Observations on the momentous Pope Francis-Patriarch Kirill meeting – including Daniel Philpott’s helpful posts here and here on ArcU- have offered us much food for thought this week.
To recap: many commentators have focused on the Kremlin’s apparent interests in securing such a meeting, on Patriarch Kirill’s problematic dependency on Putin, or on the Patriarch’s personal motives for agreeing to meet with Pope Francis at this particular time.
Andrea Gagliarducci, on the other hand, offers a cautiously skeptical account of the Vatican’s emerging “Ostpolitik”, contrasting it to the approach of previous Popes, and questioning whether it will be “successful” in theological terms.
Several commentators have honed in on controversial passages of the joint declaration signed by the two religious leaders, noting in particular paragraphs 25, 26 and 27, which refer to Ukraine. Some suspect that Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church played a leading role in their drafting, leading to claims that his office “exploited” the co-authors – the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, with Cardinal Kurt Koch at its helm.
It seems to me that all of these reflections – while highly relevant – fail to appreciate the essence of this recent encounter. As regards the meeting itself, it was Pope Francis’ insistence that he would go wherever necessary to meet the Patriarch that seems to have created the opening in the first place. And as regards the declaration, judging by my own experience of Russian diplomacy, and my personal encounter with Cardinal Koch, I do believe we have much to be grateful for. While negotiations on the declaration must have been tough – in some ways even disappointing – I believe that Koch’s graciousness and docility – paradoxically perhaps – made him the right man for the job (for more on the Catholic Church’s approach to achieving Christian unity, see 821-822 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church).
Furthermore, while Philpott rightly notes that, for all its apparent imperfections, “there is much in the declaration to appeal to”, there is one point that I believe has not yet resounded strongly enough: the declaration’s potential impact on ordinary members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Many of them are suspicious towards Catholics or members of other Churches independent of the Moscow Patriarchate. The meeting and joint declaration may encourage them to follow the example of their leader and seek out possibilities for encounter or dialogue with their brothers and sisters of other Churches or ecclesial communities. It is this kind of dynamic – this kind of renewed solidarity grounded in a reality that is greater than we are – that eventually led to the collapse of Communism following John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979. Just as ordinary people in Poland remember the transformative impact of John Paul II’s call on the Holy Spirit to “renew the face of the land” in 1979, the Orthodox faithful – particularly the youth – might rediscover in the joint declaration not only a common aspiration for peace and justice, but also a common language and deep common heritage so often betrayed during times of political propaganda, division and conflict. Sub Tuum…