On Friday Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome and leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, met with Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, at the José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba. The meeting was the first in history between a Roman Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch.
With Francis wearing the white zucchetto skullcap, and Kirill wearing the koukoulion with seraphim on the forehead and lappets, the pair embraced, kissed, then sat and talked for three hours with aides on either side. Pope Francis is scheduled to commence a five-day visit of Mexico, while Patriarch Kirill is travelling on to Brazil and Paraguay. Kirill arrived in Havana on Thursday to be greeted by the Cuban President Raúl Castro, who also received Pope Francis on his visit to the country last September.
Officials from both churches stressed before the meeting that its impetus was the ongoing persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and this was reaffirmed in the joint declaration issued to mark the meet, which states:
‘It is with pain that we call to mind the situation in Syria, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East, and the massive exodus of Christians from the land in which our faith was first disseminated and in which they have lived since the time of the Apostles, together with other religious communities […] We call upon the international community to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East. In raising our voice in defence of persecuted Christians, we wish to express our compassion for the suffering experienced by the faithful of other religious traditions who have also become victims of civil war, chaos and terrorist violence.’
But analysts offered other motives for the meeting, with Russia said to be keen to reduce its political isolation while asserting the Russian Orthodox Church ahead of a major gathering of Eastern Orthodoxy in Crete in June. Russian Orthodox representatives also noted that the meeting had become possible because the church is no longer in dispute with Rome over the situation in Ukraine, where Greek Catholics who follow Eastern rites but remain in communion with the Holy See have been caught up in the conflict. The joint declaration alluded to this, expressing:
‘It is our hope that the schism between the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine may be overcome through existing canonical norms, that all the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine may live in peace and harmony, and that the Catholic communities in the country may contribute to this, in such a way that our Christian brotherhood may become increasingly evident.’
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The see of Moscow traces its roots back to the Christianisation of Kievan Rus, which is widely believed to have occurred in 988 upon the baptism of Vladimir the Great. The see was elevated to a patriarchate in 1589, with Job serving as the first Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’. The Moscow patriarchate is one of nine autocephalous (from the Greek, meaning ‘self-headed’) patriarchates in today’s Eastern Orthodox Church, a junior patriarchate alongside those of Georgia, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania, which join the four ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.
In contrast to the Catholic Church, with its hierarchical organisation and doctrine of Papal supremacy, the Eastern Orthodox Church has no central authority and makes decisions via local synods. But the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, as primus inter pares (Latin for ‘first among equals’), is regarded as the Orthodox Church’s spiritual leader. While the Pope and the Russian Orthodox patriarch had never met before Friday, the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople are in regular contact, Pope Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I of Constantinople signing a common declaration in Istanbul in 2006 renewing ‘our commitment to move towards full communion’, and Pope Francis and Bartholomew I making an apostolic pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 2014. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have been formally separated since the Great Schism of 1054.
Despite the symbolic primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, ever since the writings of Philotheus of Pskov early in the sixteenth century a trend of Russian Orthodox thought has considered Moscow the probable site of the ‘Third Rome’, following Rome and Constantinople. The meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill is important as Russia is home to around half of the world’s Orthodox Christian faithful, with approximately 106 million adherents of an estimated 210 million total.
For twenty years until his election in 2009, Kirill served as Chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department for External Church Relations, during which time he formed a relationship with Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. On a visit to Latin America in 2008, Kirill awarded Fidel and Raúl Castro the Order of St. Daniel of Moscow on behalf of Patriarch Alexy II, in recognition of their willingness to allow a Russian Orthodox Church in Havana. As Patriarch Kirill has forged a close alliance with Vladimir Putin, who in 2012 he described as a ‘miracle from God’.