Pope Francis prepares to embrace Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow after the leaders signed a joint declaration during a meeting at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana Feb 12.

CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING

Pope Francis prepares to embrace Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow after the leaders signed a joint declaration during a meeting at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana Feb 12.

February 22, 2016
CINDY WOODEN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

At long last, Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow embraced, kissing each other three times.

"Finally," the pope told the patriarch Feb. 12 as they met in a lounge at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport. "We are brothers," he told the patriarch.

Amid the clicking of cameras and multiple flashes, Patriarch Kirill was overheard telling the pope, "Things are easier now."

"It is clearer that this is God's will," Pope Francis told him.

A flight of almost 12 hours capped months of intense negotiations and more than two decades of Vatican overtures to bring a pope and a Russian patriarch together for the first time.

Cuban President Raul Castro played host to the pope and patriarch, who was on a visit to Russian Orthodox communities on the island-nation.

Pope Francis had a pastoral visit to Mexico planned for months; the stop in Havana was announced only a week before the meeting.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill signed a joint declaration that emphasized the things the two churches have in common.

While the two leaders insisted on the need to stop the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa and condemned abortion and euthanasia, they used much more careful language to discuss two issues that made their meeting so surprising: the life of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the war in Eastern Ukraine.

In their statement, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill said all Christians - Catholic or Orthodox - are called to preach the Gospel. "This mission entails mutual respect for members of the Christian communities and excludes any form of proselytism."

Without providing specific examples or any clarification, the statement denounced "disloyal means" used "to entice believers to pass from one Church to another."

The pope and patriarch said they hoped their meeting would "contribute to reconciliation" wherever there is tension between Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholics, who share the same spiritual and liturgical heritage.

Using language similar to that found in a 1993 document of the international Roman Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue, the two leaders said "uniatism" - incorporating one portion of a church into another - "is not the way to re-establish unity."

However, the two leaders, like the 1993 document, acknowledged that "the ecclesial communities which emerged in these historical circumstances have the right to exist" and to do what is necessary to minister to their faith.

They also spoke of the need to be vigilant against European integration that is "devoid of respect for religious identities." The statement went on to address extreme poverty, the "millions of migrants and refugees knocking on the doors of wealthy nations" and consumerism.

The leaders also addressed life issues: abortion, euthanasia, new reproductive technologies and threats against the churches' view of marriage.

After they signed the document, the two leaders embraced, and each spoke briefly.

RESPONSIBILITY

Patriarch Kirill said they had a two-hour, "open discussion with full awareness of the responsibility we have for our people, for the future of Christianity, and for the future of human civilization itself.

"The results of the conversation allow me to assure that currently both churches can cooperate together to defend Christians around the world; with full responsibility to work together so that there may be no war; so that human life can be respected in the entire world; so that the foundations of human, family and social morality may be strengthened through the participation of the church in the life of human modern society."

Pope Francis said: "We spoke as brothers, we share the same Baptism, we are bishops, we spoke about our churches. We agreed that unity is done walking (together).

"We spoke clearly without mincing words. I confess that I felt the consolation of the Spirit in this dialogue."

The addition of a stopover in Cuba was widely seen as a sign of Pope Francis' willingness to go the extra mile to reach out a hand in friendship.

BOWED TO NO ONE

At the same time, observers said, it gave those Russian Orthodox opposed to ecumenism a sense that their Church is special and that it bowed to no one in agreeing to the meeting.

In a commentary distributed Feb. 11, Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Borys Gudziak of Paris said: "The pope is demonstrating humility; he is going to the territory of the other. In the eyes of nostalgic Russians, Cuba is almost home territory, a last outpost of a lost Soviet Empire."

PERSECUTED CHRISTIANS

For decades, the Russian Orthodox told the Vatican that a meeting between the patriarch and pope was impossible because of the activities of Latin-rite Catholics in Russia and, especially, the Eastern-rite Catholics in Ukraine.

The Moscow Patriarchate had said that while those problems still exist with the Catholic communities, they take a backseat to the urgency of defending together the rights and very existence of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

The harsh persecution of Christians and other minorities in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the region has been a cause Pope Francis has pleaded before world leaders and for which he has rallied the prayers of Christians across the globe.

TIES TO PUTIN

But the fate of persecuted Christians was not the pope's primary motive for meeting Patriarch Kirill. Simply meeting him was the point.

Ukrainians, Catholic or not, have expressed concerns about Pope Francis' meeting with Patriarch Kirill given the patriarch's apparently close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a time of ongoing fighting in Eastern Ukraine.

Later, aboard the papal flight from Havana to Mexico, the pope told reporters, "I felt an interior joy that truly came from the Lord" when meeting with the patriarch.

UNITY THROUGH WALKING

"It was a conversation of brothers," Pope Francis said. The conversation was marked by freedom and "complete frankness."

They discussed concrete proposals for working together, "because unity is made by walking," the pope said. Even if the goal of full unity is not reached in this lifetime, "at least when the Lord comes, he'll find us walking."