Doug Stanglin, USA TODAY
Despite famine, religious wars, worldwide conflict and the spread of civilization, the heads of the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox churches haven't spoken since the Great Schism of 1054 shattered Christendom, so they had a lot of catching up to do when they sat down for their historic meeting Friday afternoon in Cuba.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill embraced and kissed one another three times on the cheek as they met in the wood-paneled VIP room at Havana's José Martí International Airport. The two church leaders then proceeded to a pair of straight-backed chairs turned at angles.
Gabriel Bouys, AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis meets with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch more
After another round of handshakes for the cameras and greetings with members of their entourages, the two men sat and began talking. Clasping their hands in their laps, both occasionally gestured and nodded as they spoke. They were scheduled to hold a two-hour "personal conversation" and then sign a joint declaration.
The split between the two churches nearly 1,000 years ago has festered over issues such as the primacy of the pope and accusations by the Russian Orthodox Church that the Catholic Church tries to poach converts in Russia.
No pope has ever visited Russia. En route to the historic visit Friday, journalists asked Francis if a visit to the nation is on his papal bucket list. “China and Russia, I have them here,” Francis said, pointing to his heart. “Pray.”
Few people expect Friday's meeting — which took two years of secret planning to pull off — will wipe away centuries of distrust and suspicion in a few hours, but it will be a groundbreaking step toward Catholic-Orthodox relations.
In announcing the visit last week, both sides issued a statement saying it “will mark an important stage in relations between the two churches."
Ecclesiastical and theological disputes, including issues such as the communion wafer and papal supremacy led to a break between the Greek East and Latin West, giving rise to two separate churches — Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic — after 1054.
Starting in the 15th century, the Russian Orthodox Church became an increasingly independent church that remains in communion with the Eastern Orthodox but does not report to it.
The Catholic Church claims 1.2 billion faithful worldwide. About two-thirds of the world’s Orthodox Christians belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said. About 75% of Russia’s 144 million citizens call themselves Russian Orthodox, according to the latest polls, although only a fraction say they are observant.
One important issue drawing the two churches closer is the rise of Christian persecution in the Middle East and Africa. Metropolitan Illarion, foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, said recently that the treatment of Christians by extremists in the Middle East, in northern and central Africa and in other regions requires "immediate action."
“In this tragic situation, we need to put aside internal disagreements and pool efforts to save Christianity in the regions where it is subject to most severe persecution,” Illarion said.
Another factor changing the landscape is the rise of Russia on the world stage, and the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country under President Vladimir Putin and since the fall of the Soviet Union and collapse of communist rule.
"To have the Roman pope, with his internationally recognized authority, not as a critic but as an ally or at least simply as a neutrally silent figure, is highly attractive to Putin and his associates," said Yury Avvakumov, assistant professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
"The Moscow Patriarchate has always been an instrument of Russian international policy. Today, the Moscow Patriarchate, with its established international ties, remains an effective transmitter worldwide of the political interests of the Russian rulers."
Yana Lapikova, AP
In a 2012 file photo, Russian Orthodox patriarch Kirill chats with Russian President in the St. Daniel Monastery in Moscow.
Under Francis, the Vatican has encouraged continuing ecumenical ties with the Orthodox as well as other Christian denominations. In November 2014, Francis said he told Kirill: “I’ll go wherever you want. You call me and I’ll go.”
The Vatican has been especially solicitous to Russia, especially in largely sidestepping criticism of Moscow's role in the Ukraine conflict.
The issue is particularly knotty for the Catholic Church, as it touches on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the country’s second-largest, which follows eastern church rites but answers to the Holy See. The Russian Orthodox Church has considered western Ukraine its traditional territory and has resented papal influence there.
Cardinal Kurt Koch, the head of the Vatican office that deals with Orthodox relations, said the Ukrainian church will certainly come up in the two-hour private talk between Francis and Kirill, the Associated Press reported. “It would be impossible to meet without discussing such issues,” he told Vatican Radio. But he said the future significance of the meeting could not be overstated.
“It will certainly forge relations within Orthodoxy: We still don’t have contact with a lot of Orthodox patriarchs, and this meeting could help develop intra-Orthodox relations,” he said. “Improved understanding between Rome and Moscow will certainly have positive effects on the theological dialogue.”
For his part, Kirill, since taking the helm in 2009, has overseen closer ties between the church and Kremlin that critics dismiss as the de facto merging of the state and the church. Putin has openly courted the church, noting his mother baptized him in secret as a child, even allegedly keeping it from his father, a low-level Communist party member at the workshop level.
In a 2013 documentary, Putin said the baptism "affected me personally and our family." He has described the church as a vehicle for uniting the Russian people.
"In this sense, the meaning of the church goes beyond the boundaries of the Russian Federation, it helps us to establish good relations with the peoples of other countries, and especially the post-Soviet space, and, of course, the church is performing a very constructive, positive role here," Putin added.
The patriarch, who arrived in Cuba on a formal visit Thursday, also met with Cuban President Raul Castro on Friday. It was the fourth meeting between the pair, according to the Russian state-owned Tass news agency. Alexander Volkov, the patriarch’s spokesman, said relations between the two men has been "long and good."
Castro also greeted the Pope Friday on the tarmac at the airport.