In the first meeting ever between a pope and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow will sit face to face next week in Havana.
The meeting is scheduled next Friday at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, where the pontiff will make a stop on a previously scheduled trip to Mexico. Patriarch Kirill will be in Cuba on an official visit that’s part of a swing through Latin America that also includes stops in Paraguay and Brazil.
In a joint statement Friday, the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow said the meeting “will be the first in history and will mark an important stage in relations between the two churches.” The Western and Eastern branches of Christianity split in 1054, giving rise to Eastern Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics.
“The Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate hope that it will also be a sign of hope for all people of good will. They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits,” the statement said. After the two religious leaders conclude their talk, they’re scheduled to sign a joint declaration in Russian and Italian.
“I think it’s a happy coincidence that the pope was flying over Cuba on his way to Mexico at the same time Patriarch Kirill was visiting Cuba,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. “That it is happening in Cuba is perhaps a curiosity.”
But the meeting wasn’t improvised, said Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. It has been under discussion for the past two years and with both leaders’ schedules taking them to Latin America, Cuba was selected as a “neutral place.”
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, who chairs the Russian church’s external relations department, said Cuban leader Raúl Castro had repeatedly invited Patriarch Kirill to Cuba and he finally decided his visit should coincide with the 45th anniversary of the consecration of Our Lady of Kazan, a Russian Orthodox Church that is a landmark near the Old Havana waterfront. Kirill directly supervised construction of the church, which was built during an era when the Soviet Union was Cuba’s chief benefactor.
During his visit Patriarch Kirill is expected to meet with both Raúl and Fidel Castro. Pope Francis, who played a role in the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, met with both Castros when he visited the island in September.
The Russian Orthodox Church uses an Eastern liturgy, but the chief difference between the two is the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t accept the pope’s authority.
Although the schism between the two churches has stretched on for nearly a millennium, the Vatican began making overtures to the Russian Orthodox Church during the papacy of John Paul II and even somewhat before that. John Paul had said that the Catholic Church must “breathe with two lungs” — rather than one lung for the Latin Rite and one for the Eastern churches.
“It was a dream of John Paul II to visit Russia, but he was never able to go,” said Wenski. “He wouldn’t go without an invitation from the Russian Orthodox Church and he never got it.”
Relations soured over conflicts over church policy in Ukraine and the Russian Orthodox Church’s contention that Catholic missionaries were proselytizing in the Moscow Patriarchate.
“The fact that this meeting is taking place is huge,” said Wenski. “This means we’ve turned a page in engagement between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church and that is a very good thing. Pope Francis tells us this God is a God of surprises and he is a pope of surprises.”
Conflicts in the Middle East and Africa “in which extremists are perpetrating a real genocide of the Christian population has required urgent measures and closer cooperation between Christian churches,” said Metropolitan Hilarion during a news conference Friday. “It is necessary to put aside internal disagreements and unite efforts for saving Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to the most severe persecution.”
There are several Russian Orthodox churches in Florida, including St. Vladimir and the Apostolic Mission of Christ in Miami and St. Matrona in Hallandale Beach. Archpriest Daniel McKenzie, rector of St. Vladimir, was not available for comment, but his wife Sophia said, “We’re not abreast enough of the the situation to answer questions.”