The encounter of the Pope of Rome with the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia is one of those events followed with bated breath, as they extend far beyond the most rational and logical expectations. Events such as this erupt into history with an eventful, century-long impact. Even though they might appear as meteors of lights crossing the skies, events such as this are far from improvised. In fact they are the result of constant and patient commitments undertaken across the years by the respective negotiators. Many of the protagonists of this underground, uninterrupted story of fraternity and reconciliation are no longer with us today.
For years, maybe even decades, journalists would knock on the doors of Rome and Moscow on a quasi-regular basis wanting to know whether a meeting between the primates of the two Churches would soon take place. It was the dream of John Paul II and that of patriarch Alexis II. Not many problems weighed on the bilateral dialogue. And perhaps they were always the same ones, but they were perceived as heavy burdens, especially at psychological level. These included accusations of proselytism, the question of the Greek-Catholics and in the past two years the Ukrainian “revolution” that further damaged the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. Questions of ecclesial and political nature have always accompanied, and deeply disturbed, the relations between the representatives of the two Churches.
But then a Pope from the other side of the world appeared on the horizon. Pope Francis is Argentine and compared to John Paul II he is freer to move amidst the intricate paths of Europe, a stage of century-long divisions among Christians. Pope Francis bowed when he met the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I in Istanbul. It was a powerful gesture of humbleness, which had a strong impact – especially in the Orthodox world – and furthered the possibility of reconciliation, knocking on the doors of all world Patriarchates.
Sometimes history takes unexpected, ironic, turns. As the saying goes, reality often exceeds the imagination. The decision to hold the meeting between the two primates in Cuba can be best described as a positive, heart-warming story. And if the choice of Cuba is coupled by a president such as Raul Castro, who last year carried out an intense shuttle diplomacy between Rome and Moscow, then even the most critical observers are forced to surrender to the historical truth.
Indeed, it’s a feature of ecumenical dialogue: it doesn’t depend on “rational” forecasts. It proceeds within the sphere of unpredictability. That’s why ecumenical dialogue stems and grows from prayer for the full and visible unity of the Churches, in the knowledge that – if one day it should be reached – this goal won’t be the result of diplomatic efforts and political agreements but rather it will be the unexpected fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit in history.
The historic meeting in Cuba encompasses another consequential aspect that played an important role in the final decision regarding the venue: the “mass murder of Christians” perpetrated every day by extremist fringes, notably across the Middle East. In the name of persecuted Christians the Russian bishops, gathered in Moscow in the first week of February, have appealed to set aside misunderstandings and disagreements and to jointly undertake the path of peace in Rome. Thus the meeting in Cuba bears the mark of the suffering of a people and it is accomplished in the name of the “ecumenism of blood” repeatedly invoked by Pope Francis.