News Archives

The Pope & The Patriarch

February 18, 2016

During assembly on Thursday, February 18, Sam Oh '16 spoke about the meeting last week in Cuba between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which Sam said was a milestone but not groundbreaking. His presentation was sponsored by a new club dedicated to discussing current events in assembly. Sam's remarks follow.

Good morning Mr. Abbott, faculty and staff, and fellow students.

Last Friday, for the first time in 1000 years, Pope Francis of the Catholic Church and Moscow Patriarch Kirill met in Havana, Cuba in what seemed like a groundbreaking meeting between East and West, Catholic and Orthodox. In a 30-point joint statement, the two religious leaders spoke frankly and established common ground between the two Christian traditions. They pleaded for world leaders to protect threatened and persecuted Christians around the world, affirmed their shared opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and pledged cooperation in aiding Christians in conflict zones. Both recognized that peaceful dialogue and unity were the only way forward to bring the two estranged churches together. Already many are predicting a restoration of the original church.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we must understand the nearly thousand-year-old animosity between the two churches to understand the gravity of the meeting in Cuba. The exact reasons for the rift between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church are a confusing mix of religious and political disagreements that Mr. Nicholas will be overjoyed to untangle for you. In short, disagreement over who was the true head of all of Christendom caused the West to excommunicate the East and an anathema, or a declaration of hatred, to be issued in the East. We now know this as the Great Schism of 1054. Since then, the two powerful religious traditions have cut all communication and fought over spheres of influence.

That the Pope and Patriarch of Moscow are restoring such contacts in 2016, therefore, is a significant milestone, but not groundbreaking. Patriarch Kirill is not the accepted head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In fact, he is fifth in line behind the ones in Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch. The Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople met in 1965 and nullified the before-mentioned anathemas of 1054.
So, it is not a groundbreaking event, but why is it a milestone? While the Pope and the Head of the Eastern Church reestablished connections in 1965, this was little more than a symbolic gesture. The four patriarchs in front of Kirill have their churches based in predominantly Muslim or Jewish nations, and therefore have less power than their position suggests. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow presides over the Christian affairs of not only Russia, but also most of Eastern Europe and speaks for more than two thirds of the Eastern Orthodox congregation. So it is monumental that the Pope reestablished connections with an Eastern Church figure who had a substantial sway over most of the Christians in that region.

The two hour meeting, however, will likely do little to erase centuries of mutual suspicion and outright hostility. Disagreement still remains over who holds the higher connection with God, the Pope or the Patriarchs. More down to earth, there is a somewhat reasonable worry that the meeting will draw the Churches into more political affairs. Many are suspicious of the Russian Patriarch’s close connections with Vladimir Putin. Others worry that the Pope will take a silent neutrality in the conflicts of Ukraine and Syria, where Russia is heavily involved.

Clearly, tensions still remain between adherents of both faiths, and the chances of a complete unification of the old Christian church is remote at best. The Havana meeting, rather than a tearful and joyous reunion between two long-lost lovers, can be better categorized as a platonic, slightly awkward bro-hug between two exes. But as Catholic University Professor Paul McPartlan rightly puts it, 'This is a step, what I would call a moment of grace. When that happens, other things can flow.'"