Friday, February 5, 2016

Pope Francis, Patriarch Kirill and the God of Surprises

By Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski

Once again Pope Francis reminds us that we worship the God of surprises. The news today that he will meet with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba, February 12—while the pope is en route to Mexico—is literally unprecedented. A pope has never met with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and not for lack of wanting.

Patriarch Kirill is head of a Church of some 150 million people out of the 250-300 million adherents of Eastern Orthodox Christianity worldwide. Relations with Orthodox Christians—from whom Catholics officially split in the year 1054—are a crucial part of the Catholic Church's efforts toward Christian unity. Their faith tradition is ancient, and the Catholic Church recognizes their apostolic succession and validity of their sacraments. In the United States, Catholics and Orthodox have dialogued for 50 years, with Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis currently stewarding this important work as Catholic co-chair.

Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras make history in Jerusalem, 1964.
In 1964, the same year the Second Vatican Council issued its Decree on Christian Unity, Pope Paul VI met with Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in Jerusalem, a turning point that ushered in a new era of dialogue and friendship after nearly a millennium of hostility and estrangement. The Patriarch of Constantinople, or Ecumenical Patriarch, is a first among equals of the leaders of Orthodox Christianity, and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI continued to build on this key relationship, meeting with subsequent Ecumenical Patriarchs. And Pope Francis has already met with Patriarch Bartholomew I (Ecumenical Patriarch since 1991) on several occasions.

Pope Francis walks with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of the crucifixion and Jesus' tomb, in May 2014.
Since Orthodox Christianity is more collegial, i.e. more horizontal than vertical in its leadership structure, it is especially important to foster relationships with its other leaders. And here the Russian Orthodox Church has posed a particular challenge. The Russian Orthodox Church existed with a minimal degree of government recognition under the Soviets, but other believers, Catholics included, saw their religion virtually suppressed. The fall of Communism gave rise to tensions between the leaders of Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy as the Churches moved to pick up the pieces.

Pope Benedict XVI meets then-Metropolitan Kirill in December 2007.
In the quarter century since then, the Vatican has worked delicately to improve relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, with pope and the patriarch sending delegates to meet one another on various occasions. But John Paul II died without achieving his dearly held goal of visiting Russia and meeting the Patriarch of Moscow. Now, not only is this meeting occurring, but strangely enough, it is not the first time Kirill will have met a pope. Prior to becoming Patriarch of Moscow in 2009, then-Metropolitan Kirill headed the Russian Orthodox Church's office of external church relations and so was the Russian Orthodox delegate who met with Benedict XVI. It is a joyful sign that, as Patriarch, he has agreed to meet another pope.

It's fitting that this meeting takes place in Cuba, a country that, thanks to Pope Francis' efforts to build bridges of engagement, has seen a thaw after half a century of tensions with the United States. Now it will be the scene of improved relations between Christians. "Dialogue is our method," Pope Francis said to the bishops of the United States during his visit last September. "The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly." This meeting exemplifies why our pope has such faith in the power of dialogue.

Pope Francis meets Bishop Rozanski at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington.
This announcement comes on the heels of the observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity January 18-25. With the announcement of this meeting, we feel renewed hope that those prayers are already bearing fruit.

Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, is chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Photo of Bishop Rozanski and Pope Francis courtesy of Diocese of Springfield. All other photos from CNS.

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