ROME – One year ago marked a historic first meeting between a Pope and a Russian Orthodox Patriarch.
Now, the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate will celebrate the meeting’s anniversary with a conference at Switzerland’s Freibourg University.
The conference will take place Feb. 12, exactly one year after the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill at the St. Marti airport in Havana.
Christian brotherhood and unity were the focus of the 2016 meeting.
“We spoke as brothers,” Pope Francis said of the meeting last year. “We have the same baptism. We are bishops. We spoke of our Churches.”
Patriarch Kirill said their private discussion was conducted “with full awareness of the responsibility of our Churches, for the future of Christianity, and for the future of human civilization” and provided a chance to understand each other. He said the two Churches will work against war.
Now, one year later, Catholic and Russian Orthodox leaders will gather in Switzerland for a conference. The event is held by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, and Metropolitan Hilarion, president of the department of the external ecclesiastical relations of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate.
Cardinal Koch and Metropolitan Hilarion both led the negotiations that led to Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill’s joint statement in Havana. At the Switzerland conference they will talk about progress and rapprochement between the two Churches.
It is probable that Cardinal Koch’s lecture will follow the approach of Father Hyacinthe Destivelle, who is in charge of the Eastern relations desk at the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the Christian Unity.
In Jan. 19 essay for L’Osservatore Romano, Destivelle emphasized the advances in the dialogue between the Holy See and the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate.
The 2016 meeting was not framed by theological dialogue, which is instead the competence of the International Roman Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue. Rather, it was framed “by the dialogue of charity, and more precisely by pastoral ecumenism.”
The priest reiterated that the joint declaration between the Pope and the Patriarch was “a pastoral one.” He rejected interpreting their declaration through “geopolitical lenses” and said it would be incorrect to see in them an excessive theological impact.
The declaration focused at length on anti-Christian persecution, especially in in the Middle East and North Africa. It lamented the hostilities in Ukraine. The declaration also voiced concern about the threat of secularism to religious freedom and the Christian roots of Europe.
Other topics of the discussion between the Pope and the Patriarch included poverty, the crisis in the family, abortion and euthanasia. The Pope and the Patriarch exhorted young Christians to live their faith in the world.
Destivelle also noted that the declaration drew criticisms from both Orthodox and Catholic sides.
In particular, from Ukraine the Greek Catholic Church expressed “strong reservations” focused on some passages.
The priest said more time is needed for the Havana meeting and the joint declaration to bear fruit.
As for the upcoming anniversary, Destivelle listed a series of concerts, exhibitions and even exchanges of gifts that will show strengthened relations.
He noted that Hilarion visited Rome four times in the last year and met with Pope Francis twice, on June 15 and Oct. 21. The metropolitan has met with other Vatican leaders. He had a June 26 meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, and several meetings with Cardinal Koch.
Destivelle wanted to reiterate that the Havana declaration was a “pastoral declaration” that intended to soften the polemics, even the polemics raised after the declaration was issued.
The declaration was at that time considered “Russophile” in some quarters. The Ukrainian religious agency RISU described it as such in its introduction to an interview with Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
Asked about his strong criticism of the declaration, Major Archbishop Shevchuk said that “some considered my words to be too harsh,” but he then noted that the Pope himself “affirmed that that the declaration’s text was not infallible, that it is not ‘a page of the Gospel’.”
“It should not be underestimated but it should also not be exaggerated,” the archbishop said.
For Major Archbishop Shevchuk, an important result of the Havana meeting was that the Ukrainian Church began a conversation with the Holy See on these points.
“Certainly, even before this event, we always strove to inform the Vatican regarding the truth concerning the war in Ukraine,” the archbishop said. “Nevertheless, after Havana, the global community was able to perceive our distress once again, by being reminded of the ‘forgotten war’ in Ukraine. Our pleas also resounded anew in the Vatican.”
Archbishop Shevchuk also voiced appreciation for the progress of the Holy See, and recalled Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s trip to Ukraine. On the other hand, he emphasized that Ukraine should invest more in relations with the Holy See.
Russia too is investing much in relations with the Holy See. While in Paris for the European Meeting between Catholic and Orthodox Bishops, Hilarion granted an interview to the Italian Bishops’ Conference’s news agency SIR.
In the interview, he underlined the good relations with the Holy See and in particular with Pope Francis. Though he said that another meeting between Francis and Kirill is “not in the agenda,” he said there are many things both Churches can do together.
“If our Churches speak joining their voices, our message is certainly stronger and of more impact,” Hilarion said.
These are all the issues on the table that will likely be developed in the conference in Freibourg on Sunday. From Cuba to Switzerland, from Havana to the great hall of the university, many things have changed. But what has not changed is the strong desire for dialogue between the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow.