By Anna Burger ’18
Pope John Paul II once said that the Catholic Church needs to “breathe with two lungs,” both the West and the East. Twenty-one years later, the leader of the Catholic Church has made history in that area.
Pope Francis met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba, the first meeting between a pope and Russian Orthodox patriarch. Patriarch Kirill leads a 150 million people branch of Orthodox Christianity. Orthodox Christianity’s main leader is Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who has met with Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI before. Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill issued a joint statement urging world leaders to help persecuted Christians. “Thousands of victims have already been claimed in the violence in Syria and Iraq, which has left many other millions without a home or means of sustenance. We urge the international community to seek an end to the violence and terrorism and, at the same time, to contribute through dialogue to a swift return to civil peace.” The meeting was promoted as a sign of civility in the midst of poverty and brutality. The two met in an airport in Havana, Cuba’s capital. Francis is quoted as calling Kirill “brother,” and later saying “this is the will of God”.
Many Orthodox Christians and Catholics see this meeting as a step in improving relationships with the other side. The Russian Orthodox Church split from the Catholic Church during the Great Papal Schism in 1054, where numerous popes were elected at the same time. Today, the pope is not viewed as the supreme leader of the Church by Orthodox Christians.
While there are differences in these two Christian communities, many of the Catholic Church’s leaders have tried to set up similar meetings, yet have often been met with difficulty. Both leaders referred to new and old divisions between the Christians, yet came together to help persecuted Christians.
Many, including the University of Notre Dame’s assistant professor of theology Yury Avvakumov, see this as a possible power play by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Avvakumov said that because “the Moscow Patriarchate has always been an instrument of Russian international policy,” it helps Putin “to have the Roman pope, with his internationally recognized authority, not as a critic but as an ally or at least simply as a neutrally silent figure”.
There is also fear that this meeting will cause tension between the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Catholic Church, who somewhat follow the Pope’s authority and are pro-democracy and pro-Western, in Ukraine amidst the backdrop of the struggle with Russia there.
It is hoped that this meeting will indeed help to better relations between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in years to come. Perhaps this meeting will lead into resolving many of the differences between the two communities and the Church will again “breathe with two lungs”.