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The Patriarch Meets the Pope

An Examination of the Outcome of the Meeting between the Heads of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches

Ambassador Prabhat P Shukla

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All-Russia and Pope Francis met in Havana on 12 February 2016 – the first-ever meeting between the heads of the two Churches. The Russian Orthodox Church is part of the Eastern Communion, and hence part of the Great East-West Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity, which took place in 1054. Nonetheless, its relations with the Catholic Church have followed their own distinct path over the last thousand years, since the Schism.

The two leaders issued a Joint Statement which covers issues both spiritual and worldly. In fact, the well-spring for the meeting, according to several commentaries, was the plight of the Christian communities in West Asia and North Africa. And, not unexpectedly, the two religious heads express concern over the violence against Christians [without specifying who is committing this violence] and call upon the international community to take action to prevent such acts, and the cleansing of the Christian communities from the region. If that sounds like the launch of another Crusade, it probably is, though against an unnamed enemy. Confirmation of this has been forthcoming in recent days, with Patriarch Kirill openly declaring Holy War on terrorism, making it clear where that terrorism needed to be defeated – in West Asia.

The second big issue the leaders tackled was the proselytising of the Orthodox by the Catholics – a long-standing grievance. The following excerpt from the Statement indicates that Patriarch Kirill got an assurance that this practice would end:

Orthodox and Catholics are united not only by the shared Tradition of the Church of the first millennium, but also by the mission to preach the Gospel of Christ in the world today. This mission entails mutual respect for members of the Christian communities and excludes any form of proselytism.

And later:

Consequently, it cannot be accepted that disloyal means be used to incite believers to pass from one Church to another, denying them their religious freedom and their traditions.

In plain language, the Orthodox and Catholics should together spread the word [ie, convert] in the outside world, and not try and convert each other. Separately, the Pope has also stated that Jews should also not be targets for conversion. Taken together, this implies that it will be in Asia that the effort to spread the word will be focused. There is the pro forma reference to the need for Christians to respect the religious traditions of other people, but there is some scepticism even among the Orthodox as to the practical relevance of such understandings. The real import of these words is discussed further below.

The issue in the Orthodox-Catholic dispute that is probably the sharpest today is that of Unia, or the Uniate churches in several countries that have predominantly Orthodox populations – especially Greece and Ukraine. Under this practice, Orthodox churches continue their rites, but pledge allegiance to Rome; in effect, this is conversion by another name. The two leaders seem to have settled on an unstable compromise; they accepted that the Unia was not the way to overcome the division between them, but also that the existing Uniate churches have the right to continue to function and serve their followers. This has not gone down well on either side, and the Orthodox believers have been particularly critical of the Patriarch on this account. So have the Uniates, especially in Ukraine, but the target of their criticism has been Pope Francis.

The Patriarch and the Pope also pronounce on several other sensitive issues. The first is to declare that “Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots”. The two also criticise the growing secularism in western countries, and pronounce on some of the most contentious current social issues as one would expect religious leaders to do. They declare that marriage is a union of a man and a woman, and other unions cannot be equated to this. They also decry abortion and uphold the role of the family. At a time when all this is being challenged by large sections of Western society, this kind of attitude will play into the growing fissures in those countries, and will no doubt be welcomed on the right.

Lastly, there are some references to the arcane ecclesial issues that have long divided the two Churches. The desire for unity has been repeated and has been standard fare for some decades now, but the description of Jesus as “Man-God” has played negatively among some of the more committed Orthodox believers. This goes to the heart of the original Schism, and will continue to bedevil relations. This is acknowledged by the two men, who state that they are “mindful of the permanence of many obstacles”.

To understand the significance of all this, it is instructive to delve into the background of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. Strange as it may seem, the Patriarchate of the Russian Church, founded in the late 16th Century, was restored by the Communists in 1917 – it had been abolished by Peter the Great in 1721. It was only during the Second World War, however, that Stalin really reconciled with the Church – though he had himself been a student at a seminary in Georgia as a young man. The Russian Church itself was a latecomer to Christianity, in 988 AD, and was thus subordinate to the older See of Constantinople. It was only after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans that the Russian Church – and the Russian Empire – began to grow; today, it is the dominant part of the Orthodox communion, in numbers and influence.

During this period, the Papacy had been resolutely anti-Soviet. It was only after the death of Stalin and of Pope Pius XII that relations began to improve. Pope John XXIII, who succeeded to the Papacy in 1958, began the outreach to the Soviet Union as part of his Ostpolitik. He was keen to reunite the Churches, and was therefore interested in inviting representatives of the Russian Church to the Second Vatican Council. This was part of John XXIII’s ambitious move to relax some of the doctrines of the Catholic Church in order to reach out to the rest of the world, lay and ecclesiastical. It is said that the Soviets and the Pope did a deal under which the Vatican Council would not criticise godless atheism, and, in return, the Russian Church would be represented at the Vatican Council.

Thereafter, in the period 1966-67, Foreign Minister Gromyko and later President Podgorny visited the Vatican and met the Pope – Paul VI by then. However, there was little by way of follow-up until the USSR and the Vatican established diplomatic relations in 1990. But it was after the break-up of the USSR that the relationship gathered speed, not only between the Churches but more so between the secular leaders of Russia and the Popes.

