By Fr Mark Drew
(Catholic Herald) The reported first words of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill on their historic meeting – for historic it was, however hackneyed the word – were revealing. “Finally” said the Pontiff, adding “we are brothers”. Kirill was equally satisfied but perhaps less effusive: “Yes, things are much easier now”.
Easier no doubt because the Vatican, in its eagerness to secure a meeting that had eluded successive popes for decades, had allowed the Moscow Patriarchate largely to set the terms and the agenda for the meeting. Meeting in Havana, in a country where Russian political influence was once strong, the two men issued a carefully negotiated joint statement whose final form was agreed only a matter of hours before, no doubt after minute negotiations and searching scrutiny from officials on both sides.
There is a commitment to work towards unity: “It is our hope that our meeting may contribute to the re–establishment of this unity willed by God”. This might seem self-evident to Western Christians, but the Orthodox involvement in ecumenism is hotly contested by influential voices in Russia and elsewhere. For this reason Moscow stressed from the outset that Pope and Patriarch would not pray together. So, committing himself to seeking restored communion is not lacking in courage on Kirill’s part.
Nonetheless the main emphasis of the text is on common witness and action ad extra. There is an insistence on the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as on the general suffering caused by conflicts there, with Syria and Iraq mentioned explicitly, and a plea on behalf of the two Orthodox bishops of Aleppo held captive since 2013. A strong plea is made for a reversal of the conditions which threaten the ancient Christian communities in these lands with extinction or permanent exile. The language is somewhat stronger than Francis has generally used in public, and some will be wondering why it has taken Kirill’s involvement to persuade the Pope to adopt a more combative tone.
The same consideration applies to the firm words the statement contains on the need to counter the advance of secularism and the promotion of traditional Christian moral values. The defence of the family, based on heterosexual marriage and requiring openness to procreation, is reinforced by an explicit condemnation of cohabitation, abortion and euthanasia.
There is much reference to dialogue and mutual respect, not only between Christians but also between adherents of different religions and world views. This too is more of a reflection of Francis and the Vatican’s priorities than those of the patriarchate... (continued)