summer; the desire to stop the war might be another incentive for Pope and Patriarch to meet. In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences, as St. John Paul II said, and Providence is always at work — this might be the case here. As for the date and place, on April 11, Reuters reported that the meeting is likely to take place on June 14 in Jerusalem. A meeting at this time (when war will likely still be ongoing) and in this place (where all Christians find common ground, the site at which Jesus himself offered salvation to all) would certainly lend itself to fruitful dialogue between East and West.

The outcome of a Pope-Patriarch meeting would be ecumenically impactful — it would show desire for dialogue and peace in action, not merely in declarations. The situation between Kirill and Bartholomew has been in crisis since Russia’s boycott of a historic council of Orthodox leaders on the island of Crete in 2016. Preparations for the council took 55 years, and Russia’s boycott showed the sheer division in the Orthodox Church. Constantinople’s granting of autocephaly (independence) and recognition to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) on Jan. 5, 2019, which merged the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church into a new creation, the OCU, has been vigorously rejected by the Patriarch of Moscow as an interference in the patriarchate’s jurisdiction. The OCU’s autocephaly has caused controversy and divisions in the Orthodox world as the Orthodox Churches of Albania, Poland, Serbia and others did not recognize the OCU.

The Holy See has been very careful not to enter the internal matters of Orthodoxy, including a Russian expansion in jurisdiction — the establishment of a patriarchal exarchate in Africa and a possible exarchate in Turkey, in Bartholomew’s backyard. Both establishments are perceived as deepening the divisions in Orthodoxy. The Holy See continues its collaboration and seeks to develop a dialogue based on themes of mutual interest, looking forward to a possible ecumenical celebration in 2025 — the year that marks the 1700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, and a year in which Easter will be celebrated on the same day in both the Julian (Eastern) and Gregorian (Western) calendars. Pope Francis can be a bridge and possibly help repair the relations between “New Rome” (Constantinople) and “Third Rome” (Moscow) by focusing on the 2025 jubilee year.

In 2016, in Havana, Francis and Kirill signed an agreement for mutual respect among the members of the Christian communities, which excludes any form of proselytism. The desire to resolve tensions between Greek Catholics and Orthodox and find new acceptable forms of co-existence were specified in the agreement. Consequently, given the current situation in Ukraine, the establishment of a new patriarchate and a patriarch for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church would be out of the question if the meeting between Pope and Patriarch were to happen.

The possible meeting this year between Pope and Patriarch is an example of Christian cooperation in time of crisis that could contribute to putting an end to the war in Ukraine. Such a meeting takes on increased significance, and a productive outcome would be even more significant, now that Kirill has voiced support for Russia’s campaign in Ukraine (causing great discord among the Orthodox), while Francis has repeatedly pleaded for a return to peace

For Patriarch Kirill, a second meeting with Pope Francis might be an opportunity to eliminate rivalry with Bartholomew, while for Pope Francis the meeting would be an ecumenical act to overcome Christian divisions. Bearing witness to Christian dialogue and reconciliation beyond declarations should be impactful in people’s conscience and sense of responsibility for what Christians are called to do.

In the designs of Providence, what might be perceived as coincidence is likely part of God’s active guidance in history — active guidance that itself makes history.