Three hours in the island of Cuba to overcome century-long distance and divisions. Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia will meet on February 12 in Cuba where the Pope will make a stop on his way to Mexico and where the Patriarch will be on an official visit. The news was announced in a joint statement released simultaneously in Rome, by the director of the Vatican Press office, Fr Federico Lombardi, and in Moscow by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk. The meeting “had been prepared for a long time,” reads the statement. It was the dream of John Paul II, who passed away without having been able to see it come true. At the time there were too many difficulties and misunderstandings. Hurdles were always presented as insurmountable obstacles. However, now the conditions appear to be favourable.
Both the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Vatican describe it as “an important stage in relations between the two Churches” and “a sign of hope for all people of good will”
The Pope has advanced his departure to Mexico from Rome by a few hours. The papal plane was to take off at 12:30, but it was rescheduled to depart at 7.45. After 12 hours of flight, Pope Francis will be welcomed at the international airport Jose Marti of Cuba by the Apostolic Nuncio and by the President, Raul Castro. The private meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill will take place in a specially prepared area at the airport and it will last two hours. Then the Pope and the Patriarch will enter an adjacent room where they will sign a joint declaration to the presence of the press and the Cuban television, which will film the entire event.
The simultaneous visits of Patriarch Kirill to Cuba and of the Pope to Mexico have occasioned a “favourable situation.” In the past a “neutral” place has been sought for the meeting, thereby discarding options such as Moscow and Rome. Cuba is the chosen site. The meeting will take place ahead of the Pan-Orthodox Conference next June, following the wish of Patriarch Bartholomew to promote a path of communion between the Patriarchs of Orthodox Churches worldwide.
Patriarch Bartholomew has been informed – Father Lombardi made known – and he “expressed his gladness and joy at the news of this embrace between the leader of the Catholic Church and the head of the world’s largest Orthodox community”.
“May it usher in a new phase in the relations between the two Churches”, commented from Moscow Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, president of Moscow’s Patriarchate Department for External Relations. In presenting the upcoming meeting to journalists, the Metropolitan Patriarch recalled that in the years 1996-97, were held “intensive negotiations” on the arrangement of a meeting between His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II and Pope John Paul II to be held in Austria, “but these negotiations were stopped” owing to a set of problems that concerned “the actions of the Greek Catholics in Ukraine and proselytism of Catholic missionaries in the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate.” The situation – Hilarion pointed out – “aggravated further as a result of the recent events in Ukraine”, in which representatives of the Greek-Catholic Church took part, coming out with “anti-Russian and russophobic slogans.
Nevertheless, the situation as it has developed today in the Middle East, in North and Central Africa and in some other world regions appears to have speeded up the pace under the banner of that very “ecumenism of blood” mentioned on several occasions also by Pope Francis. In the present situation the Churches deem it necessary “to put aside internal disagreements and unite efforts for saving Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to the most severe persecution”, Hilarion said.
Monsignor Piero Coda is a member of the international theological Commission and of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. “It’s beautiful news”, he immediately remarked over the phone. He added:
“It’s a major historic event, almost on a par with the ground-breaking meeting between Paul VI and Athenagoras. Today the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow’s Patriarchate, is making a similar step towards Rome.”
Also the words spoken by Patriarch Hilarion are “consequential.” “There have recently been profound difficulties marked by mutual misunderstandings between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church: the Russian Orthodox Church in particular”, Coda pointed out. “The serious emergency of Christians living in the Middle East brings with it the need to make all possible efforts to put aside the difficulties that exist in the mutual relations, and join hands to walk together and serve the cause of peace, justice and fraternity.” “Surely – Coda concluded – it is the precondition for a process of stronger unity within the Orthodox Church as a whole, but also a prominent event in the journey towards the full and visible unity among those who believe in Jesus.”