If you’ve been following the news you may know that Pope Francis recently met with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill. This was the first time a Pope has met with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. The historic encounter took place in Cuba as Pope Francis was on his way to Mexico to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Recent popes had tried to broker a meeting with the Russian Patriarch without success. It is truly a grace from God that this encounter finally took place.
Why was this meeting so important? The Russian Orthodox Church is largest branch of Eastern Orthodoxy. For the first 1000 years of Christianity the Churches of the West (Rome) and East (Constantinople) were united. Then, in 1054 these two historic branches of Christianity became estranged over theological and political issues. Over the last fifty years progress has been made towards healing this rift, including the lifting of mutual excommunications. But relations with the Russian Orthodox have remained tense. The meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill signals a warming of relations.
Reunion with the Orthodox Church would bring together the two largest Christian bodies. Because the Orthodox have preserved the tradition of the Apostles (priesthood, sacraments, morality, etc.) they remain closest to us. In fact, St. Pope John Paul II famously spoke of the Church breathing with two lungs – East (Orthodox) and West (Catholic). The meeting between Francis and Kirill is a further step towards the restoration of full communion between us. As they said in their joint Declaration: “It is with joy that we have met like brothers in the Christian Faith….”
Why did this meeting happen now? In their joint Declaration the Pope and Patriarch indicated the need for a common witness and response to several contemporary issues. First and foremost they addressed the persecution of Christians in places like Syria and Iraq where the Church is being targeted and the majority of Christian faithful have been forced to flee. They also spoke to the exclusion of Christian voices in the secular west. The Declaration goes on to address concerns regarding traditional marriage and family life, abortion and euthanasia. To read the entire statement, visit the Vatican website: http://w2.vatican.va.
As we continue our Lenten journey may we pray that this historic meeting will bear lasting fruit in the life of the Church. Perhaps we can offer our Lenten penance in a special way for the unity of Christians, especially for the healing of the divisions between Catholics and Orthodox. As brothers (and sisters!) may our family soon be able to share at the same table of the Lord.