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Viewpoint: Will we see a pope in Red Square?

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Now that Pope Francis has embraced Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch in Havana, I’m excited about the possibility of seeing a pope visit Moscow’s Red Square in my lifetime.

When I was growing up, an air raid siren erupted every Saturday at noon in my hometown like a civic Angelus bell reminder of the H-bomb. The ugly sound was a weekly herald of the Cold War’s nuclear game of chicken that the United States and the Communist Soviet Union were waging then.

That’s why, for me, a Roman Catholic pontiff visiting the onion domed St. Basil’s Cathedral, now a Red Square museum, would seem miraculous.

That airport meeting between Francis and Kirill took 962 years to arrange. That’s because in the Great Schism of 1054, Pope Leo IX of Rome and Patriarch Michael I of Constantinople excommunicated each other, splitting Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow embrace after signing a joint declaration during a meeting at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana Feb. 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow embrace after signing a joint declaration during a meeting at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana Feb. 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The references that I found about the schism suggest centuries-long tensions about papal authority, liturgical practices and a theological debate on whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son were the main causes of the East-West rupture in 1054.

(I know that short summary just gave church historians and theologians apoplexy, but forgive me, I was an English major. And of course, as we know from the Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”)

Ten centuries of bad feelings followed the schism and since the church is said to think in centuries, 10 turned out to be the right amount of quiet time for the Russian patriarch and Roman pope to decide to meet again and call for aid for persecuted Christians in the Middle East and Africa, and for other religious victims of violence. (See story on page 16.)

“We spoke as brothers,” Pope Francis said.

“Things are easier now,” Patriarch Kirill told the pope.

The implications of the once-in-a thousand-years meeting aren’t clear yet. It’s clear the Havana talk the two shared was an ecumenical goal of Pope Francis.

It’s not clear how much political gamesmanship was involved on Moscow’s side. The Russian Orthodox church, which counts about 100 million members, has been aligned with the Russian government. and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, must have his reasons for approving the thaw. But, don’t forget, it was Putin’s Russia that “annexed” a portion of Ukraine bigger than New Jersey lately without the Western world complaining much. There are plenty of people in the Crimea who aren’t happy, however, even if Putin’s mother did baptize him.

But as a child I joined in prayers for the conversion of Russia that were recited after Masses. Maybe that’s why the embrace between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill looks like progress toward Christian unity to me. At least it was a first step in repairing the 1,000-year schism. Maybe, a pope one day not too long from now will pray in Red Square. It wouldn’t exactly be the “conversion” of Russia, but it would be much better than 1,000 years of silence between brothers.

Ryan is editor/general manager of The Dialog.