When Pope Francis visits Macedonia and Bulgaria early next month, the trip might seem a throwaway since it won’t generate the international waves that his visits to Muslim-majority nations such as Morocco or the United Arab Emirates, or key Asian nations such as Japan, always promise to deliver.
Yet while the outing to Macedonia and Bulgaria, and his visit to Romania later this summer, might be overshadowed, Francis’s agenda in Eastern Europe not only has been a cornerstone of his papacy, but it also sheds light on the Vatican’s strategy with Orthodoxy since the years of St. John Paul II.
For the Vatican, that strategy is as much political as it is ecumenical.
During communist rule in Eastern Europe, Christianity was suppressed. Though both Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians suffered, once the Iron Curtain fell the sharp resurgence of Eastern Catholic Churches led to clashes with the Orthodox over property rights, as many ecclesial properties in Russia and Eastern Europe had been confiscated by the government and reapportioned either to the state, or in some cases, to the Orthodox.
Naturally, the Eastern Catholics wanted those properties back.
Amid those tensions, John Paul II penned his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, “that they may be one,” reaffirming the importance of pursuing unity. Later that year, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople visited Rome for a meeting in which both he and John Paul stressed the need for unity.
Since then, the Vatican’s strategy in Eastern Europe has featured dialogue with Orthodox leaders in those countries.
For years, the 800-pound gorilla of the Vatican’s relationship with Orthodoxy has been the Russian Orthodox church, the largest and most influential player in the Orthodox world that has a reputation for not always playing well with others.
Russian Orthodox leaders have traditionally been resistant to efforts at ecumenical dialogue, maintaining a contentious relationship with the Vatican and with other Orthodox churches.
The most recent example was Russia’s refusal to participate in a Pan-Orthodox Council held in Crete in June 2016, just four months after a historic February 2016 meeting between Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba.
In light of that hesitance from Russia, the Vatican’s strategy has generally consisted of forging alliances with Orthodox from smaller churches in countries surrounding Russia, effectively isolating the Russian Orthodox church and boxing them in.
John Paul II made great efforts to reach out to the Orthodox world, beginning with his 1979 visit to Istanbul, the headquarters of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, considered to be the mothership of the Orthodox world. He consistently met with Orthodox leaders during his international trips to majority-Orthodox nations, particularly in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In May 1999, John Paul became the first pope to visit a predominantly Eastern Orthodox country since the Great Schism of 1054, which separated Eastern Orthodoxy from Western Christianity, when he traveled to Romania at the invitation of Patriarch Teoctist of the Romanian Orthodox church.
Two years later, in 2001, John Paul became the first pope to visit Greece in some 1,291 years when he traveled to Athens and met with the head of the Greek Orthodox church, Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece.
After a private meeting, the two offered public speeches, during which John Paul offered a surprise apology for 13 “offenses” Christodoulos said Catholics had committed against the Eastern Orthodox church since the Great Schism.
In June 2001 John Paul traveled to Ukraine, which today is quickly becoming a new superpower in Orthodox Christianity after their appeal for independence, or “autocephaly,” was approved by Constantinople in November 2018.
Historically considered a part of the “canonical territory” of the Russian Orthodox church, the Orthodox church in Ukraine is now the second largest in the Orthodox community post-independence.
Ukraine currently has three Orthodox communities - one still under Moscow’s control, and two independent churches. The push for the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox church has been a source of tension for years, which was exacerbated following Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
During his visit to Ukraine, John Paul said putting an end to the Great Schism was one of his top priorities.
He furthered his efforts to build bridges with the Orthodox in 2002, visiting Bulgaria, where he met with the Patriarch Maxim, head of the Bulgarian Orthodox church, and also Serbia, Belarus and Poland.
Though he often expressed a desire to visit Russia, it never happened.
Nearly a year before John Paul’s death in 2005, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew traveled to Rome to meet him at the Vatican, where the two presided over an historic ecumenical celebration in St. Peter’s Basilica marking the Catholic Church’s decision to return to the Orthodox the relics of St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom, both deeply revered by Catholics and Orthodox.
Francis employed a similar tactic with the Russians in 2017, lending them the relics of St. Nicholas of Bari, one of the most highly revered saints in the Orthodox community.
Benedict XVI continued John Paul’s work engaging the Orthodox, meeting with patriarchs of Orthodox Churches during visits abroad and at the Vatican. In 2006, Patriarch Christodoulos became the first leader of the Greek Church to visit the Vatican.
Francis has committed himself to carrying that torch forward. His frequent meetings with Bartholomew, many observers say, have cemented relations with the Orthodox, and his meeting with Kirill in 2016 is an illustration of just how far this dialogue has come.
If Francis is able to form solid relationships with leaders of the Bulgarian and Macedonian Orthodox churches during his May 5-7 visits, as well as with the Romanian Orthodox church during his trip at the end of the month, it could give the Vatican greater support in the wider Orthodox world, while continuing to isolate Russia should they insist on not playing nice.
So while Francis’s visit to Macedonia and Bulgaria, as well as Romania, might seem uninteresting from a global news-making perspective, the trips could pack considerable ecumenical and political punch, and could help shape the bigger picture of the Vatican’s engagement with Eastern Europe.