By Angela Wills
In what can only be described as a historic move to heal the 1,000 year schism that divided Christianity, Pope Francis and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church are scheduled to meet in Cuba next week to attempt to begin mending the church’s East-West divide.
The meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis was announced on last Friday by both churches. This will be the first time ever the leaders of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest in Orthodoxy, have ever met.
The pope is scheduled to travel to Mexico February 12th through the 18th. The plan is for him to stop in Cuba while in route and meet with Kirill at the airport in Havana, where they will speak privately for approximately two hours and then sign a joint declaration, according to the Vatican.
Spokesman for the Vatican Rev. Federico Lombardi said, “This event has extraordinary importance in the path of ecumenical relations and dialogue among Christian confessions.”
The split between the two churches took place during the Great Schism of 1054 and they have remained estranged over several issues, including the primacy of the pope and accusations by the Russian Orthodox that the Catholic Church is poaching converts in former Soviet lands.
Violence that attempts to diminish the presence of Christians…Orthodox and Catholic….in Africa and the Middle East, however, has caused the churches to become closer. Both the Orthodox Church and the Vatican have spoken out denouncing Islamic extremist attacks on Christians and the destroying of Christian monuments.
This meeting has been in the works for years and marks a major move in the effort of the Vatican to bridge the gap in Christianity.
“The two men are attempting to heal a millennium of wounds in the Year of Mercy,” referring to Pope Francis’ jubilee year. “Even if they are not agreeing on everything, they are engaging in respectful dialogue which is in short supply in our world,” according to Christopher Bellitto, a church history specialist at Kean University.
The location of the perspective meeting speaks volumes. Cuba presents somewhat of an ideal location. Assumptions have always been made that a “neutral” third country would be the choice location for a meeting of this type, but Europe was always viewed as the natural location.
Under the leadership of Francis, the Vatican has encouraged ecumenical ties with the Orthodox and other Christian denominations also. The pope will be greeted by President Raoul Castro, who will also preside over the signing of the joint declaration.