POPE Francis’s trip to Cuba last month paved the way for a historical meeting with Patriarch Krill of Moscow. It was the first time in history a Russian Orthodox patriarch and a Pope had met. Aid to the Church in Need’s Russia expert Peter Humeniuk talks about the significant meeting for both the Catholic and Russian Orthodox church.
Question: How did you react to the news that the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow were going to meet each other?
Answer: That the long-awaited meeting of the two church leaders is about to happen is a sensation and a cause for great joy. It fulfils a dream that Pope John Paul II had already held dear. The announcement was of course a surprise. On the other hand, many years and a great deal of preparatory work have gone into this. And so in the end, it was more a question of “when” than “if”. When asked about the point in time, Metropolitan Hilarion often answered to the effect that the date was unknown but was coming closer with each day. That gave us courage.
Question: Why is the meeting of the church leaders happening right at this particular moment?
Answer: That the meeting is going to happen faster than expected is also due to the dramatic international situation. In our times, we are witnessing the persecution of Christians to an extent that has never been seen before and that threatens the existence of Christianity in parts of the world. In a press conference in Moscow, Metropolitan Hilarion said that the development of the situation in the Middle East, in northern and central Africa and other regions in which “extremists are committing a veritable genocide of the Christian population have made urgent measures and a closer cooperation between the Christian churches necessary”. Which means that when the world is on fire, individual issues pertaining to ecclesiastical politics play a subordinate role. Bearing witness together is more important than ever before.
Question: Why is the Russian Orthodox church in particular so significant? After all, the Pope has already met with other Orthodox patriarchs.
Answer: With more than 100 million members, the Russian Orthodox church is the largest and most influential of the Orthodox churches. Its voice carries great weight.
Question: Not only the point in time, but also the place where the two church leaders will be meeting is a surprise. Why Cuba?
Answer: It became clear relatively early that a meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow would have to take place at a neutral location. The European countries were not suitable because there are too many historical connections and distressing memories. Thus Latin America was brought to the table. A number of possible locations were considered, such as Paraguay. Now chance has played a part because the paths of the two church leaders are practically going to cross on their respective trips to Latin America, which they had planned to take independently of each other. Why should one not seize the opportunity that has presented itself? Furthermore, for both church leaders it will not be the first time that they visit Cuba. One should also remember that Cuba has already set the stage for events of world politics in the past. I am thinking of the Cuban Crisis of 1962, when the world stood on the brink of an atomic war between the US and the Soviet Union. At the time, an appeal for peace issued by Pope John XXIII prevented an escalation. In any case it should, however, be clear that the conflicts in the world develop a dynamic that becomes a threat for large parts of humanity and require a mutual cry for peace from the Christian churches.
Question: What will change as a result of the meeting between the Pope and Patriarch?
Answer: Just because the two church leaders have yet to meet in person does not mean that there has never been any kind of cooperation. The meeting is therefore a culmination of what has been achieved up until now but is based on something that has already been a work in progress for several decades. There have already been many occasions in the past when both churches have spoken with one voice. One example I would like to mention occurred in September of 2013, when Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill raised their voices in support of peace in Syria. At the time, Patriarch Kirill wrote to President Obama, Pope Francis and President Putin. It is to be expected that the cooperation between the two churches will become deeper and more intense following the meeting. It was also announced that the meeting would include the joint signing of a document. This shows that the preparatory work was successful and one can hope and pray that this will lead to a bountiful harvest.