Russia is isolated and fighting two wars, and its leaders recognise that, diplomacy-wise, the Pope has many divisions

The forthcoming meeting between the Pope and the Moscow Patriarch, which is to take place in Cuba, has generated a huge amount of comment, which I will not summarise here. But it seems to me, amidst all the talk of the historical and ground breaking nature of this meeting, that there are one or two matters that should not be forgotten.

First of all, this meeting has not come out of the blue. It has been on the cards for some time. Recently, the Patriarch sacked Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, who had been a key player in the Moscow Patriarchate’s public relations and fiercely anti-Catholic in his rhetoric, which was merely one aspect of his conservative and nationalist outlook.

By sacking Fr Chaplin, the Patriarch was surely signaling to a major constituency in the Russian Orthodox Church that its attitude to ecumenism and the outside world needed to change.

Secondly, the Patriarch enjoys, if that is the word, a very close relationship with the Russian government. President Putin has twice met the Pope, so it is no surprise that he Patriarch should do so as well. After all, if Putin thinks the Pope worth cultivating, and that it is in Russia’s interest to do so, the Patriarch would surely think the same, if we can assume that the two are singing from the same hymn sheet. Russia needs friends right now. Its economy is in dire straits, and the price of oil is not going to go up any time soon; moreover Russia is fighting two wars, one in Ukraine and one in Syria. They want the sanctions lifted. Both Patriarch and President Putin probably regard the Pope as wielding international influence.

Russia enjoys warmer relations with Italy than other European powers, and this may have encouraged the view that the Pope is a major international player. This might strike many western observers as ridiculous, but we should perhaps not underestimate the soft power of the Vatican. Photo ops with the Pope have certainly not harmed Putin, who wishes to pose as a defender of Christian values. The Cuba meeting will reinforce the idea that Russia is one of the family of nations, not a pariah state.

And here of course we have a problem for the Vatican, not that they seem to notice it. The Vatican has been very keen on this meeting for years, and no bad headlines have seemed to deflect their enthusiasm. The murder of Mr Litvinenko, the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the more recent murder of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the long imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, all of these prove at the very least that Russia is not a normal country, and the Patriarch is in alliance with a government not like any other in Europe, with the possible exception of Belarus. But the whiff of Putinism does not seem to put the Vatican off. Perhaps the assumption is that Putin will not be with us forever, and in 100 years time, when the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate enjoy warm relations, dating from this historic Cuban encounter, Putin will just be a distant memory.

Will Cuba be the new Jerusalem? Jerusalem is where Pope Paul VI met up with Patriarch Athenagoras II in 1964, a meeting which started the modern era in Catholic-Orthodox relations. Half a century has passed since then, and now Moscow wants to join the party – and it can join the party because the politics have changed. It would have been impossible in the Soviet era; perhaps we should all give thanks for the drop in the oil price if this has indeed led to an ecumenical thaw. After all, the opening to Constantinople was equally political, as the Patriarchate of Constantinople, facing increasing problems, indeed possible extinction, at home, has sought to raise its profile by getting involved in ecumenism. In a speech made last year, which repays careful reading, Patriarch Bartholomew had this to say of his meetings with the Pope:

“These encounters and the Common Statements signed on these occasions received worldwide attention and elevated the presence and significance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate internationally.”

In the same speech he also made the following admission:

“The conditions under which this sacred institution lives and acts are well known to all of you. The dwindling community within the immediate See of the Patriarchate, which is the result of familiar historical circumstances, is naturally of concern to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”

As Catholics we all believe, as a matter of doctrine, that ecumenism is a goal in itself, in accord with the will of Christ, who wished all His disciples to be one. It is not something we embark on because of practical considerations, such as raising our profiles internationally. It is a theological imperative.

Nevertheless, in the field of Eastward-looking ecumenism, the politics are important. It was a political quarrel that divided Rome and Constantinople, and which divided Russia from the West. A political rapprochement could certainly go some way to healing the rift. The rift dates from the Great Schism of 1052, and a millennium of rupture may require a millennium of repair work to heal. But it may be that one day historians will talk of Cuba as a turning point. Let’s hope and pray that it is so.

Meanwhile, the ongoing rivalry between Moscow and Constantinople, as they vie for leadership in the Orthodox world, is another factor that may well have propelled Moscow towards a meeting with the Pope, rather than leave this conversation exclusively to Constantinople. And here we touch the most neuralgic point of all. Before one can even begin to think about Orthodox reconciliation with Rome, one has to consider the healing of the divisions within Orthodoxy itself. The forthcoming Pan-Orthodox Council – the first of the modern era – has been a long time in preparation, and the main sticking point is the relationship between the various local churches. If you read the preparatory document on ecumenism, it concentrates on intra-Orthodox matters more than on relations with Rome. These intra-Orthodox relations are certainly fraught, but, don’t forget, these relations only concern the 14 recognised or canonical Orthodox autocephalous Churches, of which Russia is the largest (for the moment – that is why it is so important for Russia, canonically, to hang on to Ukraine.) There are also the non-canonical Orthodox Churches, whose autocephaly is not recognised by Moscow or Constantinople, such as two rival breakaway Orthodox churches in Ukraine, as well as the self-declared autocephalous church in Macedonia, which has been in schism from Serbia (and everyone else) since 1967.

One must hope that these internal disputes will reach a settlement, because there is little hope of rapprochement with Rome unless all the Orthodox Churches can work together. The landscape is not very encouraging. Cuba may mark a turning point: it may indeed awaken the Orthodox world to the idea that ecumenism is a desirable thing. At least one thing is clear: to have rapprochement between Moscow and Rome, it is necessary for Pope and Patriarch to meet. At least that necessary first step will soon be behind us.