(Vatican Radio) The Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church announced on Friday that Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill will hold a historic first encounter in Cuba on February 12th. A statement released jointly in Moscow and in Rome said the meeting will mark “an important stage in relations” between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and a “sign of hope for all people of good will”.
Pope Francis announced at the start of the Jubilee year of mercy that he himself intended to make some practical gestures showing God’s mercy to the world on one Friday of each month. Friday February 12th may prove to be the most significant of all those gestures, as the leader of the Catholic world and the head of the largest Orthodox Church meet together to show that, despite the issues still dividing them, they are determined to pursue the path of mercy, forgiveness and the restoration of full Christian unity.
The historic encounter has been years in the making, at least since the fall of the Soviet Union, when Pope John Paul II first expressed his desire to visit Russia and further the reconciliation of East and Western Christianity which officially divided in 1054. Since then there have been several behind-the-scenes attempts to orchestrate a meeting between popes and patriarchs, but political and religious tensions continued to stand in the way.
Warming of Catholic-Orthodox relations
Following a significant warming of relations – Cardinal Koch of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity travelled to Moscow and Metropolitan Hilarion came to Rome four times last year – the opportunity arose for a meeting on neutral territory in Cuba. The island nation was a key ally of Moscow during the Cold War and more recently Pope Francis played an important role in the rapprochement between Washington and Havana.
Two hour private conversation at Havana airport
The Pope will stop over at Havana airport en route to Mexico City, while Patriarch Kirill will arrive the previous day at the start of a visit to three Latin American nations. They will have a two hour private conversation, in Spanish and Russian, with just their interpreters and closest advisers present in the airport salon. They will exchange gifts and sign a joint declaration before speaking briefly with journalists to share their impressions and expectation. Both leaders have asked Christians everywhere to pray for this encounter, a practical sign of healing, forgiveness and great hope for the future.