As those who follow the news closely know, Pope Francis met with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill this past February 12 while on a visit to Cuba. At the end of their meeting the two issued a joint statement oozing with religious rapprochement and banal brotherly love. The statement even mentioned Ukraine – “We deplore the hostility in Ukraine that has already caused many victims, inflicted innumerable wounds on peaceful inhabitants and thrown society into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis. We invite all the parties involved in the conflict to prudence, to social solidarity and to action aimed at constructing peace.”
Of course, there was no mention of the fact that Patriarch Kirill’s Church has been actively supporting the violent and most un-Christian aggression of the Russian military against the Ukrainian population in both Crimea and the Donbas. They have both tacitly and in some cases overtly been involved in the persecution and martyrdom of Muslim Tatars in Crimea, as well as evangelical and even Orthodox Christians that do not belong to the Moscow Patriarchy in eastern Ukraine. It should be clear to anyone that follows history and politics that the Russian Orthodox Church is not so much a church as a branch of the Russian government, actively supporting its retrograde and reactionary aims of imperialistic expansion.
One could understand why the Russians dearly wanted such a high level meeting with the Pope. With their credibility, stature and integrity greatly diminished by their recent brutal meddling in Ukraine and Syria, anything that bolstered their international image would be most welcome. And what a better opportunity than a meeting with the up to now highly respected and popular pontiff that would effectively portray Patriarch Kirill as some kind of moral and political equal. Needless to say, nothing could be further from the truth.
There is also another important motive as far as Patriarch Kirill is concerned. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Moscow Patriarchy have long sought to take over the mantle of leadership of the Orthodox Church throughout the world, and have been singularly unsuccessful despite the fact that they have claimed to be the largest of the Orthodox churches. Part of the reason for that is, that historically and traditionally, it has always been the Patriarch of Constantinople that has been recognized as the first among equals of the Orthodox Patriarchs, much as the Bishop of Rome holds primacy in the Catholic Church. The other reason, of course, is that few in the leadership of the Orthodox world trust the Russian Church in the religious world, any more than the secular world trusts Russian leaders and politicians.
What is crucial at this particular time, is the fact that in June of this year, the leaders of all the Orthodox churches throughout the world will be holding a “Great and Holy Council” or synod in Crete to discuss and resolve pressing organizational and theological issues that have been building up over the decades if not centuries. Such synods are rare, the last one of any significance having been held in 1923 in Constantinople. This current synod has been in the planning stages for over fifty years. In preparation for the maneuvering for power that is always part of such assemblages, the Moscow Patriarch obviously jumped at this opportunity to try and increase his stature among his brother bishops by trying to portray that only he had the political clout and authority to deal with the Catholic Pope on ecumenical matters.
What is puzzling in all this is why Pope Francis allowed himself to be used for such blatant PR purposes and why he did not take Patriarch Kirill to task for the shameful role his church has played in the conflict in Ukraine. Even more disturbing is the fact that in their joint statement, the Pope virtually threw the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (which is part of the Roman Catholic Church) under the bus – “It is our hope that our meeting may also contribute to reconciliation wherever tensions exist between Greek Catholics and Orthodox. It is today clear that the past method of ‘uniatism’, understood as the union of one community to the other, separating it from its Church, is not the way to re–establish unity.” As those who are familiar with Ukrainian history know, the Russian Orthodox Church has for a long time disparagingly referred to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as the “Uniates.” Further, it has become known that over the past year, the Pope has used his authority to silence and suppress within the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church any criticism or dissemination of information that puts the Russians and the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine under the Moscow Patriarchy in any kind of bad light.
Pope Francis’ questionable motivations in all this are certainly worthy of more scrutiny and on the surface, are greatly at odds with his frequent exhortations for social justice and human rights. Why he has chosen to “deal with the devil” that is the Russian state is increasingly beyond the comprehension of at least this Christian.