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ROME, January 26, 2016 – “Everyone knows that he is the pope of surprises. If he wants to make a change to his schedule, he will certainly do so.”
So said Captain Domenico Giani, inspector general of the Vatican gendarmerie, at the end of a meticulous security inspection in Mexico, where Francis will visit from February 12 to 18.
And the “surprises” could include an exceptional one: a meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill, the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow and of all Rus’. The first meeting in history between the heads of the Churches of Rome and of the “Third Rome,” unexpectedly beneath tropical skies.
In fact, just when the pope is in Mexico, Kirill will be in Cuba, where he was invited personally by Raúl Castro in May of last year, during the Cuban president’s visit to Moscow.
On that occasion, Raúl Castro made a stop in Rome on his way back from Moscow and met with Francis. To speak with him about the pope’s visit to Cuba, scheduled for September of that year. But it is likely that he also wanted to talk with him about his conversations with Patriarch Kirill and with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
A meeting between the pope and the patriarch of Moscow – who governs two thirds of the 200 million Orthodox in the world – has been talked about for years, or rather for decades. Each time imagining it on neutral ground, like Vienna or Budapest. But never before today has the meeting been seen as feasible in the near future, not even after the exit from the stage of a pontiff “impossible” for the Russians like the Polish John Paul II.
After the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope, however, the hypothesis soon became less unrealistic. On November 30 of 2014, on the flight back from Rome after his trip to Turkey, Francis gave this response to a Russian journalist who had asked him precisely about his contacts with the patriarchate of Moscow:
“I told Patriarch Kirill, and he agreed, there is a willingness to meet. I told him: ‘I’ll go wherever you want, you call me and I’ll come;’ and he too wants this.”
Francis did not conceal – in his further remarks to the Russian journalist – the obstacles that he saw in the way of the meeting. Which were principally two.
On the first, uniatism – which is the derogatory term that the Orthodox use to designate the union of the Eastern-rite Catholic communities with Rome – Bergoglio made it understood that he wants to turn the page:
“The Eastern Catholic Churches have a right to exist, but uniatism is a dated word. We cannot speak in these terms today. We need to find another way.”
Regarding the second obstacle, the war in Ukraine – the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy but also the home of the most populous Byzantine-rite Catholic Church – the pope said instead that the one with the greatest difficulty was the patriarch of Moscow:
“There is the problem of war in these times. The poor man has so many issues there that the meeting with the Pope has been put on the back burner. Both of us want to meet and move forward.”
And in fact, on the question of Ukraine, Francis has always moved with actions and words carefully crafted so as not to gall the Moscow patriarchate and Putin’s policies in the region, even at the cost of sowing the strongest disappointment among the bishops, clergy, and faithful of the Catholic Church of that nation.
One effect has been that on several occasions Kirill has not failed to express public appreciation for the role of Pope Francis in the Ukrainian crisis.
So the Vatican and the patriarchate of Moscow began to study in secret the feasibility of a meeting between the two.
The secrecy was dictated by the intention of avoiding any reaction from forces in either camp that would be opposed to the meeting, with the risk of ruining it.
In the Catholic camp it is above all the Ukrainian Church that feels itself wounded by such a sensational cozying up of the pope to the patriarchate of Moscow, seen as inseparable from the great enemy and “invader,” Putin’s Russia.
But within the patriarchate as well there is very extensive opposition to “openness” to the Catholic Church, and therefore to the execrated West, symbolized by the embrace between the pope and the patriarch.
One sign of this is the caution of the deputy in the patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, concerning rumors of a meeting between Francis and Kirill.
Another sign is the recent turbulence at the upper echelon of the patriarchate, with the expulsion of the head of religious information, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, an ultra-nationalist and theorist of Russia’s “holy war” in Syria.
In freeing himself of him, Kirill wanted to weaken the component of the Russian Church most closely connected to the autocratic Putin regime and to its military operations in Ukraine and the Middle East.
In fact, after working in close agreement with Putin for the reconstruction of Orthodoxy in Russia, Patriarch Kirill now wants to act with greater autonomy and acquire the credibility and charismatic profile of a world spiritual leader, of a Russian “Pope Francis,” partly in competition with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, who is at home in the Vatican but in Russia is seen by many as a vassal of Western “uniform thinking.”
Both Francis and Kirill, therefore, have a strong interest in the realization of their meeting. And in its happening with that “surprise” effect which would present the world – and their respective opponents – with the fait accompli.
That the meeting between the two is near, very near in fact, has been hinted at by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the pontifical council for Christian unity.
In a January 23 interview with the journalist and fellow Swiss countryman Giuseppe Rusconi, Koch said:
“It is clear that Pope Francis ardently desires such a meeting. Kirill too is in agreement. Now the stoplight is not red anymore, but yellow.”
And he recalled as close to becoming reality the words that Francis said on the flight from Turkey to Rome: “I told Kirill: ‘I’ll go wherever you want, you call me and I’ll come’.”
In less than a month the two really will call each other. Francis from Mexico. Kirill from Cuba. For the historic meeting so longed for by both.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.