EDITOR’S NOTE: In much of the world, Friday’s historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia in Havana, Cuba, will be hailed as a breakthrough. Attitudes are more mixed, however, in Ukraine, long the front line of tensions between Catholics and the Russian Orthodox.

There, the 5-million-strong Greek Catholic Church has suffered terribly for its loyalty to Rome, constituting the world’s largest underground religious body during the Soviet era, and it’s also a leader in civil resistance to the current Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.

In this essay commissioned by Crux, the Rev. Andriy Chirovsky, a Greek Catholic archpriest at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, who also serves as editor-in-chief of LOGOS, a journal of Eastern Christian studies, discusses the summit.

Among his key arguments:

  • Catholic/Orthodox unity is not some modern notion, since the leader of the Orthodox territory that included Russia came into union with Rome 600 years ago.
  • Since all Orthodox churches are staging a grand council in June for the first time in 1,000 years, Moscow has a clear political incentive for using a platform with the pope to boost its internal standing.
  • Many Russian Orthodox still have negative attitudes toward Catholics.
  • The Russian Orthodox have a tight relationship with the Kremlin, and Putin’s global ambitions may help explain why the meeting is happening.
  • While Pope Francis may know what he’s doing, Ukrainians have less confidence in the Vatican’s resolve.

The full text of Chirovsky’s essay follows.

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In all our dealings, the Lord encourages us to be wise as serpents while remaining innocent as doves. That’s a tall order, if you really think about it. In any negotiation, being as shrewd as a snake makes perfect sense. It’s being innocent as a dove that complicates matters.

Since most of the media have no clue as to what the Church is about, or what the Pope might be trying to accomplish at any moment, they are not the most reliable filter for figuring out the dove-to-serpent ratio in many a papal undertaking.

There’s no doubt that the brilliant Jesuit in Pope Francis is thinking several moves down the chessboard when he meets with the Patriarch of Moscow on Friday, but the other side is also calculating its risks. What is really going in this intriguing meeting?

Some history

Let’s set one thing straight from the start: The Patriarch of Moscow and the Pope of Rome have not been estranged for a thousand years, as many media accounts have suggested. A little history lesson will be quite instructive here.

The “Moscow Patriarchate” was only established in 1589. It was suppressed by the Czars from 1700 to 1917, and by the Bolsheviks from 1925 to 1943. The predecessor of the Patriarch of Moscow was styled “Metropolitan of Moscow,” and even this title goes back only to 1448.

Traditionally, the head of the Church in all of Rus’ (which includes today’s Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) was the Metropolitan of Kiev in Ukraine. It was only because Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev attended the Council of Florence in the mid-15th century, and vigorously supported union with Rome, that Moscow decided to break away and created the position of Metropolitan of Moscow, which was unrecognized by world Orthodoxy for nearly 150 years.

If the Russians today want to claim the previous 4 1/2 centuries of the Metropolitanate of Kiev, they have to deal with the fact that in the mid-15th century, the head of their Church was in full and visible communion with the pope of Rome.

The older “Church of Kiev” did not magically disappear. It still exists today in four variants.

In 1596 the Orthodox Metropolitan of Kiev, Michael Rohoza, and most of the bishops of this Church restored the Florentine model of unity, seeing themselves as part of the universal Catholic Church, in the “Union of Brest”. Their descendants constitute the largest of the 22 Eastern Catholic Churches, with some 5 million adherents, and are known today as Ukrainian Greek Catholics.

There’s also a much larger population of Ukrainian Christians who identify themselves as Orthodox, though not in communion with Rome. They’re divided among three communities:

  • The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Patriarchate of Kiev (largest by number of adherents).
  • The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (largest by number of parishes).
  • The much smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

The Moscow Patriarchate would like the world to believe that only its structures are legitimate in Ukraine, deriding the other two Orthodox Churches as schismatic renegades incapable of offering the faithful divine grace since their clergy and sacraments, indeed their whole Churches, are “uncanonical”.

‘Great wound’ in Catholic/Orthodox relations

Moscow considers the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to constitute the great wound between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Disparagingly referring to the members of this dynamic Church as “uniates,” Moscow consistently complains of “violent takeovers of churches” in western Ukraine by these Eastern Catholics.

This has been going on since the de-criminalization of the Greek Catholic Church on December 1, 1989 (the day that Mikhail Gorbachev met with Pope John Paul II).

But Moscow’s case fails on two very important points.

First of all, it neglects to mention that these churches all belonged to the Ukrainian Greek Catholics until 1946, when a pseudo-synod was held in Lviv. By no standards could this be construed as a legitimate council, since it was not attended by a single Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop; all had been arrested. It was orchestrated on Stalin’s orders by the secret police with the direct complicity of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The council supposedly broke the communion of this Church with Rome and “re-united” it with the Russian Orthodox Church. Most of its church buildings were given to the Moscow Patriarchate. Thus, the “seizing” of these church buildings by the parishioners who simply declared their allegiance to the Greek Catholic Church in 1989 and the years that followed is hardly some ecumenical setback.

In fact, I was witness to a misguided attempt by some “ecumenists” in 1990 to try to limit the resurgence of the Greek Catholic Church. They hoped these Eastern Catholics would choose either Roman-rite Catholicism or Orthodoxy, thus magically doing away with “the problem of the uniates”. The plan failed miserably, because millions of people clearly wanted to be who they already were: Orthodox Christians in full and visible communion with Rome.

The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church spent 10 years trying to deal in some adequate fashion with the reality of the restoration of religious liberty and the renewed open pastoral activity of several Eastern Catholic Churches, most notably in Ukraine and Romania.

Even though the 1993 Balamand Declaration condemned the approach of uniatism (carving out pieces of one Church in order to unite them with the other), it affirmed the right of the Eastern Catholic Churches to exist and to act.

For some Orthodox, the very existence of these Eastern Catholic Churches is seen as a threat. The Moscow Patriarchate seems to hold this view. Thus, for years the Russian Orthodox Church has complained about Ukrainian Greek Catholics engaging in unspecified acts of violence against the Orthodox. When confronted directly and asked to provide evidence of concrete examples, the Moscow Patriarchate has always come up empty-handed.

And yet the Russian Orthodox Church has consistently blocked the possibility of a meeting between the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Moscow, precisely on the grounds that issues first needed to be resolved surrounding the activity of Greek Catholic Church and of the supposed proselytism by Catholics in Russia.

At a press conference on Feb. 5, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department of External Church Relations, explained that the meeting between the pope and the Russian patriarch will take place despite “the problem of Unia” (a disparaging term for the Eastern Catholic Churches) which he characterized as a “never-healing bleeding wound that prevents the full normalization of relations between the two Churches.”

Hilarion admitted that intense negotiations regarding such a meeting had been taking place at least as early as 1996, but that “all these years, the principal problem in the relations between the two Churches, and the principal obstacle for holding a meeting between the two primates, has lied in Unia.”

He listed the following issues as exacerbating problems.

1) “The fact that the Uniates devastated three dioceses of the Moscow Patriarchate in western Ukraine in the 1980s and 1990s…” Here he is referring to the fact that, given the chance to finally do so after nearly half a century of absolute persecution, millions of Ukrainian Greek Catholic parishioners declared themselves to actually be Ukrainian Greek Catholic rather than Russian Orthodox.

2) “That they moved the headquarters of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church from Lviv to Kiev…” The Ukrainians are certainly guilty of this. They had the audacity to move their headquarters back to the city of Kiev, the see of Metropolitan Michael Rohoza and his successors for more than two centuries, and the natural location for a Church that is not simply some sort of regional reality in westernmost Ukraine.

3) “That the Greek Catholic Church’s mission extended to the traditionally Orthodox lands in eastern and southern Ukraine.” In an increasingly mobile and globalized world, the Moscow Church’s clinging to the notion of “traditional lands” sounds increasingly like the Kremlin’s desire to preserve or re-establish geopolitical “spheres of influence.”

In fact, Patriarch Kirill has been a very vocal exponent, if not the main ideologue, of the Kremlin’s favored idea of “Russkiy mir” (“the Russian world”), which Vladimir Putin uses to buttress his intrusions into neighboring countries. Interestingly, the Russian Orthodox Church does not seem to apply the same scruples about traditional lands when it establishes parishes and dioceses in Western Europe or Latin America.

4) “That they (Ukrainian Greek Catholics) supported the schismatics (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Patriarchate of Kiev) – all these factors only aggravated the problem.” By “support”, Hilarion must mean “failed to revile as uncanonical and therefore bereft of divine grace.” In fact, the Greek Catholic Church has worked amicably with all of the three major Ukrainian Orthodox Churches.

5) “The situation aggravated further as a result of the recent events in Ukraine, in which Greek Catholic representatives took a direct part, coming out with anti-Russian and Russophobic slogans.” There have certainly been individual Ukrainian Greek Catholics, including priests and laypeople, who have reacted to Russian aggression against Ukraine with very unfortunate and even un-Christian language.

The fact is, such vitriol has appeared on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Russian clerics and hierarchs have allowed themselves to speak derisively of Ukrainians, calling them everything from Nazis to anti-Semites, with very little concern for verification of the facts. One would have to admit that these statements could be interpreted as anti-Ukrainian and Ukrainophobic.

But it was not Russia that was invaded, and no Russian territory has been seized by Ukraine. The Ukrainian army is not waging war inside Russia. That detail is quite important. In fact, representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate have openly supported the Kremlin’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.

Ukrainian Greek Catholics have had to deal with nearly half a century of their church buildings being occupied by the Moscow Patriarchate (1946-1989), and the fact that ever since they have come out of the underground, they have encountered incessant vilification by the Russian Orthodox Church – as, for example, during the Papal Synod on the Family last October, when Hilarion used his invitation as an observer to unleash a tirade against Ukrainian Greek Catholics, causing many of those present to recoil in chagrin.

What’s behind the pope/patriarch summit?

One would think that in light of these facts, Ukrainian Greek Catholics might be opposed to a meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill. Instead, the opposite is true.

The day after the meeting was announced, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church, remarked: “I do not expect that the meeting of Pope Francis with Patriarch Kirill, planned for Feb. 12, will bring any particular changes. Although it is good that the meeting will take place and I am happy that finally there is an understanding on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church that meetings are necessary.”

