02/22/2016, 10.44
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Francis and Kirill: After Cuba, time for concrete steps

by Sergei Chapnin

The embrace between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow shows  desire for common witness. Strong resistance from conservative orthodox who accuse the "patriarch of heresy." Mediation on “uniate” issue. Deepening of theological dialogue and collaboration on "joint projects”. Call for more regular meetings between Rome and Moscow.


Moscow (AsiaNews) - The symbolic significance of the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill is not difficult to interpret: the desire to bridge the gap between the Churches of East and West and bear common witness to the unity of the Christian world.

The very fact of the meeting testifies to this. Words are not needed, just a fraternal embrace. However, something more happened: the Pope and the Patriarch signed a joint declaration, which contains serious intentions on the part of the two Churches, and that opens perspectives for future collaboration.

Perhaps, this was the most unexpected thing. It had seemed that the two-hour Cuban airport meeting could not bring any significant results. Everything had been done to lower the status of the meeting: no religious nor political leaders, had ever conducted a meeting, in so random and openly "technical” a context. Ecclesiastical protocol provides for high-level meetings in cathedrals or large monasteries, residences, shrines and places of pilgrimage.

However, Patriarch Kirill suddenly broke with normal procedures and chooses an unexpected place: Cuba. Moreover, the meeting was held in a neutral location, an airport, but even here one cannot escape the symbolism. The airport is named after José Martí: the modernist Cuban poet and revolutionary leader of the liberation movement. They still call him "the apostle of independence." Is it a coincidence or does the patriarch wanted to say something? Perhaps in Latin America a similar gesture arouses more understanding and empathy, but for the Orthodox in Russia seems more than a little strange.

In the comments made by official representatives on the eve of the encounter, it was pointed out more than once that the Pope and the Patriarch would not recite common prayers and would not discuss theological issues. On the one hand this is understandable: the parties decided not to disturb the Orthodox fundamentalists, who see a distancing from orthodoxy and deviation towards heresy in everything. Anyway it is a weak position: it is strange and unnatural that the primates of the churches, professing one faith in the Holy Trinity, which is manifested not least through prayer, refused in advance to pray together during the meeting.

However, at the beginning of the joint statement both parties "deplore the loss of unity" and speak with regret that, despite the common Tradition of the first 10 centuries, Catholics and Orthodox, for nearly 1000 years, have been deprived of Eucharistic communion. This problem is merely observed, there are no subsequent steps, but the visible recognition of the lack of Eucharistic communion between the churches is an important statement and in it there is a clear theological context. In this I see an accurate reference to the fact that the theological problem in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue remains as is and can not be ignored.

The Joint Declaration and the Uniates

The declaration that was adopted is a complex document and far broader than might be expected. It contains a balance of interests and it is evident that the churches have made mutual concessions to reach a written agreement.

The first thing to notice is the soft and even ambiguous wording regarding the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (UGKC). In fact, it was precisely the conflict between orthodox and Greek-Catholics in western Ukraine that was indicated by the Moscow Patriarchate, for many years, as one of the main obstacles to the meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch.

The Moscow Patriarchate has held a rigid and, in fact, unconstructive position, demanding the condemnation not only Uniatism as instrument of unification, but also of the Greek-Catholic community. For the Vatican it was unacceptable, because the Greek-Catholic Church as part of Roman Catholicism and is difficult to imagine how one can condemn it.

The list of charges against the UGKC is quite long: proselytism among the Orthodox, anti-Russian rhetoric, contacts with schismatics of the 'Patriarchate of Kiev' and the intention to recognize their baptism, their unilateral declaration of being a Patriarchate, etc ....[i]

However, the Moscow Patriarchate has significantly softened its position: the long standing conflict between Orthodox and Greek-Catholic was more softly referred to as "tensions". The parties have recognized that the method of unitarism (obedience to the bishop of the Orthodox community to Rome, while retaining their own rite and legal and ecclesiastical institutions) does not represent the "way to restore unity". As rightly noted by the vice-rector of the Kiev spiritual academy, Vladimir Bureg, it is practically the word-for-word repetition of the agreement of Balamand of 1993[ii].

There is another important concession later on in the text, also associated with the Balamand document, but rarely ever referred to: " e ecclesial communities which emerged in these historical circumstances have the right to exist and to undertake all that is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful, while seeking to live in peace with their neighbours”. This paragraph has already aroused dissatisfaction on both sides: that of the Orthodox fundamentalists in Russia, and that of the Greek-Catholics in Ukraine. However, there is potential for cooperation in this compromise formula. It contains major theses, in relation to the testimony of Christians in the modern world.

The Churches are not only united by the past but also by the present. First of all by the modern Christian martyrs. The testimony of Christ in the contemporary world is tied to being ready to die for one’s faith. It's terrible, but unfortunately it is an entirely justified statement.

