Pope Francis was expected to hold a historic meeting with the Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill in Cuba today.
The Pope was to meet the patriarch in Havana on his way to Mexico, the Vatican said. It would be the first-ever meeting of a Pope and Moscow patriarch, Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters.
The two were due to meet at Havana’s José Marti International Airport and plan to sign a joint declaration, Fr Lombardi said. Patriarch Kirill is making an official visit to the island nation. The meeting will “mark an important stage in relations between the two churches”, according to a joint declaration.
Holding a simple meeting with a Moscow patriarch, spiritual leader of the world’s largest Orthodox Church, was an unrealised dream of St John Paul II and an opportunity that escaped Benedict XVI too.
Repeatedly after the Soviet bloc began dissolving in 1989 and the once-repressed Eastern Catholic churches began functioning publicly again, Russian Orthodox leaders insisted there could be no meeting between a pope and a patriarch as long as Catholics were “proselytising” in what the Orthodox considered their territory.
The Vatican insisted that the Catholic Church rejects proselytism, which it defines as actively seeking converts from another Christian community, including through pressure or offering enticements.
St John Paul re-established the Latin-Rite Catholic hierarchy of Russia in 2002, which led to the Russian Orthodox withdrawing from dialogue with the Vatican for several years.
Ukrainian Church leader welcomes breakthrough
Ukrainian Catholic leaders have given a cautious welcome to news that Pope Francis will meet Patriarch Kirill in Cuba.
“I do not expect that the meeting of Pope Francis with Patriarch Kirill, planned for February 12, will bring any particular changes. Although it is good that the meeting will take place,” said Ukrainian Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, the major archbishop of the Church.
“I am pleased,” the archbishop said, “that we are no longer considered an obstacle and aren’t being used to justify one’s unwillingness to engage in such dialogue.”
Although both St John Paul II and Benedict XVI expressed hopes for a meeting with the Moscow patriarch, the Russian Orthodox insisted the activity of Ukrainian Catholics and Latin-rite Catholics in Russia amounted to “proselytism” and was an obstacle to such a meeting.
Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, director of foreign relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, said last week that the presence and activity of the Ukrainian Catholics were still an obstacle to fully normal Church relations.
Pontiff sends message to Mexico
Pope Francis has issued a video message to Mexico ahead of his visit, saying he is “a missionary of mercy and peace”.
The Pope said: “I want to be as close as possible to you, but in a special way to those who suffer, to hug them and tell them that Jesus … is always at their side.”