In arranging to meet in September with Russia’s Patriarch Kirill, Pope Francis evidently has two goals in view: peace in Ukraine and progress in Catholic-Orthodox relations. While both are highly desirable, it is far from certain this particular conversation will contribute much to accomplishing either.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill last met in 2016 in Havana — an encounter commonly assumed to have Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blessing. The two men were scheduled to meet again earlier this year, but that meeting was called off because of the war in Ukraine. Instead they had a 40-minute Zoom conversation. Now the rescheduled meeting will take place during a Sept. 14-15 interreligious gathering in Kazakhstan.
But will it be helpful to achieving the pope’s goals? Start with ending the war.
In a Spanish-language TV interview in July, Pope Francis expressed awareness of the limitations of the patriarch of Moscow and all Russia as an interlocutor in the cause of peace. Of Patriarch Kirill, a vocal backer of Putin’s Ukraine policy, the pope said delicately, “It is evident his position is conditioned by his homeland” — he sees things through Russian eyes.
That was considerably milder than the pope’s rhetoric last May when he cautioned the patriarch against serving as “Putin’s altar boy” — a remark the Moscow patriarchate called “regrettable.” This time the sharp-tongued pope confined himself to saying that only God knows people’s moral responsibility “in the depth of their hearts.”
For his part, Patriarch Kirill has made no bones of the fact that he supports Putin’s objective of extending Russian hegemony — religious as well as political — in Ukraine as well as in other parts of the region. Western support of Ukraine, he says, is “part of the large scale geopolitical strategy aimed at weakening Russia.”
The pope has repeatedly declared his eagerness to help end the bloodshed, saying he is ready to go to both Moscow and Kyiv for that purpose. Up to this writing, however, neither Putin nor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has leaped at that offer, although the Vatican lately has begun suggesting a papal visit to Ukraine could in fact be imminent. In the meantime, Ukrainian voices continue to be raised criticizing Pope Francis the would-be mediator for overdoing his even-handedness and failing to criticize Putin’s aggression and the atrocities that have accompanied it.
What impact a Francis-Kirill conversation will have on Catholic-Orthodox relations is similarly problematical.
It is true of course that, as far and away the largest of the world’s autocephalous Orthodox churches, the Russian Orthodox Church can hardly be ignored. But reacting against the Russian invasion, some Ukrainian Orthodox who had been under the jurisdiction of Moscow have broken away and formed their own church, while Patriarch Kirill and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople have clashed publicly. Plainly this intra-Orthodox brouhaha is best left to the Orthodox, without the bishop of Rome getting involved.
In that Zoom conversation last March, Pope Francis later reported, Patriarch Kirill “spent the first 20 minutes holding a piece of paper reading all the reasons for the war.”
“I listened to him, and I told him, ‘I don’t know anything about this. Brother, we are not clerics of the state, we cannot use the language of politics, but of Jesus. We are shepherds of the same holy people of God. That is why we must seek the path of peace, to cease the blast of weapons,’ ” the pope said.
It seems all too possible that, meeting in September, the two men won’t get much beyond repeating what they said in March. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.