ROME – Pope Francis’s meeting with a top member of the Russian Orthodox Church Wednesday was yet another step forward in the planning process for a second meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, which sources say will likely happen next year.

Yesterday the pope met with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the External Church Relations Department of the Moscow Patriarchate, for a private conversation at the Vatican.

According to a Vatican statement, during the nearly hour-long conversation the two discussed several issues “that are a cause of common concern and of which the commitment to seek concrete human and spiritual answers is shared.”

Pope Francis, who turned 85 on Dec. 17, “expressed sentiments of affection and closeness to the Russian Church” and thanked Hilarion for Kirill’s birthday wishes, and congratulated the patriarch himself, who just turned 75, on his own birthday.

Hilarion and the pope also spoke of “the path of fraternity walked together” between the two churches and recalled the historic first meeting between Francis and Kirill in Havana, Cuba in 2016.

Ever since the Great Schism of 1054 the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have been split and remain divided over a host of issues, including the primacy of the pope, and accusations from the Russian Orthodox that believers in former Soviet nations are converting as a result of Catholic proselytization.

When Francis and Kirill met in 2016, it was the first time since the birth of the Russian Orthodox Church that a pope and Russian Orthodox patriarch had met, marking a significant milestone in Catholic-Orthodox rapprochement.

Although there was no mention in the Vatican statement about a possible second meeting between the pope and Kirill, plans for the encounter have been in the works for months.

Pope Francis himself confirmed rumors on his return flight from Athens Dec. 6, telling journalists on board that a second meeting was being planned, and that a meeting was being held to discuss the details the week after his return.

Following the pope’s remarks, Hilarion released his own statement confirming the pope’s comments and announcing his Dec. 22 visit to the Vatican.

In his statement, Hilarion said he planned to talk to the pope about “a wide range of issues concerning the bilateral relations between our two Churches. Among these matters is a possible meeting of Pope Francis with Patriarch Kirill.”

However, “Neither the venue, nor the date of the meeting has been determined so far,” he said.

Referring to old rumors that the potential pope-patriarch meeting could take place during a planned visit of Kirill to Finland, as he had received an invitation from the head of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland, the Orthodox Archbishop of Finland and the Catholic Bishop of Helsinki, Hilarion said that “a lot of water has run” since those plans were first hatched.

Among other things, “the inter-Orthodox situation has changed, and a pandemic has begun,” he said, saying preparations for this visit have stopped.

He also shot down buzz over a potential papal visit to Moscow, saying the matter “has not been discussed on the bilateral level,” but voiced hope that his meeting with Pope Francis would be an opportunity “to discuss all the issues of mutual concern.”

Vladimir Legojda, president of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Synodal Department for Relations between the Church and Society, said in an interview published Wednesday on the Russian news outlet Izvestija that the second meeting between Francis and Kirill is in the works, and that “it will take place when all the conditions have matured.”

“In Cuba there was an urgency for the Middle East, now it depends on many other factors,” he said, and offered no further details, but reiterated Kirill’s desire to meet Pope Francis again.

After his meeting with the pope Wednesday, Hilarion was quoted by Russian state RIA-Novosti news agency as saying the two “had a chance to discuss specific dates and venues today, but they are yet to be specified and agreed so we can’t announce the date and place yet,” but voiced hope the meeting would take place in 2022.

According to Russian news agency TASS, sources within the Russian Orthodox Church delegation have said the new meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill could happen within the first half of 2022, and that another visit by Hilarion to the Vatican is being planned for early next year, however.

Pope Francis has already pledged to visit Canada in the near future, and the Vatican is currently working with the Canadian bishops’ conference to find dates in 2022 for when a potential papal visit could take place.

Francis is also still on the hook to visit Malta, as his planned visit in May 2020 was postponed due to the outbreak of COVID-19, and the trip has yet to be rescheduled. There are also several other countries he was expected to visit that year, including East Timor, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea, plans for which are still on hold.

If the pope meets with Kirill next year as is hoped, it will signal another important step in the broader efforts to improve Catholic-Orthodox relations and it will also provide a further opportunity for the two to both reinforce common priorities and discuss sensitive issues, such as the conflict in Ukraine.

According to Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, ecclesial authorities in Ukraine are also working to organize a papal visit to their country in 2022, which could signal a significant hiccup in terms of the pope’s efforts to woo the Russian Orthodox Church.

While Pope Francis has long insisted that common acts of prayer and works of charity are the best way to proceed forward, he has also consistently spoken out about the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which was a sore spot between he and Kirill in 2016 and will likely be again if the two meet again next year, especially if a papal trip to Ukraine is on the calendar.

Earlier this month Pope Francis during a Sunday Angelus address offered prayers for Ukraine and advocated for dialogue instead of weapons after Russia amassed tens of thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine.

Francis didn’t mention Russia by name in his address, but his intention seemed clear as he called for international dialogue to defuse fresh upheaval in the years-long crisis, offering prayers for “dear Ukraine, for all its churches and religious communities and all of its people,” and voicing hope that “tensions would be resolved through serious international dialogue and not through arms.”

Whenever and wherever Pope Francis and Kirill meet, it will undoubtedly be an important step forward for the two churches, but current events are also a reminder that despite the significant progress being made, there is still a lot to navigate.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen