By Gordon L. Heath
The collegial face-to-face meeting between Roman Catholic Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on 12 February 2016 in Havana, Cuba, was just one more encouraging example of the positive strides being made between Catholics and Orthodox to mend their longstanding mutual animosity. But it was more than that. It was a brief reminder of how church trajectories – that seemed so “obvious” at one time – can quickly change and make fools of prognosticators. It was also a further demonstration of an “ecumenism of the trenches.”1
The two patriarchs2 met in Cuba, a communist nation that for decades sought to eradicate Christianity. More recently the Cuban government has softened its stance against the church. Today roughly 60% of Cuba is Catholic, and papal visits in 1998 (John Paul II), 2012 (Benedict XVI), and 2015 (Francis) were met with significant public support.
Patriarch Kirill presides over the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the autocephalous Eastern Orthodox churches. His flock also faced threats. For roughly seventy years Soviet communists did their best to eradicate Orthodoxy from Russia. It was a nightmare for the faithful, and one estimate of the devastation states that by 1941:
Orthodox churches went from 46,457 to 4,225
Orthodox priests went from 50,960 to 5,665
Orthodox deacons went from 15,210 to 3,100
Orthodox bishops from 130 to 28
Orthodox monasteries went from 1,026 to 383
However, Russian Orthodoxy was not wiped out, and today Patriarch Kirill presides over a resurgent church widely embraced by ethnic Russians.
Communist attempts to de-Christianize both nations failed, for a number of reasons. The point, however, is that predictions of the church’s demise were wrong.
Yet before one gets too triumphalistic, one should read the joint statement made by both leaders. They certainly rejoice that the “chains of militant atheism have been broken” and that “in many places Christians can now freely confess their faith.”
However, all is not well and they know it. Things are getting so bad that Christian divisions are no longer a luxury but a mortal threat; Christians must work together. In their words, “human civilization has entered into a period of epochal change” and “Orthodox and Catholics must learn to give unanimously witness” in the midst of darkness and despair.
The Muslim world is particularly troubling for them: “In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated. Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed.” Together they call for an end to the suffering.
The situation in Europe also looks grim and beckons them both to concerted joint effort to stem the tide. They state “While remaining open to the contribution of other religions to our civilization, it is our conviction that Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots. We call upon Christians of Eastern and Western Europe to unite in their shared witness to Christ and the Gospel, so that Europe may preserve its soul, shaped by two thousand years of Christian tradition.”
The story of communism in Cuba and Russia ended well for Francis’ and Kirill’s flocks, yet as their joint statement indicates, they see even greater threats now and on the horizon. The post-Christian world can be an uncertain and dangerous place, but fortunately these two patriarchs are willing to put animosities aside to face them together.4
1. Attributed to Timothy George.
2. Other traditional ancient patriarchs reside in Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria.
3. K. S. Latourette, Christianity in a Revolutionary Age Vol.4, 498.
4. The official translation of the full joint declaration can be found here.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*