02/13/2016, 18.09
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The historic and somewhat surreal meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill

by Vladimir Rozanskij

The leaders of two hieratic religious traditions hugged in a bare "Soviet" atmosphere, sterilised from the presence of people, but with dignitaries, politicians and journalists. The Joint Declaration contains important points, and sets the stage for missionary work for the coming centuries. Putin overshadows the Syrian issue. Kirill wins over Uniatism and Ukraine. However, the real world will be the test of the agreement.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – The sudden but not unexpected meeting between the Roman pontiff and the Patriarch of Moscow yesterday in Havana has opened a window on the future, but it has also opened the attic of the past.

After a quarter-century since the end of the Soviet Union – which also led to the demise of Soviet studies as an academic and journalistic specialty – the whole world brushed up their Russian history and its inter-confessional relations, which had been neglected by the withering away of the ecumenical movement in the 21st century.

Starting with the early councils of the first millennium, commentators struggled to remember schisms, insults and biases, as well as persecutions, secret negotiations, revolutions and revivals, to explain the historic significance of a meeting that all the world "waited for centuries," perhaps not really knowing what it was for.

Now the big event has taken place, and everyone claims – starting with the white-coiffed patriarchs – that they feel calmer and more confident. Although no one knows yet why, some will find a reason; after all, a 30-point declaration was signed, which is to start work that might last at least three centuries.

In fact, to say that the meeting “took place” is a highly charged statement, almost surreal. Havana’s airport, which is named after Cuban poet and philosopher José Martí, founder of the Cuban Revolutionary Party and author of the lyrics of the famous Guantanamera, served as a colourful backdrop with its typical red and blue, as well as contrast for a meeting between the highest representatives of the world’s hieratic ritualism, the two "traditional churches," on the island of transgression.

The paradoxical atmosphere was also accentuated by the absolute sterilisation of the area from the presence of ordinary people, a Cuba without Cubans, an airport without passengers: only politicians, prelates and journalists, a set where reality was suspended. Rather than stopover in a Caribbean tourist paradise, it was a step outside of time and space, an act of history stepping into the eternal paradise of the afterlife.

If the outside was a non-place, an empty space, the set inside was the opposite in its unmistakable matter-of-factness. Like many buildings in Russia and its former satellites countries, the outside paint could not hide the sense of anguish generated by a cramped interior, the architectural and existential hallmark of real socialism.

The small meeting room where the two Church Fathers came together kept its proportions, colours and of course the smell of the so-called Khrusciovke, the post-war Soviet buildings that optimised socialist space, with its three-metre and under ceilings and its inferior, almost see-through materials, that allow everyone to hear their neighbours' sighs and denied everyone some privacy.

When the room divider opened up to let the two main protagonists solemnly enter the other half of the room where bystanders were waiting in two neat rows, for a moment, there was a flashback to the good old days of the Cold War when Red Army green uniforms escorted unwelcome guests.

In fact, a great veteran of those tragic times, Raul Castro, escorted the two Holinesses. Once a persecutor of Christians and dissidents, today he is a bit of Francis groupie, not to mention an agent for Putin and Kirill. Although he was the host, Castro looked more like the butler of the Russian Patriarch, to whom the island had been temporarily rented out. The headmaster of Orthodox diplomacy positioned the two in such a way that it was Francis, the South American primate, who went towards Kirill, who was waiting for him at his home, as if Havana was his summer house, a dacha by the Black Sea, Bermuda-style.

However, without wishing to dwell too much on the uniquely "minimalist" circumstances, as some charitable commentator defined them, we can finally put the substance behind us. They met, they smiled, they hugged, and they acknowledged each other. Somos hermanos, Francis said. Now everything will be easier, Kirill said.

If with other Eastern patriarchs, starting with that of Constantinople, interaction is always very formal and solemn, everything takes on a simpler and more informal tone between Russians and Catholics, despite paradoxes and mistrust. Those two, the first and third Rome, deal the cards to others. They are the only two to cover their heads in white, a universal sign that Moscow copied from Rome when it imposed its Patriarchate to save the world, in the distant past.

The deck of cards is well stacked, with aces and wildcards. The pope and the patriarch signed an ambitious deal on the rickety table provided by the Castro brothers. The document goes beyond the defence of Christians in the Middle East, which was the original reason for the meeting but was eventually pushed into the background by their impromptu statements.

The 30-point Joint Declaration calls for the defence of persecuted communities, but also for the defence of human civilisation from terrorism – which requires coordinated actions by the powers that be (Putin's mantra in Syria) – as well as the protection of human nature from attacks against the family and life, with the frankness that Patriarch Kirill has always had and always called for in other Christian leaders, but which Francis had soft-pedalled a bit.

The declaration includes issues dear to Kirill, like the integration of peoples and migrants without multiculturalism and the defence of the Christian identity of European nations. However, it also talks about justice, the option for the poor mentioned by Francis, without references to the protection of creation, a theme the pope shares with Bartholomew of Constantinople, but not Kirill, who sees ecology with suspicion, as an excuse to introduce anti-Christian reforms.

With respect to the conflict in Ukraine, Uniatism continues to be strongly condemned, and is treated by the Russians as condition for any kind of dialogue. Ukrainian Christians are urged to stop arguing, and accusations of external interference are excluded.

Some ecumenical-theological points are made, but mostly from a Russian perspective, namely correctly expressing the Trinitarian faith, and the Bizantinisms of the Filioque but there is no mention of the various interpretations of the Primacy of the Church, which the latter has been trying to add to the agenda of theological dialogue, but which the Russians reject out of hand.

Now what? How will the relationship between Rome and Moscow evolve? What impact will this meeting have on the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Crete, in June? Crete too is an island, albeit in middle of the Mediterranean, also chosen in this case to avoid the tensions on the mainland.

Sooner or later, we shall have to sail off from the islands into the real world, and from the empty airport immerse ourselves in crowds of the metropolis, as Francis will do in Mexico City and Kirill did in Havana.

The Cuban city has become the "capital of unity" of the Churches and of the times, past and future, in the name of two brave men who can believe in the fantasy of the Spirit, blowing where and how it wants and not just " from the Atlantic to the Urals ", but also beyond the ocean and islands.

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