02/17/2016, 11.17
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Something is moving: With prudence, something new sparked by meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill

by Ieromonaco Ioann

Despite many limitations, great sobriety and political compromises, the embrace is unprecedented. Although uniatism is considered outdated, the existence and mission of the Greek-Catholics is defended. Putin’s influence noticeable, but no blessing for a  "holy war". Reference to desire to "work together." The analysis of a leading figure from Orthodox Moscow.


Moscow (AsiaNews) - The meeting took place. True, it took place on the other side of the globe. True, it was hastily arranged, just one week  from the announcement. True, behind closed doors and without any religious ceremonials, it was intentionally secular in its protocol. However, the meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill took place and is a fact, an event that remains in history. If the two had not signed any joint document nor issued any statement, the meeting itself poses an important historical precedent.

The narrow room for maneuver within which Cuba's February 12 meeting took place, seen by the West, may appear obscurely Byzantine in style.  Following the logic of the Moscow Patriarchate there were inevitable limitations aimed at containing the negative reactions from conservative faithful.

The same can be said of the joint statement signed by the two spiritual leaders, beautiful in many ways, though clearly a result of negotiations and diplomatic compromises of the traces of which are clearly visible.

The Pope and the Patriarch give thanks to God for their historic meeting and for the common history that the two Churches share, they deplore the fact that Catholics and Orthodox are deprived of the Eucharist, communion and they hope that their meeting will contribute to the restoration of 'unity for which Christ prayed.

The 30 points of the joint document concerning the persecution of Christians (particularly in Syria, Iraq, the Middle East and North Africa), religiously motivated terrorism, the secularization of Europe, the reaffirmation of moral values ​​(with particular reference to the institution of the family).

The statement considers uniatism an unsuitable method to the search for unity between the two Churches, while also reaffirming the right of the Greek-Catholic communities to exist; deplores the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the schism between the Orthodox in the country; It urges Catholics and Orthodox to consider themselves brothers and not competitors, and to live in peace and love and collaborate fraternally in proclaiming the Good News.

The Pope and the Patriarch invoke the Mother of God because to encourages the fraternity of the faithful of both Churches to "be united, at the time appointed by God, in peace and harmony into one people of God, for the glory of the Most Holy and undivided Trinity. "

It is clear that some of these points were demanded by the Patriarchate, part of the "classical repertoire" of Moscow's grievances against Rome and formulated in this document in a more or less explicit way (uniatism, proselytizing); others come from the Kremlin’s repertoire and reflect a desire of the Russian government to obtain the two Churches approval of its international policy (war in Ukraine, Syria and the Middle East).

However in both cases the expressions are well-considered and positions expressed in much softer tones than we could have expected. If it is true that the Pope subscribed for the first time to an official document that defines uniatism as a method of the past (but this position is accepted by several in the Catholic Church and Pope Francis himself had already said as much in his unofficial discourses), it is equally true that the Patriarch signed that the Greek-Catholics have "the right to exist and to undertake whatever is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful" and this is certainly quite astonishing.

On closer inspection, the parts that relate to international politics show an even greater prudence on the part of the Churches and almost a distancing from the foreign policy of the Russian state authorities. Nowhere does the document moot the possibility of a military intervention in defense of peace in Syria and the Middle East.

As for Ukraine, no mention is made of civil war or a "fratricidal struggle", but of confrontation and conflict, and "all parties to the conflict" are urged to refrain from violence and to build peace. In other words: a text that is true, whether one considers the conflict a civil war, or whether it is considered an attack by another country.

Beyond this subtle diplomatic balance, what is most striking about the Joint Declaration is the fact that it is a much more objectively spiritual document than various programs of "strategic alliance" with Catholics as since advanced by some representatives of the Patriarchate Moscow.

Above and beyond diplomatic niceties, what is of most note in this Declaration, and what will remain in history, is the declaration of the common Tradition of the two Churches, the sincere regret that Catholics and Orthodox "for almost a thousand years have been deprived of communion in the Eucharist", the 'waiting for the two Churches to return to full unity, expressed at the beginning and end of the document, as well as an exhortation to the faithful to have esteem, respect and love for one another and work together, which is repeated throughout the text.

Another significant and unprecedented fact is the papal title itself, over which Pope Francis has inscribed  his signature: "Bishop of Rome, Pope of the Catholic Church". From his first speech from St. Peter’s balcony, Pope Francis has presented and presents himself primarily as "bishop of Rome." This ecclesiology has enormous ecumenical value, primarily in dialogue with the Orthodox.

However, spoken titles are one thing, the title in the signing of an official document, something else. This is also, intentionally, a new fact, which remains in history. The Pope emphasized this in his speech after the signing, placing himself explicitly on an equal footing with the Patriarch: "We speak as brothers. We have the same baptism. We are bishops".

The Cuba meeting  will remain in the history of the Church as a first, very cautious and timid effort at reconciliation between the Churches of Rome and Moscow. However, both the meeting and the Declaration have created important precedents.

The prudence was an attempt to limit possible adverse reactions, especially from the ultra-conservative, nationalists, Stalinists and pro-government environments of the Russian Church, but also from some Greek-Catholic environment. However, so far reactions have been contained and unsurprising.

Also for reasons of prudence the protocol, as mentioned above, there was no common prayer. Yet the text of the Joint Declaration explicitly contains beautiful songs of prayers and impromptu speeches of both the Pope, and the Patriarch, and ends with the prayerful invocation of the name of God. The Pope expressed the hope "that this is all for the glory of God the Father , Son and Holy Spirit, for the sake of the holy faithful people of God, under the mantle of the Holy Mother of God ", echoing the wish with which Patriarch Kirill had closed his speech:" that through the Churches’ participation in the life of modern society the name of the most holy and blessed Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit may be glorified". It should be noted that if, uttering these words, the Patriarch has not made the sign of the cross, as dictated by the Orthodox prayer tradition in each invocation of the Trinity, behind him, however, the bishops and members of the Russian delegation did.

In his words after the signing of the Declaration, the Pope referred to "a number of significant initiatives, and that may be realized" jointly by the two Churches. The Patriarch said that "the results of this meeting is that it gives me the opportunity to say that the two Churches can now work actively", and that they will "work together with full responsibility." The Patriarch then told the press he saw no obstacles in subsequent meetings with the Pope.

Clearly any joint activities and possible future meetings depend on the development of current events. Not to mention how often the Pope says, and as he reiterated after the meeting in Cuba, even speaking for the Patriarch: "We agree that unity is built by walking." The totally secular environment of the airport of one of the last communist countries, with Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill signing the Declaration between a Cuban flag and a large icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, or "one who shows the way." The text concludes with reference to the hymn to the Virgin sung by the Orthodox at the conclusion of the solemn Vespers of Lent: "Under the shelter of your mercy, we take refuge, Holy Mother of God."

And so, we hope, we pray and we walk.

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