Journalism tends to wildly overuse the term “historic,” but when it comes to Friday’s announcement that Pope Francis will meet Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia on Feb. 12 in Havana, there’s simply no other word for it.
It will be the first meeting ever between the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the spiritual chief of Russian Orthodoxy. It’s a moment for which ecumenical leaders on both sides have been laboring for decades, and to be honest, many thought they’d never live to see it.
St. John Paul II, the first Slavic pope who dreamed of reuniting Eastern and Western Christianity, longed to visit Russia, or, in the absence of such a trip, to meet the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church at a location of his choosing.
For the better part of a quarter-century, rumors of such a meeting would periodically erupt — the pope and patriarch would meet in Vienna, for instance, or in Crete, or in some other neutral site.
It never came to be, in large part because of resistance on the Russian side. Many Russian Orthodox fear that the Catholic model of ecumenism means submission to papal authority, and despite repeated assurances from John Paul, Benedict XVI, and now Francis that what they’re after instead is “reconciled diversity,” the suspicion never seemed to abate.
Further, many Russian Orthodox clergy and laity have a series of standing complaints about the Catholic Church, and have long insisted those disputes must be resolved before a meeting between the heads of the two churches would be anything other than a cheap photo-op.
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