Francis and Kirill, a meeting that has many political and faith based reasons (I)
After centuries of waiting, a week after the announcement, the dream of John Paul II and Benedict XVI will become a reality. Among the reasons for the meeting, the Patriarchate emphasizes the defense of persecuted Christians by Islamic fundamentalism and the widespread secularization even in the Protestant world. An alliance "against". There are also "political" reasons: preparations for the pan-Orthodox Synod and the indirect blessing of Putin. Conservative fringes of the Patriarchate are against "minimalist" meeting. First part of an analysis by a personality of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Moscow (AsiaNews) - Tomorrow, February 12, Pope Francis will take part in a meeting in Cuba which his predecessors had only dreamed of: Benedict XVI and, above all, John Paul II. It is well known that apart from the long nurtured desire for a meeting between the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Moscow, such an encounter had been prepared and, at least on two occasions, came very close to being realized. However, Moscow held that there were no conditions for a meeting and the reasons adduced were, basically, accusations of Catholic proselytism in Russia and conflicting relationships with the Greek-Catholics, especially in Ukraine.
The persistence of these problems - especially the one with the Greek-Catholic - was underlined on February 5 in Moscow by Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, during the press conference given by the Russian Church officially announcing the Cuban meeting. A few days earlier, the Patriarchate had reacted sharply to a recently published document n which the Greek-Catholic Church of Ukraine sets out its ecumenical vision.
Nevertheless, the new situation of terrorism and Islamic extremism, or the fact that in various parts of the world "some extremists are perpetrating a genocide of the Christian population, requires urgent measures and greater interaction between the Christian Churches," said the Metropolitan. "In the current tragic situation it is necessary to put aside internal disagreements and join efforts to save Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to terrible persecution."
Against aggressive Islam
The first reason for the meeting between the heads of the two Churches is, so to speak, one of defense: faced with an aggressive Islam, or rather, the terrorism of the Islamic State, Christians must be more united. Ergo, offenses put aside.
The second reason is also "defensive" in nature. In recent decades "greater interaction between the Christian churches" has become increasingly problematic for the Orthodox because of the Reformed Churches’ different way of understanding moral life. The ethical positions of most of these churches, on issues such as homosexuality, genetic manipulation, women priests, euthanasia, abortion, makes collaboration extremely difficult for the Orthodox. Despite the injuries of history, past and present, for the Orthodox the Catholic Church is undoubtedly a much safer and more natural partner than Protestants. It was already the case from a canonical and dogmatic point of view, now it is so today from an ethical point of view. Therefore, the common difficulty with the Protestant world is bringing Orthodoxy and Catholicism together.
A third reason for the meeting, and the fact that it is taking place now, is found in the impending pan-Orthodox council, scheduled for June this year. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is in very good relations with the Holy See; he has repeatedly visited Rome and met with the Pope. The pan-Orthodox council, as, among other things, the recent meeting in Chambésy of the Primates of the local Churches showed, will not be an easy one, especially because of the tensions between Moscow and Constantinople. In this situation, certainly Moscow, the Third Rome, has an interest in arriving at the Council in a situation of better relations with the First Rome. Do not forget that one of the Council’s agenda items is Orthodoxy’s relations with other Christian Churches. Arriving at the Council after the Cuba meeting Patriarch Kirill can hope to have greater authority on the subject.
Putin, protector of Christendom
The meeting of the head of the Russian Church with the head of Western Christianity assumes, whether we like it or not, great political significance under the current isolation of Russia. At a time when Western governments are imposing sanctions on Russia, and the Russian government is taking refuge in an increasingly extreme anti-Western nationalism, the two Churches signaling a strong will for rapprochement.
It has been said that the meeting with the Pope was "suggested" to Patriarch Kirill by the Kremlin. Someone pointed out the fact that the last visit of the Russian president to the Vatican was followed by a sudden unscheduled visit to Rome by Metropolitan Hilarion. No doubt the Cuba meeting is pleasing to the Russian government. In recent years, President Putin has increasingly assumed the role of protector of persecuted Christianity on the world stage, and the Russian military intervention in Syria is presented as a reaction to the genocide of Christians. Vladimir Putin also presents himself as a defender of Christian values in the face of moral relativism, secularism, the extreme liberalism of Western society. This image of the government and the Russian president is often conveyed well by some Western media. Now the Cuban meeting seems to give an implicit papal assent to that image of the new Russia, champion of Christianity and Christian values.
Moreover, it should not be forgotten that during the Cold War, in its ecumenical relations the Russian Orthodox Church simply repeated what the Soviet state said in the international arena. The "struggle for peace" was the slogan that the Moscow Patriarchate promoted at the World Council of Churches and everywhere else. However it is undeniable that Patriarch Kirill has tried to keep a distance and autonomy from the Kremlin, for example in the Ukrainian question.
The first meeting in history between the bishop of Rome and that of Moscow takes place in a "minimalist" style in neutral territory, on the other side of the globe, in an airport. The protocol is strictly secular, reminiscent of the meeting of two heads of state (greeting, private talks, signing of a joint declaration, the presentation of the two delegations), with no religious act: neither celebration nor common prayer (not even the Our Father ). As there will be none else present outside of the two delegations, the two successors of the apostles do not even have to issue any joint blessing ... unless specifically asked for by Raul Castro!
"Minimalism" and the future
This surprising "minimalism" is a precautionary measure of the Russian Church against the possible negative reactions from its most conservative fringe. The same precautionary reasons explain why a historic meeting that has been expected for centuries is taking place just one week by the public announcement.
As regards the choice of the place, in addition to the fact that the distance makes it almost impossible for visible reactions, such as protests and such, there are various interpretations. Cuba is definitely a place where the Russians feel at home, but it is also known by the Holy See: first of all for the vitality, enjoying a revival, of the Catholic Church on the island, as well as for the fact that from 1998 to date the country has been visited by three Popes. Finally, not least another reason is the "miracle" of Cuba's reconciliation with the United States in which Vatican diplomacy played an important part.
There is also a more positive reading for the choice of the place. Cuba is Latin America, which not only implies "the other side of the world" from which, in his own words, Pope Francis comes. America is the New World, the continent of hope. Old Europe was the scene of many wars between Christians, it is the continent that has suffered most from their division. Meeting in the New World (by the way, on the island that has defined itself "Island of Freedom") may be a sign of the will for a new start, for new relationships that are not too affected by the troubled past. In announcing the meeting at the Department of External Relations of the Patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion expressed his hope that it "will open a new page in relations between the Churches".