Cuba, the last symbol of resurgence of the Cold War before the thaw between Washington and Havana, has now become the place where another turning point in terms of international relations takes place: the first meeting between the Roman Pontiff (as an institution and regardless of who incarnates this role) and the Patriarch of all Russia, the spiritual leader of the largest Orthodox community in the world. It is not a coincidence that Moscow is called the “Third Rome” since, in terms of authority, it comes immediately after the Eternal City and Constantinople (now Istanbul).
The laceration between the two oldest Christian denominations matured in the Middle Ages, when Rome and Byzantium began to compete in terms of authority and power. The “Great Schism” occurred in 1054 with the mutual excommunication of the two Churches, based theologically on the issue of the “Filioque” (that is, on the fact that for the Latin tradition, the Holy Spirit comes also from the Son, while for the Greek it does not). Nonetheless, the real reason of the conflict concerned the Pope’s prerogatives, in particular whether he had any jurisdiction on other patriarchal sees and if yes, what was its nature, (i.e., founded Churches directly from the Apostles of Jesus). Everyone recognized the Pope a kind of “honor” primacy, but many did not accept the fact that he could exercise administrative power. Moreover, after the collapse of the Western bloc, Constantinople became also the capital and refused to submit to a foreign political power.
Orthodoxy, however, is not monolithic, but divided, in its turn, into different churches. A rapprochement with Byzantium, for example, took place in 1964 thanks to a meeting between Paul VI and Athenagoras I. Whereas the meeting with the Russian patriarchate, historically later than the Byzantine, will occur only today. The collapse of the Soviet bloc, which – with ups and downs – determined Moscow’s openness towards the West and gave greater scope to a confession held for decades under the tight control of political power, was decisive from this point of view. It is soon, however, to speak of unity. It is just a first step towards a common goal: the reconciliation of all the faithful into the space of one Church.
The meeting between Francis and Kirill is a masterpiece of ecumenism that realizes John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s unfulfilled dream. It is also the result of a complex dialogue, with many tense moments, especially during the Cold War. Bergoglio continues a process his predecessors had begun. Yet, he was able to accelerate it, sending more than once signs of openness towards the East. Also the effort towards greater collegiality of the Church played a decisive role. Last October 17, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Synod, the Pope called for a “healthy decentralization” of the ecclesiastical apparatus. The Pope said on that occasion that “he is not above the Church on his own; but inside it, as a baptized man among other baptized men, and inside the Episcopal college, as a bishop among other bishops.” A more and more synodic Church, according to the Holy Father,” will give more light to Peter’s ministry” because to be “sub Petro does not mean restricting freedom, but ensuring unity.” This “conversion of the papacy” was, of course, received with satisfaction by the Orthodox.