By Patrick Howell, SJ
Once again Pope Francis has achieved a significant breakthrough. This time in a long-hoped for, but frequently thwarted encounter with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J. announced that Pope will make a stopover in Havana, Cuba, on Feb 12 on his already planned visit of the Church in Mexico. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow was already scheduled to visit Orthodox churches in the Caribbean and South America. The meeting is the result of delicate and assiduous diplomacy at least two years in the planning, but also stretching back to the decades under John Paul II who earnestly desired that the Church “might learn to breathe again with both lungs,” east and west.
Earlier the pope had said that he would meet anywhere, anytime to which the patriarch would agree. This marks a further step towards the reconciliation of the Roman Catholic Church with Eastern Orthodox churches. They denounced each other and split nearly 1,000 years ago, creating the Great Schism of 1054. The fracture was often seen as more political and cultural, than religious. In fact, there are no dogmatic differences between the two branches of Christianity.
President Raul Castro was also involved in organizing the meeting according to Father Lombardi. The meeting, he said, “was not improvised.” Planning for it was underway for at least two years.
Francis already has ties to other Orthodox leaders, especially with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, considered the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians. Helping to pave the way is the fact that Bartholomew did his theological studies at the Jesuit center of the Pontifical Orientale Institute.
Tensions continue to exist within the multiple patriarchies of the Orthodox Church, especially between Moscow and Constantinople, but also between the Russian Orthodox and the Ukrainian Orthodox.
On a separate note, Trastevere watchers are aware that the Jesuit Federico Lombardi has now been serving as Vatican spokesman for 12 years, beginning with the first year under Benedict, and reportedly may be ready to step down.