On the side of the Church, the current Patriarch, Kirill, had met Benedict XVI when he was head of the Church external relations. He also wrote the introduction to the Russian edition of Benedict’s book on Christianity. After becoming Patriarch in 2009, he appointed as head of external relations Archbishop Hilarion, who was educated at Oxford, and had served in Vienna as the Church Bishop and Representative to the European institutions. Benedict, however, had strong views on matters of faith, and had declared – as the former Cardinal Ratzinger – that the Orthodox Church was ossified and unwilling to change; later, he had been part of the team that declared that the Catholic Church was the one true church. On the ecclesial side, things began to improve after Pope Francis’ election.

As to the political side, both Gorbachev and Yeltsin had had meetings with the Pope [John Paul II], but Putin has set an altogether new pace. He met John Paul II twice, Benedict XVI once, when they conversed in German, and the current Pope twice – in 2013 and 2015. It is believed that Putin was the one who encouraged the Patriarch to meet the Pope. Kirill himself had been reluctant to hold a meeting just yet, fearing that his flock was not ready for such an event, and that the meeting would play negatively within the country.

Summing up, the meeting of the Patriarch and the Pope was indeed historic, though it was not directly related to the Great East-West Schism of 1054. Since the mid-1960’s it has more or less been agreed that unity of the two Churches is desirable, but doctrinal disputes have proved difficult to overcome. Progress has been further slowed by opposition within the ranks of both Churches.


The Orthodox followers have been particularly dismayed by the doctrinal concessions they accuse the Patriarch of having made. One of sharpest criticisms on this account was carried by the web magazine, “Russia Insider”, written by a former Army officer. He declared that a significant minority of the Orthodox were strongly opposed to the agreements reached in Havana, and picked up three issues of faith as being particularly against Orthodox belief. The first was the God-Man nature of Jesus, although the Orthodox do also believe formally that Jesus was both God and Man. But many among the Orthodox reject this and hold to the original Nicene Creed [“Jesus became Man”] because, in their view, the duality invalidates the Passion, the suffering on the Cross, and the Resurrection. These are all abstruse matters, no doubt, but very real for the believers.

More significant differences dividing the two Churches, from a practical point of view, are two other issues – the primacy of the Pope, and the question of conversions. On both, there are suspicions, natural among the weaker party to any negotiations, that concessions were made to the Pope’s view. The words of the Joint Statement seem to suggest otherwise on the issue of conversions, and that of Papal primacy was not mentioned at all. Nevertheless, the suspicion persists. Matters were made worse by a remark attributed to Hilarion, Head of External Relations of the Russian Church, to the effect that these were “matters of detail”.

The real significance of the meeting lies in the geo-politics of the interaction between the Russian religious and political establishment and the Papacy. Among the believers, of all denominations, in Europe [admittedly an embattled minority], Putin is emerging as a Christian hero. He is willing to defend the faith, and also unafraid to adopt conservative social positions, whether on LGBT rights, or on the fight against terrorism and the interface with Islam. There is talk again of Moscow as the third Rome, as much of Western Europe moves towards secularism, and church attendance drops rapidly.

Putin is a genuine believer in upholding these Christian values, while himself being all too human, of course. But he is primarily a Russian nationalist, and his grand vision and strategy is to unite all of Europe in one common space. At heart, this is but a revival of the Moscow-Berlin axis, and would weaken the role of the US in Eurasia.

There is a conviction among many believers on both sides of the divide that the Churches can play a role in bringing about the fulfillment of this vision of a united Europe. It would be fair to suggest that this is one of the principal considerations, if not the principal consideration, driving Putin to seek to overcome the religious divide in Europe. This accords with his geo-political vision as well, and is focussed primarily on a closer Moscow-Berlin understanding.

This alone would make the meeting historic – the start a serious process of unity between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholics. Equally important is the implication of this for Ukraine and the Middle East. In the latter especially, the strong stand of the religious leaders provides additional support for the military action launched by the Russians in Syria. In fact, it is striking that Putin met the Pope a second time shortly before that military action. The Realpolitik aspect of the visit was confirmed by the fact that the US Ambassador to the Vatican asked the Pope to take a tougher stand on Ukraine during the meeting. On this score, however, the Pope evidently did not oblige, and the wording of the Joint Statement indicates that Ukraine will not be a divisive issue between the two Churches, or between Russia and the Vatican.

The issue of conversions is not going away, and the Pope did little to change this. Perhaps he cannot: as was mentioned in the Synod of Asian Bishops in 1999, when Pope John Paul II visited Delhi [when he also said Mass on Deepavali day]

Vatican II taught clearly that the entire Church is missionary, and that the work of evangelization is the duty of the whole People of God.

And further:

From the Christian point of view, interreligious dialogue is more than a way of fostering mutual knowledge and enrichment; it is a part of the Church's evangelizing mission.

From the point of view of both non-Catholics and non-Christians, the apprehensions regarding conversions would seem to be justified. Certainly, among the Orthodox, suspicions continue.

Of course, the Russian Church is also actively defending its turf. In Russia, there are four established religions, derived from their history. These are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. With the growing popularity of Yoga, and interest in Hindu philosophy, opposition to these is also growing. There has been a proposal, now pending for over a decade, for a temple to be built in Moscow, and the paperwork has been done. But the final clearances are not forthcoming.

During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Moscow last year, a Muslim singer, Sati Kazanova, sang the Saraswati Vandana at his civic reception, and promised to help in the construction of the temple. The Prime Minister himself made reference to this, in his speech at the reception.

All of this will be affected by the development of the Catholic-Orthodox interaction, and the further progress of this complex process will need to be followed with attention. It has implications for the interface between Christians and non-Christians in Asia in particular, and hence for India, probably more than elsewhere.

April 2016,

New Delhi.

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