The analysis of the issues raised in relation to the situation in Ukraine and the Middle East are deserving of their own separate analysis. It is noteworthy that there is no mention of military action as a possible method for the solution of problems. Earlier, the Russian Orthodox Church had advocated in support of Russia's military actions in Syria. Here, there is no mention of this, while only mentioning humanitarian aid. It can be said that the patriarch approve the Pope's position. At the same time, there are only vague and softer tones references to the conflict in Ukraine.

The problems of the family, social justice and bioethics are solved in the traditional way and recalled, most likely, to ensure space for further dialogue.

A "heretical" Patriarch?

How would one describe the new configuration of the relationship between Catholics and Orthodox? We should remain prudent in making estimates. The Pope called the document a pastoral letter, despite the fact that addresses both social and political issues. The meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill gave hope to some, while for others it has become the symbol of the "defeat" of Russian Orthodoxy and even a pretext to accuse the patriarch of heresy. The voices of those who have spoken out against the meeting between the Patriarch and the Pope and against the joint statement resonate strongly. These detractors come from a broad base and include the monks, who live on Mount Athos, priests and lay people, leaders of fundamentalist groups and even the professor of an important Russian university.

The situation is complicated by the fact literally ten days before the meeting Patriarch Kirill had insisted on the canonization of Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev) who in the middle of the twentieth century had a highly anti-ecumenical position: "In the ecumenical question, we must not lose sight of the fact that at the beginning of the ecumenical movement in front of us there are not only the ancestral enemies of our Orthodox Church, but the father of all lies and perdition, the devil. In the last century, arousing every heresy in the Church, he wanted to destroy the Holy Church through the mixture of the orthodox with the heretics. This time he does so by means of ecumenism, with its inexhaustible Masonic capital". [iii]

Patriarch Kirill handed his critics he perfect opportunity to use the texts of the new Saint against him. Why would the Patriarch insist on this canonization on the eve of meeting with the Pope? Was it random or was he sending a signal to Catholics: we also take into account the critics of the ecumenical movement.

Starting "joint projects"

Finally, the key question: what is the status of the signed document? The answer depends on the fate of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. For Catholics, the status is clear: it is a document signed by the Pope and expresses the position of the Roman Catholic Church. But it is not as clear in terms of the Statute of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Patriarch speaks on behalf of the Church, when he has the authorization of the Council of Bishops or at least of the Holy Synod. However, neither the Council nor the Synod gave their consent to this meeting nor discussed the draft declaration.

In addition, the Patriarch Kirill did everything possible to keep all knowledge of this meeting from the Council of Bishops and the announcement was made two days after the conclusion of the same council, when most of the bishops had already left. Commentators from the fundamentalists field claim that the patriarch has signed this document in his own name as a private entity. But this is certainly not so. More likely, he will use the common practice in such cases: the members of the Synod will approve both the meeting and the joint statement in their next meeting.

Which of the two will become the main theme: the socio-political or the purely ecclesiastical? For the Patriarch, ecclesiastical matters are not of primary importance. But this comes into serious conflict with the interpretation of both Catholics and Orthodox fundamentalists. Paradoxically, their positions are similar: both the fact of the meeting as well as the signing of the declaration suggest theological dialogue cannot be avoided and speeches on closer bonds be limited to socio-political issues. The difference is that Catholics assess the situation in a positive way, while the fundamentalists will view it with apocalyptic tones.

Further steps are needed. In particular, a more detailed account of what these "joint projects" ARE, which the Pope briefly mentioned in Havana. If these have already been Planned then they must be launched, but if not, they need to be urgently prepared and at least clearly identified.

The joint statement will remain only on paper if it is not followed by a broad and open development of the relations between Catholics and Orthodox at all levels: at an official Church level, among dioceses and individual parishes and at the level of personal relationships between members of the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. What’s more, there is a need for regular meetings between the Pope and the Patriarch.


[i] Russia and the Orthodox Churches’ scuttling of Uniates cannot help dialogue between our Churches. URL: http://www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=interview&div=397 (in Russian)


[ii] Vladimir Bureg. Ukraine through teh eyes of Poep Francis and Patriarch Kirill. URL: http://society.lb.ua/life/2016/02/16/328040_ukraina_glazami_papi_frantsiska.html (in Russian)


[iii] Arcbishop Serafim (Sobolev). Does teh Russian Orthodox Church need to take part in ecumenical dialogue? Discourse to Moscow pan-Orthodox conference, 1948. URL: http://azbyka.ru/otechnik/Serafim_Sobolev/nado-li-russkoj-pravoslavnoj-tserkvi-uchastvovat-v-ehkumenicheskom-dvizhenii (in Russian) 

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