Despite the fact the always-correct and never-hyperbolic traditional Catholic website Rorate Caeli said it would never, ever happen, Pope Francis is set to make history on February 12 when he meets with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Two essential pieces of Catholic commentary on the event are Adam DeVille’s article from Our Sunday Visitor, “When Pope Meets Patriarch,” and the statement released by the Metropolitan Andrey Skeptytsky Institute, housed at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario. So far I have not been able to find (in English) any concentrated Orthodox commentary on the upcoming meeting, though a recent press conference held by Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) seems to downplay the ecumenical significance of the event while reminding everyone that Moscow still has a beef with the “Unia” (that is, the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine). No soberminded person—Catholic or Orthodox—should look on the meeting as much more than a small, but significant, step in warming relations between the two largest Christian confessions in the world and, hopefully, opening a pathway to establishing greater cooperation on issues of common interest in the future. The central (advertised) point of the February 12 meeting will be the persecution of Christians in the Middle East with a joint declaration expected to be signed.
Although the apparent aims and intents of Francis and Kirill’s meeting are quite modest, that doesn’t mean there aren’t nervous observers on both sides of the confessional divide. Some Ukrainian Greek Catholics are understandably worried that Francis will throw their interests under the bus in order to appease Kirill, a real (though hopefully unlikely) possibility given the Moscow Patriarchate’s decades-long insistence that the very existence of the UGCC was a barrier to any meeting between pope and patriarch. Francis—the “pope of surprises”—could cut the other way, of course, stating in clear terms that the violence in Ukraine must stop and the freedom of the UGCC be respected. Orthodox observers, particularly those who buy into the Moscow Patriarchate’s “Russian World” ideology, will not be happy if Kirill appears to budge on the (problematic) idea that Ukraine, by right, belongs to Moscow. End of story. At the same time, non-Russian Orthodox may find it disconcerting that the Moscow Patriarchate appears to be drawing closer to Rome (at least strategically) and surmise that it is little more than a power play on the Russian Church’s part. Arguably the best possible outcome—at least at this stage in the game—is for both men to build enough trust in each other that they can move forward on a number of prickly issues in the near future. For now, Catholics and Orthodox should be pleased if the two sides can speak with one voice on the atrocious violence in the Middle East and the fate of the region’s historic Christian populations.