The Holy Father, Pope Francis will make history in Cuba this weekend when he meets with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. It will mark the first time the Bishop of Rome meets with the Orthodox Patriarch, a gesture important not just in resolving the schism between the Western Latin Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia but the meeting is significant because of its message towards reunification. While Pope Francis has already met with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople this meeting with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch illustrates the suffering and persecution both Latin and Orthodox branches of the Christian faith are experiencing throughout all of Europe with the reawakening of radical Islam. As much as the Pope and the Patriarch’s meeting illustrates a new venture towards theological reconciliation it also represents a unique solidarity between Christians as the political face of Europe is shifting.
Unity between the East and West since the Great Western Schism has always been a primary source of concern for contemporary Popes since Saint Pope John XXIII. As Angelo Roncalli he was the Apostolic Delegate to Turkey. Roncalli was so popular in the predominately Islamic country he was affectionately known as the “Turcophile Archbishop,” within Turkey’s diplomatic community. While serving in this capacity, Archbishop Roncalli forged strong personal, social and political relationships with the Islamic community. At the same time, Roncalli was additionally honored with the title of, “Righteous Gentile,” for his great determination in assisting the Jewish communities throughout the Eastern world to migrate into Europe after being disseminated by the atrocities of the Second World War. With certainty, Pope Francis knows the great works accomplished by his predecessors since Saint Pope John XXIII and their contributions towards East-West unity will be part of the anticipated joint declaration expected at the conclusion of the Pope-Patriarch visit to Cuba.
The greatest legacy regarding relations between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Church is the simple fact that such a legacy exists.The results of the Second Vatican Council were accomplished not just in theory but in the implementation of The Orthodox-Catholic Consultation in the United States in 1965 and the establishment of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church by Saint Pope John Paul II & Patriarch Demetrios in 1979. Their joint declaration called for a continued, “aggiornamento,” towards reconciliation and a concentrated and real demonstration of unity between, Brother Churches in faith.”
Regardless of the outcome of the historic visit, Pope Francis is continuing the intentions of Jesus at the Last Supper that he spoke during His Priestly Discourse, “Father, I pray that they may be one…,” John 17:21. In a positive manner, we should recall the meeting between Blessed Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1965 when they both lifted the mutual anathemas between the two Churches and prayed the Lord’s Prayer together in both Latin and Greek. This type of theological continuity is strong in the papacy of Pope Francis despite the negative commentary on his pontificate by some within the Roman Curia. Ecumenical dialogue between Rome and Constantinople has been strong during the Second Vatican Council, where Orthodox representatives were welcomed as observers. The desire to explore the way towards ecumenical dialogue remains strong, especially in light of the present Islamic threat to all Christianity, especially in the Middle East. The continues ecumenical dialogue between East-West might well have contributed to the demise of Communism in Russia. The importance of this dialogue was indeed an influence that contributed to the undermining of the Communist doctrine, while permitting an openness to Western ideology in Eastern Europe.
The mutual sharing of Western ideologies is perhaps a central concern for both Pope Francis and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow. Besides the theological implications the Papal-Patriarch visit entails, there is clearly a political concern for the Catholic Church that is still under the Russian President Putin’s control. Pope Francis as the universal pastor of the Church is very cognitive of the Church’s needs in the former Soviet Union, and dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia might indeed assist Western Rite Catholics throughout the Russian sphere of influence. Perhaps now, in 2016 the Pope’s diplomatic expertise is equally as valuable as his theological doctrines as the Church of the 21st century takes a larger role on the international geo-political stage.
Jesus prayed, ” That they may be one!” As Pope Francis anticipates his historic meeting with the Eastern Patriarch Kirill of Moscow our prayers should intensify Jesus’ prayer as relative to our Church as it navigates through the 21st century with its political, social and theological questions that effect all peoples of all faiths globally.