Shortly before the papal plane touched down in Havana, a photo appeared on the internet purporting to show the historic encounter between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill. The image presented the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Moscow in full ecclesiastical dress chatting in an empty airport café over a lukewarm cappuccino. That picture was, of course, Photoshopped, but it captured the oddness of last week’s momentous tête-à-tête.
History will record that the first pope-patriarch meeting in history took place at the José Martí International Airport in Havana. Why did the men decide to meet, as The Economist put it, in “secular premises in a Marxist-run island”? According to the Moscow Patriarchate, it was because the rift between Catholics and Orthodox Christians opened in the Old World, but reconciliation must begin in the New.
There are less poetic reasons, too. Russia and Cuba remain close and the latter’s communist regime treats the Patriarch with the utmost respect. The day after the papal meeting Kirill received Cuba’s highest honour from Raúl Castro. Francis also has a surprising bond with the grim-faced dictator and an evident love of the Cuban people. The secular setting was actually an advantage: there was no need to worry about who would sit where in a cathedral or whether the two men would pray together in public (the Russian side made clear this would be unacceptable).
The meeting itself was largely private, but the lengthy common declaration released immediately afterwards suggests the men discussed the persecution of the Middle Eastern faithful, the need for a joint defence of Christian values and Catholic-Orthodox tensions in Ukraine. The meeting and the text clearly represent a major ecumenical breakthrough. Francis should be praised for achieving something his predecessors could only dream of. Patriarch Kirill ought to be applauded for defying intense anti-Catholic sentiment within the Russian world.
But amid the euphoria searching questions are being asked. Did the Vatican give too much away in return for the longed-for encounter? Has Moscow elbowed aside Constantinople as Rome’s chief Orthodox interlocutor? Has the Vatican betrayed the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the target of much Muscovite ire? According to several commentators the answer to these questions is a qualified yes.
Vatican watcher John Allen believes that “Kirill got far more out of Friday’s meeting than Francis”, while our own analyst, Fr Mark Drew, says that “Moscow now looks like it has been accepted by Rome as privileged partner in the dialogue, at the possible expense of Constantinople”. The Ukrainian Catholic Major Archbishop Svyatoslav Shevchuk, meanwhile, reports that the text “led to deep disappointment among many believers in our Church and other concerned Ukrainians”.
The Vatican is likely to urge critics to take the long view: not to judge the meeting now, but in five, 10 or a hundred years, when pope-patriarch meetings may well be routine. There is much wisdom in this, but it is right that such a significant event receives proper scrutiny. According to a famous Russian proverb, “a stranger’s soul is like a dark forest”. That’s a saying Rome should bear in mind as it seeks to deepen its friendship with Moscow.
An open secret
This week’s BBC Panorama programme, The Secret Letters of John Paul II, presented by the Catholic journalist Edward Stourton, was certainly revealing, though perhaps not in the way that Mr Stourton may have hoped. The news that St John Paul II had an “intense” friendship with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a Polish married academic who lived in America, pointed to the human side of the late pontiff, without ever delivering anything that might justify some of the more lurid headlines the story generated.
St John Paul, like many other great men of history, lived an intense life at many levels. He was devoted to solitude, contemplation and prayer, in the Carmelite mystical tradition, and gave Professor Tymieniecka a scapular, which is just the sort of gift a spiritual father would give to a disciple. When not alone, he was surrounded by a circle of men and women who were devoted to him, and with whom he shared intellectual and other pursuits, such as walking, skiing and swimming. Professor Tymieniecka was a philosopher herself, an expert on Husserl, and also a lover of the outdoors; as cardinal, Karol Wojtyła visited her country house in America, which he clearly enjoyed.
It is reassuring to know that someone like St John Paul was never lonely, but lived a fulfilled, chaste and emotionally rich life. But we already knew this; nor was Professor Tymieniecka and her connection to the late Pope unknown either. The disappointing element of the programme was its assumption that priests, cardinals and even popes should somehow be above friendship. All human beings need friends. John Paul was intensely human – which is one of the reasons he is a saint, as grace presupposes nature and brings it to perfection, as the great Thomas Aquinas reminds us.
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