Pope Francis and Cyril could meet, Vatican-Orthodox relations expert says

VATICAN CITY (RNS) – The war in Ukraine may have delayed the Vatican’s relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, but according to an expert on Catholic relations with the Eastern Churches, a meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Cyril of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, originally scheduled for June, is not yet on the table.

Since Russia invaded its neighbor on February 21, Francis has urged an end to the fighting, but he has not blamed Russian Vladimir Putin for the war, or named Russia as the aggressor. The Vatican has remained above the conflict and has not taken an official position on whether Ukraine should join NATO and the European Union, become part of Russia or be an independent state.

In his speeches and sermons, Francis ‘never spoke clearly about Ukraine or Russia, he never even mentioned Ukrainian Catholics,’ said Reverend Stefano Caprio, who teaches history and culture Russians at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and was a missionary. in Russia between 1989 and 2002.

The Vatican also did not issue a statement after Francis spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday, March 22, as he did after his video call a week earlier with Kirill.

Francis’ accommodative approach can also be partly explained by the “usual Ostpolitik,” Caprio explained, referring to Western Cold War foreign policy toward the Soviet bloc, “where the doors are kept open to the ‘enemy”.

But the Vatican “must be very careful,” he said, that Francis’ overture to Kirill is not interpreted as support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

According to Caprio, Francis and Kirill juggle multiple political and religious players. While their views on the conflict in Ukraine may seem contradictory, the two religious leaders are trying to woo all parties to the conflict, and a meeting between the two in Kyiv would crown centuries-old ecumenical efforts, Caprio said.

The pope and the patriarch were to meet this summer in neutral territory until the crisis postpones the date indefinitely. According to Caprio, the March 16 call between Francis and Kirill, who both had mediators present, “showed that the meeting, if it could not go as planned in Canada in June, has already begun.”

Pope Francis, left, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril. (AP Pictures)

Caprio said Kirill’s meetings with Francis and Church of England Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, shortly after he gave a fiery sermon against Western ideology justifying holy war of Putin in Ukraine show that if the patriarch has to support the Russian military intentions, “he does not want to sever relations with the world”.

Kirill has mastered the art of “jumping from one side of the river to the other,” the priest added, “much like Pope Francis.”

In 2016, Francis and Kirill became the first leaders of their respective churches to meet in person in 1,000 years when they sat down to talk at the airport in Havana. Together they signed a joint statement which, among other topics, addressed the growing tensions in Ukraine.

The Vatican remains hopeful, Caprio said, that it can rekindle relations between the two church leaders, despite Kirill’s growing identification with Putin’s warmongering. “The Orthodox Church in Russia replaced (for) the Communist Party,” Caprio said; it is the church that provides the ideological fuel for the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions, as well as the theological underpinnings of Putin’s anti-LGBTQ measures and other conservative social policies.

As evidence of “how religious, political, and military interests are intermingled,” Caprio pointed to the High official of the Russian Church in Africa, Patriarchal Exarch Leonid. Formerly a colonel in the Russian army, he now plays an important role in promoting Russian interests on the continent.

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The war complicated Francis’ outreach not only to Kirill but to the Orthodox world as a whole. There are 15 independent Orthodox churches, including that of Ukraine, which is recognized only by Athens, Constantinople and Alexandria in Egypt. The rest mostly remained neutral, but with the war more and more are moving towards Constantinople. A major Russian Orthodox monastery in Lviv announced last week that it wanted to break away from Moscow.

With a looser concept of administrative unity than the Catholic Church, individual Orthodox churches typically swap allegiances — “today Moscow, tomorrow America, tomorrow Constantinople, depending on what happens,” Caprio explained.

But it is a mistake to underestimate the influence of the Russian Church within Orthodox Christianity. “If you break with the Russians, you break with a very large contingent of the Orthodox world,” Caprio said.

With rapidly changing allegiances, it is impossible to predict whether Russian primacy in Orthodoxy will change, making it very difficult for the Catholic Church to choose one interlocutor over another.

“The pope is currently halfway between Russia and Constantinople,” Caprio said.

Francis is passionately interested in intervening in the war to make peace, according to Caprio – “The Pope would walk to Ukraine”, he said – but he would not risk going to Ukraine alone now for fear of putting angry the Russian Orthodox. The pope could solve multiple enigmas, explains Caprio, by meeting the patriarch in kyiv.

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