Why Pope Francis Agreed to Meet the Russian Patriarch in Havana

COMMENTARY: Today's meeting has the capacity to be decisive for the shape of world Christianity in the 21st century and beyond.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis will meet today in Havana.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis will meet today in Havana. (photo: Wikipedia)

The genuinely historic meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church today in Havana brings to mind the days of the Cold War, in which the Vatican’s Ostpolitik (diplomatic policy toward the East) made difficult calculations to achieve a measure of freedom for the Church, calculations that were often judged to be imprudent by those behind the Iron Curtain on whose behalf they were made.

Such is the complex world of Vatican diplomacy.

Meetings between Rome and Moscow should be routine. It has been more than 50 years since Blessed Paul VI met Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in Jerusalem — the occasion of which prompted the first papal foreign visit in more than a century. That was the first meeting between a pope and a titular head of Orthodoxy since the Great Schism of 1054 — more than 900 years. Since then, Rome and Constantinople meet so regularly it is no longer remarkable.

Politics, or more specifically, the politics of religious persecution, are what have made the meeting with Moscow more important and harder to achieve. The asphyxiation of the Orthodox Church by the government of Turkey — due to both secularist and Islamist reasons — for almost a century has meant that while Constantinople (Istanbul) still maintains its primacy of honor and history in Orthodoxy as the “Second Rome,” it is a Church with a patriarch but no people. Reduced to only a few thousand souls in Turkey, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has fewer people than many parish priests.

The center of gravity in Orthodoxy is with the Russian Orthodox Church, which includes some 140 million people of worldwide Orthodoxy’s 200 million faithful. Moreover, the patriarch of Moscow considers his see the “Third Rome,” having succeeded, as it were, the importance of Constantinople.

Persecution has devastated the Russian Orthodox Church, too. Under Joseph Stalin, Orthodoxy was almost eliminated entirely, with just a handful of bishops and churches left by 1940. Almost 100,000 Russian Orthodox priests were killed under Stalin — a near-total liquidation of the clergy.

Yet when Adolf Hitler invaded Russia, Stalin decided to reconstruct the Church as an ally in what he called the “Great Patriotic War.” Russian Orthodoxy was thus re-established as a de facto department of the communist state, with all of its leadership close collaborators with the communists and the KGB.

Under current President Vladimir Putin, that relationship has endured. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow can make no significant decision without the permission or direction of the Kremlin. That’s why the meeting is happening now.

Both the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate view Ukraine as an essential step toward reclaiming the greater Russia of its Soviet empire days.

The Russian Orthodox view the Greek Catholics of the Ukraine — the largest of the Eastern Churches in full communion with Rome — as an intolerable presence of Catholics in the territory of Russian Orthodoxy.

Indeed, on the very day that the Francis-Kirill meeting was announced, Metropolitan Hilarion, head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, denounced the very existence of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as a “bleeding wound.” Putin, for his part, invaded and annexed Crimea and has his troops in eastern Ukraine.

Pope Francis has been muted in his criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to the vocal disappointment of Ukrainian Catholic bishops. That’s one Ostpolitik-esque calculation — a less-than-robust defense of Ukrainian Catholics and Ukrainian sovereignty is appreciated by both Putin and Kirill. Had the Vatican volubly denounced Kirill’s support for Putin’s invasion, there could not be a meeting.

It’s in the Middle East, though, that Putin sees the Holy Father as a greater ally. In 2013, when President Barack Obama was contemplating military action against Bashar Assad of Syria — Putin’s key ally in the region — for using chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, Pope Francis mounted an intense diplomatic and spiritual campaign against such intervention. Putin subsequently outmaneuvered and humiliated Obama in Syria, emerging as a new regional power. Pope Francis was not aiming at that outcome, but his intervention certainly helped Putin re-establish Russian influence in the Middle East, and Putin is grateful.

Metropolitan Hilarion said the reason for the Francis-Kirill meeting now was the urgency of Christian persecution in Iraq and Syria. Putin’s grand plan is to deal a death blow to the Islamic State group with his ally, Assad, taking the lead and filling the resultant vacuum. That campaign would be more likely to succeed if Putin could argue that Pope Francis supported him. That, combined with the de facto acceptance of Russia’s expansion into Ukraine, would be sufficient reason for Putin to dispatch Kirill to meet Francis, strengthening what he would see as a Rome-Moscow diplomatic alliance.

The Holy See is clearly aware of all of this and has made a judgment that the ecumenical importance of the two largest Christian churches meeting for the first time in history is worth allowing Putin to make a little mischief. More serious compromises were made during the Ostpolitik of the 1960s and 1970s, an approach that Blessed Paul VI acknowledged was not a “policy of glory” but one of necessity, of “saving what could be saved.” The plight of Christians being massacred by Islamists in their ancient homelands likely persuaded the Holy See that a similar situation prevails today.

The long-term importance of the meeting will be both spiritual and ecclesial. The price to pay for that is a politically driven meeting now. It is incongruous that the historic meeting of pope and patriarch would be hosted by the Castro brothers, geriatric gangsters whose hands are themselves bloody from the persecution of the Church. It is now clear why Raul Castro was given such a lavish treatment by Pope Francis in Rome last spring and Fidel in Cuba last September — part of the price extracted by Putin for his agreement to the meeting. Moscow does not have functioning client states any longer, but the Castros will serve for old times’ sake.

An authentically spiritual meeting could have taken place in Havana, to take advantage of Kirill’s visit there, coinciding with Francis’ visit to Mexico. The Russian Orthodox have a church there, Our Lady of Kazan, which would have been most suitable. The icon of Our Lady of Kazan is the most precious for Russian Orthodoxy, but it was lost during the communist persecution. It was bought by Catholics and given to Pope John Paul II, who wished to give it back to the Russian Orthodox Church himself. The vanquisher of Soviet communism was never going to be allowed to visit Moscow, so John Paul sent it back the year before he died. To meet in a church named after that icon would have been a step toward the purification of memories.

Instead, Francis and Kirill will meet at the airport, with Raul Castro on hand for a propaganda coup that his brother Fidel could never have imagined. But Castro and Putin, even Kirill and Francis, are passing. This meeting has the capacity to be decisive for the shape of world Christianity in the 21st century and beyond. That’s why the Holy See agreed to it, even in less-than-ideal circumstances.

Father Raymond J. De Souza

is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

He has been appointed to serve as a

jubilee year missionary of mercy by the

Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.

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