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Pope and Patriarch in Havana: A Watershed in More Ways Than One

'The historic encounter in Havana must be seen, in part, as an effort ... to avert impending disaster'

The author was Special Advisor to the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs under Ronald Reagan, director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau and is now Partner at Global Strategic Communications Group, a firm devoted to governmental relations and public advocacy.


The heads of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches -- Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, respectively -- will discuss aiding persecuted Christians when they meet in Havana – a matter on which the two churchmen are likely to agree.  The cosmic issues of church re-unification and inter-communion, and the complex of theological, ecclesiological and historical issues that flow in their wake will not be taken up.  That comes as no surprise. They could hardly be expected to undo centuries of mutual, sometimes bitter estrangement at a brief encounter at a lounge in Havana airport. 

Pope Francis is continuing in the vein of his predecessor Benedict XVI who relegated the cosmic inter-church issues to the back burner: he understood that their extreme complexity admitted of no easy solution, so he wisely left them to be sorted out by the Holy Ghost.  Instead, he sought increased cooperation between the two ancient, apostolic churches on the array of threats to both of them -- secular materialism, relativism, Europe's demographic decline, Islamic fundamentalism, anti-Christian persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere, among others. 

For Benedict, essential to the revival of Europe’s Christian roots is friendship and solidarity between the Catholic and Orthodox churches based on shared concerns. 

The establishment of such a relationship can, God willing, have the side-effect of giving impetus to a stable, long-lasting pan-European entente putting a definitive end to the European civil war that broke out in 1917 and continued through the Cold War, including its tense, unhappy aftermath in which we continue to live.

Francis alluded to mounting East-West tensions when he observed, in remarks in 2015 in Sarajevo, that “a kind of Third World War is being fought piecemeal”… “an atmosphere of war” hangs over the planet.   The historic encounter in Havana must be seen, in part, as an effort (however modest initially) to avert impending disaster.

Having said that, the joint announcement of the meeting has no doubt caused plenty of unhappiness in the ranks of both churches.  One can well imagine that Patriarch Kirill, owing to the long-standing suspicions and resentments (sadly, not entirely unfounded) that some of his flock harbor towards Rome, is under considerable pressure to cancel the meeting.  By the same token, one can well imagine that many Catholics in central and eastern Europe who oppose Russia will interpret the very fact that the meeting is taking place as Rome giving its imprimatur to Russia and Russian policy.

Such Catholics have expressed in the recent past disappointment (not to say chagrin) over the Holy See's failure to accuse Russia of having invaded Ukraine, its support for the Minsk II agreement, its refusal thus far to extend diplomatic recognition to Kosovo, and its hesitation to designate the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as patriarch.

For these very reasons, one must also assume that powerful elements in the US foreign policy and media establishment are less concerned about what the Pope and the Patriarch will discuss in Havana than the fact that the meeting is taking place at all. 

I refer to the ones who seek Russia's isolation and ultimate encirclement and defeat.  With their geo-strategic mind-set, they will see the Havana meeting as offering Moscow -- i.e., the Kremlin -- a splendid opportunity to counter-encircle the encirclement.  Those, like the U.S. Secretary of Defense, who recently labeled Russia (fatuously) as the no. 1 threat facing the United States, cannot be happy about this development.

It will be interesting to gauge the reaction of the Republican candidates for president, a number of whom have called (irresponsibly) for a U.S. no-fly zone over Syria, endless sanctions against Russia, and confronting Russia everywhere.  The fact that the meeting is taking place on Cuba as two G.O.P. politicians of Cuban descent slug it out in the primary only adds to its considerable interest.

One should not overdo the politics and the potential controversy in all of this.  There is also a serious, overarching spiritual dimension. 

If you believe that Christ desires the unity of the Church that he founded, you will certainly greet the meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch with joy.  It will not, in itself, bring about unity, and is not intended to, but it remains a joyous occasion because of who the Patriarch and the Pope are,  the promise entailed in their encounter, and the very idea that for all the challenges and difficulties that have engulfed the Christian church in these past many decades, the eyes of the world remain riveted on what these two successors to the Holy Apostles say and do.