When Pope Francis welcomed the presidents of Palestine and Israel into his home to pray, he said, “Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment.” The Pope who aims to be an instrument of peace is set to hold a historic meeting with Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill in Cuba just before he gets to Mexico next week. In November 2014, Pope Francis had said he had spoken to Patriarch Kirill saying. “I’ll go wherever you want. You call me and I’ll go.” The Patriarch will be in Cuba on an official visit. It would be the first time ever a Pope and a Russian Orthodox Patriarch will be meeting in the history of the church. There had long been ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes between the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman Catholic) churches. The historic meeting marks a major development towards the healing of the Great schism which began in the 11th century. The differences ranged from philosophical understanding, liturgical usage, and language to political rivalries and divisions. Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi told the reporters that, “It will be the first-ever meeting of a pope and Moscow patriarch, Jesuit. As Pope Francis travels to Cuba and as Patriarch Kirill makes an official visit to the island nation, the two will meet at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport and plan to sign a joint declaration, Father Lombardi said. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras I nullified the anathemas of 1054, although this nullification did not constitute any sort of reunion. Efforts of the Ecumenical Patriarchs towards reconciliation with the Catholic Church have often been the target of sharp criticism from some fellow Orthodox. St John Paul re-established the Latin-rite Catholic hierarchy of Russia in 2002, which led to the Russian Orthodox withdrawing from dialogue with the Catholic Church for several years. The Vatican’s long effort to bridge the divisions in Christianity, meeting with the spiritual leader of the world’s largest Orthodox Church was a dream that never materialized for St. John Paul II and an opportunity that slipped through the retired Pope Benedict XVI too. The Russian Orthodox Church has accused Catholics of using their new freedoms of religion following the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s to try to convert people from the Orthodox, a charge the Vatican has denied. Jesuit Father David Nazar, rector of Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute and a Ukrainian Catholic from Canada, told Catholic News Service: “If this were to take place, it would be big news in the Year of Mercy. To make a step in this direction is beautiful, but also irreversible.” Especially for Catholics in Russia and Ukraine, he said, relations with the Russian Orthodox are complicated, including because of the close relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government, which annexed the Crimea and is supporting fighting in Eastern Ukraine. Father Nazar described his reaction to the news as “cautiously optimistic” and said he hoped it would mark “a new beginning” in Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations.
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