Finally, the long awaited historic meeting between a Pope and a Russian Patriarch took place on Friday in Cuba, Havana. Cuban President Raul Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Catholic Church’s lead official in Cuba, welcomed the pope at the airport, minutes before Francis met Patriarch Kirill.
The 78-year-old leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics on meeting the Patriarch of Moscow joined arms with him and they kissed each other three times on the cheek.
Patriarch Kirill exclaimed “Yes, things are much easier now," as they met in a lounge at Havana’s José Martí International Airport.
“Finally," the Pope said in his native Spanish, “We are brothers, It is very clear this is the will of God."
Pope Francis stopped in Cuba for just a few hours before continuing on to Mexico for a five-day-visit where he signed a joint declaration on religious unity with the Patriarch of Moscow.
The division of the church between East and West was rooted deep in church history. For more than 25 years the Catholic Church tried to resolve the differences they had with the Eastern Orthodox Church but the Russian Orthodox patriarchs had refused to meet with a pope because of what the Moscow Patriarchate claimed was “proselytism" on the part of Ukrainian Catholics, one of the Eastern churches in full union with Rome. This is one of the numerous achievements of Pope Francis; the beginning of a new era in the Christian-Orthodox relations.
After his meeting with the Patriarch, Pope Francis out of excitement, opened up and shared with the reporters his emotions saying: “I felt an interior joy that truly came from the Lord. It was a conversation of brothers," Pope Francis said. The conversation was marked by freedom and “complete frankness."
Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, Director of foreign relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, were present for the meeting, along with two translators, the Pope said.
The Pontiff added that the joint statement he and Patriarch Kirill signed in the presence of Cuban president Raúl Castro “is not a political statement, it’s not a sociological statement; it is a pastoral declaration".
The declaration which covered a wide range of topics had the Pontiff and the Patriarch agreeing that all Christians – Catholic or Orthodox – are called to preach the Gospel. “This mission entails mutual respect for members of the Christian communities and excludes any form of proselytism."
“We are not competitors but brothers, and this concept must guide all our mutual actions as well as those directed to the outside world," the two said.
The Pope and Patriarch expressed hope that their meeting would “contribute to reconciliation" wherever there is tension between Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics, who share the same spiritual and liturgical heritage.