See You in Havana, Patriarch Kyril: Francis’s 1,000-Year Orthodox Surprise

A millennium after the two churches split, the pontiff and his Russian Orthodox counterpart will try to mend fences in Cuba next week—out of their common fears for Christians in peril.

02.05.16 8:05 PM ET

VATICAN CITY — It only took 1,000 years, but Pope Francis has managed to mend fences with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The two will meet next Friday in Cuba in what is being deemed as one of the most important moments of Francis’s papacy.

For those who don’t keep a scorecard on religious schisms, the Catholic Church has been trying to score this sitdown with the Russian Orthodox Church since 1050, when the Eastern and Western churches parted ways over what were then irreconcilable differences. The two churches both adamantly teach that they “are the true inheritors of the early Christian Church established by the apostles of Jesus Christ,” which is a point neither side will likely back down on at the meeting.

Since their breakup, the churches have grown even further apart and are divided on everything from whether priests should marry to whether the pope should retain the power of command. There are also significant disputes about church properties. Last year, the idea of a meeting seemed a lost cause after Russian Orthodox Church leaders accused the Vatican of siding with Catholics in Ukraine, who tend to have closer ties with Rome.

But lately they have come closer together on one very important issue: the persecution of Christians around the world, which is seen as a common ground both sides feel is worth a compromise.

The Vatican announced the surprise meeting at what it described as an urgent press briefing Friday, which sent the Vatican press corps scrambling—and which caused wild speculation about everything from Emeritus Pope Benedict’s health to Francis’s retirement plans.

Instead, the Holy See Press Office announced the historic meeting, asking “all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits,” according to a joint statement released in multiple languages, including Russian. That alone raised eyebrows, as Russian isn’t one of the Vatican’s official languages, and led to questions about just how long the Vatican knew about this meeting, as they would have needed advance notice to prepare Russian text.

Insiders say Patriarch Kyril and Pope Francis have been edging closer to a meeting for months. Francis, who has publicly said “any time, anywhere” about such a meeting since being elected in March 2013, might have won favor with the Russian patriarch by insisting they would be meeting as “brother bishops,” not as heads of divided churches. Patriarch Kyril, who has been in power since 2009, apparently liked the conciliatory tone.

“The current situation in the Middle East, North and Central Africa, and in several other regions where extremists are conducting a veritable genocide against Christian populations, requires urgent measures and real cooperation between Christian churches,” the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church said in a statement. “That is why, despite the obstacles, the decision to organize a meeting between Patriarch Kyril and Pope Francis was taken.”

The Roman Catholic Church, which has 1.2 billion followers compared to the Russian Orthodox Church’s 165 million (Eastern Orthodox churches combined claim a membership of around 300 million), was thrilled with the patriarch’s acceptance. “This meeting of the Primates of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, after a long preparation, will be the first in history and will mark an important stage in relations between the two churches,” the Vatican said in a statement. “The Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate hope that it will also be a sign of hope for all people of good will.”

The two leaders will meet in Cuba at Havana’s Jose Martí International Airport next Friday when the pope makes a stopover on his way to Latin America for a long-planned apostolic visit. He will close that trip with a Mass on the U.S.-Mexico border, which, until the patriarch meeting, was seen as the highlight of the trip. The choice to meet in Cuba is also seen as anything but chance.

Francis was warmly welcomed when he visited the island nation last September and the country is seen as the most neutral territory as far away from both Moscow and Vatican City as possible. It is also a country where Catholics were long suppressed under Soviet influences. There is no word whether Raul Castro will receive the leaders, but one might envision such a three-way photo opportunity as a way to further bring Cuba back into the diplomatic fold.

According to The Washington Post, the patriarch agreed to Cuba “because of conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere where an authentic genocide of the Christian population by extremists requires immediate measures and closer cooperation between the Christian churches.”

The two leaders are expected to sign a joint declaration toward further cooperation at the brief but significant ceremony. Whether it will take another thousand years to set up a second meeting is yet unknown, but even with the unsolvable differences of opinion, the brief encounter will surely have massive repercussions for all involved.