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic primate added that the meeting will take place just days before the 70th anniversary of the Lviv Pseudo-Synod, during which the Greek Catholic Church was forcibly liquidated in 1946 and joined to the Russian Orthodox.

“The Russian Orthodox Church, unfortunately, to this day has not condemned this act of coercion, perpetrated by the Soviet authorities. We hope that the meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch will create a new context for movement in the direction of historical justice,” said Sviatoslav.

Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church has consistently refused to address the issues surrounding this Pseudo-Synod, the liquidation of the Greek Catholic Church, the arrests, deportations, and deaths of countless faithful who refused to leave the Catholic Church for Russian Orthodoxy. One can only hope that this first meeting between the heads of the Church of Rome and the Church of Moscow will encourage the objective and transparent examination of these sad events.

Given the absolute refusal of the Moscow patriarchate to countenance the possibility of a meeting between pope and patriarch for two decades, due to the “never-healing bleeding wound” of the Unia, it is not surprising that many ask themselves what has changed.

Why is the Russian Orthodox Church suddenly willing to have this meeting go forward?

The official answer is that the two leaders will put aside other differences in order to come together for the sake of persecuted Christians of the Middle East. There is indeed a catastrophic, even genocidal movement against Syrian and other ancient Christian communities, to which the rest of the world had failed to provide an adequate response. One can only hope that this is, in fact the genuine motivation.

There are, however, some additional facts that need to be considered.

The Orthodox Churches are in the final stages of preparing their “Great and Holy Council”, bringing together leaders of all Orthodox churches for the first time in 1,000 years, which is to take place in June. Over the past few years, Moscow has been doing its best to subvert the notion that the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, exercises any sort of relevant primacy among the Orthodox, even as first-among-equals.

As far as Moscow is concerned, leadership of the Orthodox communion should fall to the largest and wealthiest of the Orthodox Churches — itself — rather than to a patriarch with residence in Istanbul who has a tiny flock in Turkey, a non-Christian nation. The trouble is that the Ecumenical Patriarchs since Athenagoras I in the 1960s have enjoyed increasing prominence due precisely to their ever-improving relations with Rome, which have resulted in some very respectful actions toward Constantinople and Orthodoxy in general by the papacy.

Time is running out for the Moscow Patriarch to establish himself as able to carry the mantle of such leadership. Many have doubted that the Great and Holy Synod would indeed materialize, but now it is only several months away. The Patriarch of Moscow needs to act.

This reaching for attention is all the more important for Moscow in light of the ever growing calls for the autocephaly (independence) of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. It seems unlikely that the world’s Orthodox Churches would sacrifice the success of the long-awaited council for the sake of the issue of Ukrainian Orthodox independence, since all decisions will require consensus according to the rules they have adopted. Nevertheless, Moscow seems more nervous about the issue, and about the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch, than ever before, and that could well be one of the reasons why Moscow wants to shore up its relationship with Rome.

In the end, the sad fact is that the Russian Orthodox Church is alarmingly subservient to the government. It is therefore impossible to imagine so momentous a move as the first meeting with the Pope of Rome to have been made without the explicit blessing of Vladimir Putin.

So the question must be asked: what’s in it for Putin? Could it be that the international isolation of Russia after its Crimean and Donbas adventures, coupled with the disastrously low price of Russia’s economic mainstay, oil, along with a badly disguised bombing campaign to prop up Bashar Al-Assad and establish a Russian fact in the Middle East, are all taking their toll and Putin needs to come out of this scenario with some shred of credibility as a kind of “champion of persecuted Christians”?

Can anyone seriously doubt that this is what is really going on?

When the announcement of the meeting was made, a number of commentators began gushing about the coming reunification of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Others speculated about the possibility of the meeting leading to a common date for the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection. Few took notice of the assurances to powerful conservative elements in the Russian Orthodox Church by Hilarion that there will be no praying going on at the meeting, which will be held in the spectacularly secular environment of an airport lounge in Havana.

That’s a lucky thing for Kirill, since many in his Church consider Catholics worthy of re-baptism, rejecting all notions of Rome constituting a “sister-church” with real priesthood and real sacraments. It is unthinkable for the Patriarch of Moscow to pray with the Pope. Indeed, these same very vocal forces decry ecumenism as the ultimate “pan-heresy.”

So much will depend on the spin given to this meeting. I don’t think Pope Francis will allow himself to be hoodwinked or outmaneuvered in Havana. He is much too shrewd to allow that to happen. But my confidence in the Vatican’s ability to outdo the Kremlin’s propaganda machine is much shakier. Too many there are still beholden to a hopelessly outdated Ostpolitik.

One could be forgiven for having low expectations, given all the weighty baggage that is tied up in this meeting. And yet, it seems that Pope Francis hopes it can yield results. More importantly, I believe that the Holy Spirit can surprise us all, no matter what human calculation has gone into the planning of this encounter.

Furthermore, if anything at all can be done to ease the plight of Christians in the Middle East, both Catholics and Orthodox should support it with our prayers.