Moscow and Rome: A history of clashes and dialogue
by Ieromonaco Ioann

Good relations until the fifteenth century. The Council of Florence, the Union of Brest and the birth of the Catholic Churches of the Eastern rite. The anti-Christian persecution of the Soviet Union and the conflict between Catholics and Orthodox in Ukraine. The Catholic mission in Russia.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Below, we publish the opinion of a religious of the Russian Orthodox Church on the forthcoming meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, who also offers our readers a historical overview of relations between Rome and Moscow.

Moscow. The announcement was made: February 5, in a press conference after the conclusion of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, officially announced the  upcoming meeting of the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus' Kirill with Pope Francis.

As part of his apostolic trip to Mexico (12-18 February), Pope Francis will make a detour to Cuba where he will meet Patriarch Kirill, who will be visiting the Caribbean island at the invitation of Raul Castro, first made at the beginning May.

The news was in the air for some time, but in recent days the rumors had become more insistent, despite the two Churches maintaining total secrecy on the matter. Last week the Italian Vatican expert Sandro Magister had made clear reference to a possible meeting in Cuba of the two religious leaders, but soon there was an official denial on the part of the Moscow Patriarchate. Today, however, the official announcement came.

The meeting is unprecedented: no head of the Russian Church has never met the Pope.

The Russian Orthodox Church has had far less turbulent relations with Rome that the Mother Church of Constantinople. The Churches of the two ancient imperial capital, before and after the break in 1054, have experienced countless clashes, conflicts, excommunications.

 As for the "Third Rome", Moscow, things are different. After the baptism of Grand Prince of Kiev at the end of the tenth century, in ancient Rus' there ensued a virulent Byzantine anti-Latin sentiment. However, the geographical distance did not offer opportunities for conflict, and at least in the first five centuries of its history, the Russian Church had no serious clashes with Rome.

Western merchants and travelers, Catholics, were well received in the medieval Russia, Russian pilgrims, as well as in Jerusalem and Constantinople, also gathered in Rome, to the tombs of the apostles.

In the fifteenth century, when the Council of Florence set union with the Rome for the Orthodox as a precondition for aid to Constantinople, besieged by the Ottoman Turks, the Russian Church simultaneously severed links with Rome and Constantinople, who had accepted the Union.

The representative of the Russian Church at the Council of Florence, the Greek Isidoro, whom the Patriarch of Constantinople had appointed Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus', but whose see was located in Moscow, was a staunch supporter of the Union with Rome. In 1441, on his return from the Council, he came to Moscow in procession, preceded by a large Latin cross, and during his first liturgy in the Cathedral of the Ascension of the Kremlin, he explicitly named the Pope during liturgical prayers and proclaimed aloud the decree of union.

Three days later he was arrested by the Grand Prince of Moscow, condemned and deposed by the Russian clergy, and had to flee to Rome. Since then, Moscow declared its autocephaly and the Russian metropolitans were no longer appointed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, but chosen by the Grand Prince of Moscow. A little later, the new Russian capital declared itself the "Third Rome."

Russian history then underwent the painful split of its Church, the schism of "Old Believers", followed by wars with Catholics: Polish, French, German. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Rzeczpospolita, or the state born of the confederation between the kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, prescribed the Orthodox Russian lands that had time to submit to Rome, while retaining their own rite: the so-called Union of Brest , which gave birth to the phenomenon of Uniatism. Today for almost every Orthodox or ancient Eastern Church there is an analogous "Catholic Church of the Eastern Rite", separated from the Eastern Church of origin and subject to Rome.

After the Bolshevik Revolution all the churches in Russia and then the Soviet Union, were ruthlessly persecuted and were in a state of agony at the outbreak of World War II. During the German advance in the territories of Ukraine, the Ukrainian nationalists often, mostly Greek-Catholic, welcomed the occupants with joy. After the war ended in these same territories, the Soviets again took control and the Greek-catholic church was totally destroyed by the state, her faithful suffered terrible violence, places of worship were given to the Orthodox. After Stalin's death the Christians in the Soviet Union suffered fresh persecutions under Khrushchev, then the gray years of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko.

Since 1988, the millennium of the baptism of the Rus', the Soviet state policy toward religion changes radically and the Churches can resume a normal existence. In the early nineties, amidst the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Greek-Catholic Ukrainians have resumed their original places of worship, taken them over by force and in some places leaving no church to the Orthodox. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church of Latin rite has set its mission in Russia with little attention to the Orthodox sensitivity: zealous priests Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Ukrainians preached the "conversion of Russia", often trying to make converts among the Orthodox, which only irritated the Patriarchate. At the same time in Ukraine schismatic groups proclaimed themselves independent from the canonical Orthodox Church, part of the Russian Church.

 Finally, in the last few years, the political disturbances in Ukraine, with the political change, the civil war and the rift within the country, have created tension not only between Russia and the West, but also among the churches, particularly among Greek-Orthodox and Catholics.

This is the complex historical canvas that serves as background to the meeting in Cuba. Will the charism of Francis and Kirill be able to overcome historical offenses and the meeting become a founding moment in the history of relations between the two Churches, or will it just be a ceremonial gesture of ecclesiastical diplomacy?