For the first time, a Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Pope meet. Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill have met in a private room in Cuba's Jose Marti airport. With help of two translators, they have come a step closer. The meeting has been two years in the making.
Before anything else, as no shortage of coverage elsewhere over the last week has shown a staggering depth of ignorance, one thing apparently bears clarifying: in the historic context of today's first-ever meeting between the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Moscow, any mention of "a 1,000 year-old split" would be enough to flunk the exam on what all this means.Some back ground and analysis:
To be sure, this afternoon's encounter in Cuba between Francis and Kirill I is a deeply significant moment, but its resonance lies far more on the geopolitical plane than a theological one. Even if religion and politics are often conflated and confused for each other these days, the distinction is critical – and as the historical sketch seems necessary, well, let's try to make it quick.
In essence, Christianity in modern-day Russia was barely at its inception at the time of the East-West Schism of 1054, when the mutual excommunications were levied between the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople – of course, the respective successors of the apostles Peter and Andrew. By contrast, the en masse baptism of the Kievan Rus (the precursors of the future empire, based in what's now Ukraine) took place less than seven decades earlier, in 988; a patriarchate at Moscow wasn't established until the late 1500s, and the rise of the Russian church as a major player beyond its borders roughly coincided with the empire-building which progressed from that period, culminating in Peter the Great's turn toward Europe a century later.
Fast-forwarding into the present (and away from Moscow), the lifting of the Catholic-Orthodox excommunications in 1965 by now-Blessed Paul Paul VI and the Ecumenical (read: "universal") Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople paved the way toward today's ongoing East-West dialogue, an international effort which has grown past cooperation on common social causes to broach theological and ecclesiological questions – the shape of papal primacy now among them – with an eye to resolving what the most recent joint text has termed "the search for full communion." Yet as modern Constantinople merely enjoys "first among equals" status among the world's 14 autocephalous (self-governing) Orthodox churches, the participation of the others has sometimes been a matter of fits and starts. Nevertheless, most of the lead Eastern bodies are already at the table with Rome.
Today, however, is a different animal: while Moscow has aimed to bill a shared concern over Christian persecution in the Middle East as the catalyst for the meeting its hardline faction has long resisted, with a "Great and Holy Council" of global Orthodoxy's broad swath of branches – the first gathering of its kind in some eight centuries – set to convene in June amid the groups' usual thicket of rivalry and intrigue, the largest, most forceful (and, indeed, most politically consequential) of the Eastern churches gets to showcase its clout by commanding the world's attention as its leader sits down with the Pope on what're essentially the Russians' terms.
All that said, lest any illusions exist of Moscow somehow eclipsing Constantinople's place at the wheel of Catholic-Orthodox relations – or, for that matter, any significant reshaping of the Eastern dialogue at the expense of Rome's longtime partners in it – think again... or, if nothing else, just don't hold your breath.
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