Church officials in Ukrainian have given a cautious welcome to news about the Pope’s attempt to heal the 1,000-year schism that split Christianity by meeting with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, a meeting that is set to take place on the 12th of February at Havana’s José Martí International Airport.
Ukrainian Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, said, “I do not expect that the meeting of Pope Francis with Patriarch Kirill, planned for February 12, will bring any particular changes, although it is good that the meeting will take place. I am pleased, the archbishop continued, that “we are no longer considered an obstacle and aren’t being used to justify one’s unwillingness to engage in such dialogue.”
Archbishop Shevchuk in his statement said, “It is likely that during the meeting of the Pope with the patriarch they will also speak of the present situation in Ukraine. I hope that His Holiness Pope Francis, who always raises his voice in defense of the wronged, will be a voice for Ukrainians, who are engaged in a battle for the unity and integrity of their land.”
Past attempts to organize meetings by St John Paul II and Benedict XVI failed because the Russian church labeled the activities of the Ukrainian Catholics in Russia as “proselytism” and as such, an obstacle to such a meeting.
Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, director of foreign relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, told reporters on February 5 that the presence and activity of the Ukrainian Catholics were still an obstacle to fully normal church relations; he insisted that Patriarch Kirill agreed to meet the Pope because finding a common way to help persecuted Christians in the Middle East is a more pressing matter.
In an interview published on Monday in an Italian Newspaper, Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis was asked express his thoughts about the meeting, he said:
“Bridges, they must be constructed step by step until you are able to shake the hand of the person on the other side. Bridges last and promote peace, walls not only divide people, but they must be defended, which takes energy. For this reason, they need to be taken down, not built. Anyway, they are destined to fall, one after another. Think of the Berlin Wall. It seemed eternal and yet, poof, in a day it fell.”
Speaking on the part he played in negotiating for the meeting, Pope Francis insisted he didn’t do much, but commended the efforts of few bishops who helped. He said, “I just said that I wanted to meet and embrace my Orthodox brothers. Just that! Then there were two years of secret negotiations, conducted well by great bishops.”
Dominican Father Hyacinthe Destivelle, the official of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity who did the bulk of the work arranging the meeting, told Vatican Radio it was the culmination of much work, but also is a “point of departure in our relations to the degree that from now on we can have a normal relationship based on trust.”
Fr Destivelle, who is doing the paper work of the joint declaration both the Pope and patriarch is to sign, said that the declaration is most likely to center on “areas for collaboration and dialogue, which do not have a theological character but are important for the churches to draw closer together,” including joint efforts on behalf of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, protecting the family and the role of Christians in secularized societies.