Pope Meets with Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Healing 1000-year Schism

A millennium-old feud showed signs of ending today, as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentinian Jesuit priest who, as Pope Francis, heads the Roman Catholic Church met with Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, who as Patriarch Cyril (or Kirill) heads the Russian Orthodox Church.  There had been no such meeting between a Pope and Russian Patriarch since the Great Schism of 1054, also called the East-West Schism.  In a wood-paneled VIP room at Havana's José Martí International Airport, Pope Francis and Patriarch Cyril embraced and kissed one another three times on the cheek.

In 1054, strained relations between Rome and Constantinople led to the closure of some Greek churches in southern Italy, which caused the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, to shutter all Latin rite churches in his city.  When Cerularius refused demands of a papal legation, its leader, Cardinal Humbert, excommunicated him, and Cerularius in turn excommunicated Humbert.  There had been mutual excommunications before, but this time they led to a permanent schism.  The schism was made worse by a massacre of Latin-rite Christians in Constantinople in 1182, a retaliatory Latin strike on Thessalonica in 1185, and the sack, partial destruction, and looting of Constantinople by Latin crusaders in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade.  The Byzantine Empire never fully recovered from the damage inflicted in 1204, and in 1453 Constantinople was captured by the Turks and renamed Istanbul.

In 1965, as part of Vatican II, Pope Paul and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople issued a joint expression of regret for the actions that led to the Great Schism, and lifted the 900-year-old mutual excommunications. (But, of course, the see of Constantinople was by that time largely ceremonial, with few believers remaining after 500 years of Muslim rule.)  In 1999, Pope John Paul II visited Romania, the first papal visit to an Eastern Orthodox country since the schism.  Upon greeting John Paul II, the Romanian Patriarch Teoctist stated: "The second millennium of Christian history began with a painful wounding of the unity of the Church; the end of this millennium has seen a real commitment to restoring Christian unity."

So although there have been tentative steps toward repairing the schism, today’s meeting of pope and patriarch is probably the most important such step ever undertaken.

After handshakes for the cameras and greetings with members of their entourages, the two men sat and began talking.  They engaged in a two-hour conversation and then signed a joint declaration, the full of text of which can be found here

In the Joint Declaration, the two men express “determination to undertake all that is necessary to overcome the historical divergences we have inherited . . .”  They note the fierce and ongoing persecution of Christians in Muslim lands, and call for interreligious dialogue.  They give thanks for the religious revival in Russia, where “the chains of militant atheism have been broken.”  The complain about growing secularism in Europe, which relegates religious faith “to the margins of public life.”  They extol heterosexual marriage and “regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level.”  They urge Catholics and Orthodox in all countries to learn to live together in peace and love, with specific mention of Greece and the Ukraine, where Orthodox and Catholic have not been on good terms. 

Finally, they both extoll the “mother of God”:

“With grace–filled gratitude for the gift of mutual understanding manifested during our meeting, let us with hope turn to the Most Holy Mother of God, invoking her with the words of this ancient prayer: ‘We seek refuge under the protection of your mercy, Holy Mother of God.’ May the Blessed Virgin Mary, through her intercession, inspire fraternity in all those who venerate her, so that they may be reunited, in God’s own time, in the peace and harmony of the one people of God, for the glory of the Most Holy and indivisible Trinity!”

This giant step toward the repair of the East-West Schism is significant.  It comes on the heels of the pope’s address, last fall, to a joint session of the United States Congress, the first such in history.  The meeting’s location in Cuba reminds us of Pope Francis’ role as mediator between the Castro brothers and President Obama in reaching the agreement to restore U.S. diplomatic relations with a still-communist Cuba.

This is yet more evidence that the deadly wound is being healed.  Rev. 13:3.