The simultaneous announcements in Rome and Moscow were a sensation: The meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch will go down in history, says Christoph Strack.
The historic announcement came as a major surprise. It's not every day that Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi suddenly calls a press conference, and then reads out a statement in six languages for a room packed full of journalists. And what he had to say has captured the interest of the world: In a few days, the head of the Catholic Church will meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church for the first time. Francis and Kyrill plan to meet at Havana airport, where they will speak privately and sign a joint declaration.
It is a sensation, and not just for religious aficionados with an interest in ecumenical Christianity. No, this will be one of those moments when religious leaders make history. Francis has repeatedly indicated his willingness to meet Kyrill in any place of his choosing. Now, that place will be Havana. Kyrill is currently visiting Cuba, and Francis will interrupt his flight to Mexico in order to meet him there.
More than a polite meeting
Moscow currently stands for distance from many things - be they political or religious - associated with a Western or Western Christian point of view. Meanwhile, many in the West are watching with concern as the Russian Orthodox Church forms closer ties with the Kremlin. That's what makes the meeting in Cuba so surprising. And given the intention to sign an official joint document, there is no way this meeting can be interpreted as a nicety. In politically difficult times, it must also be seen as a sign to the Russian government.
The surprise factor is what makes the announcement, delivered simultaneously in Rome and Moscow, truly remarkable. This sort of quiet diplomacy works, and that speaks for both sides and the seriousness of their purpose. It's clear that the Vatican's diplomacy under British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, in office for 15 months, has attained a new relevance.
Popes have been traveling the world for 50 years now. The papacy of John Paul II (1978-2005) was, at times, a global pilgrimage and missionary tour, frequently colored with realpolitik nuances.
Benedict XVI (2005-2013) continued that tradition. On the global map of papal travel destinations, there are not many untouched areas. The most significant are China and Russia. This week, the Vatican has published a long interview that Francis gave to a Chinese newspaper, and which has been widely reported on in the country's media. Now, just three days later, there's the announcement of the meeting in Havana.
So far, the Vatican has not confirmed many papal trips for 2016, but it would not come as a shock were Francis to choose Moscow, even if it were mainly to serve as an admonishment to political leaders there. It is widely known, after all, that Francis calls for peace in Syria and the protection of Syrian civilians at every opportunity and in every one of his speeches.
First Orthodox council in 1,000 years
But the meeting in Havana points to another important, even historic, date this year that most Christians in the Western hemisphere likely haven't registered - wrongfully so.
In June, Crete will be the scene of the first Orthodox Great and Holy Council in more than 1,000 years. In January, the last hurdles for the event were cleared in Geneva. Rome has long been in touch with most of the other representatives - only Kyrill and Moscow had until now been at arm's length. That has now changed and could well have an effect on events in Crete. The Pope will travel to Mexico next Friday (February 12). But as part of that trip, he will also be entering a new era in ecumenical history.
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