From the Bishops Francis and Kirill: A Step for Unity, a Leap for Christianity

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill CNA

From its birthplace in the Middle East, Christianity spread with amazing speed over the well-trodden roads of the Roman Empire. First seen as a breakaway sect of the Jewish faith, Christianity suffered great persecution for three centuries. However, through the blood of martyrs and the steadfast witness of Christians who lived their faith, the Church grew in strength and numbers.  In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, ending the brutal persecutions of Christians. Ten years later, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Thus, from her humble beginnings, the Church conquered the Roman Empire itself. And, not by chance, but by divine design, Rome herself became the center of the Church's unity. 

Ten years after the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter had arrived in Rome. As the one whom Christ had chosen to shepherd the Church, he made the capital of the Roman Empire the seat of his apostolic authority. At the time of his death as a martyr under Nero, his office as the chief shepherd of the Church did not cease. The Church understood the primacy which Jesus bestowed on Peter as a necessary gift in every age in order to preserve the unity of all believers. From Peter's immediate successor, St. Linus, to his 266th successor, Pope Francis, the bishop of Rome has exercised this apostolic ministry over the entire Church.

Faithful to his Petrine office of presiding over the Church in unity, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in an historic first, met with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. On Friday, February 12, 2016, as the two religious leaders embraced each other, the Pope, with his refreshing candor, greeted the Patriarch saying, "Finally!" Then, he added, "We are brothers." 

The three-hour long conversation between the Patriarch and the Pope was meticulously choreographed. Two years of preparation led to this historic meeting at Havana's José Martí International Airport. The place itself has no historical memories of the millennium-long separation between the two Churches, no scars of their theological skirmishes or the bloody battles between them. Its carefully chosen neutrality allowed both religious leaders to address the place of Christianity in the present world situation without touching upon the theological doctrine of the primacy of Peter, the issue that continues to divide both Churches.

In this brief meeting of the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia and the Pope of Rome, there is reason to find great hope for the future of Christianity. Their 30 point joint statement acknowledges a common concern on the hot-button issues of our secularized world. It expresses alarm at the increase of "restrictions to religious freedom, to the right to witness to one's convictions and to live in conformity with them..." Their statement further laments "the transformation of some countries into secularized societies, estranged from all reference to God and to His truth...[and] certain political forces, guided by an often very aggressive secularist ideology, [seeking] to relegate [Christians] to the margins of public life."

The Pope and the Patriarch did not hesitate to raise their voices in defense of the poor, the refugees and the immigrants. True to the gospel, they called for all to respect the dignity of every human person as the basis of bringing about the common good. They strongly reaffirmed our common teaching on marriage. They expressed "regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as this union, while the concept, consecrated in the biblical tradition, of paternity and maternity as the distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience."

At a time, when political leaders and anti-life activists urge their governments to continue the killing of the unborn, the elderly and the terminally ill, these two courageous religious leaders upheld the inalienable right to life. They affirmed that "the blood of the unborn cries out to God (cf. Gen 4:10)." They called on young Christians to live their faith boldly and publicly, not conforming to the world, but joyfully passing on the faith that they have received from their parents and forbears.

In their conversation, both religious leaders were united in calling for the end of the persecution of Christians in the very part of the world where the faith itself was born. They challenged world leaders to stop the Islamic State's massacre of Christians in Iraq and Syria as well as in North Africa. Both Catholics and Orthodox acknowledge the need to work together to save Christianity. 

Here is the ultimate lens through which to read this significant historical meeting of East and West: the urgent need to save Christianity. We live in an age when the faith is brutally persecuted in some regions and increasingly marginalized in other regions, including America. We cannot ignore the differences that divide us. We cannot deny the failures and sins that have separated us. Nonetheless, we need to recognize the present threat to the very existence of Christianity. As Christians, we need to work together in giving witness to the Gospel, offering Christ to the world as its hope and salvation. As a smiling Patriarch Kirill said to Pope Francis, "Now things are much easier." 

Ever since the Great Schism of 1054 that split the one Church founded by Christ in two, dividing East and West, geography, language, politics, national pride, ethnic identity and different theological expressions of the one faith have kept Catholics and Orthodox apart. The meeting of Francis and Kirill is not the first attempt to heal that division. In 1964, Pope Paul VI met with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras. As a result of that meeting, the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople lifted the excommunications that had separated their churches. This mutual action paved the way toward restoring communion between Rome and the patriarchates of Orthodoxy. The meeting of Francis and Kirill in Havana took another bold step along that path.

Their historic meeting ended. They went their separate ways. But they had taken a step toward unity by acknowledging our common faith and by recognizing the need to save the Church that Christ himself founded from being marginalized in a highly secularized world. As he took the first step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Francis and Kirill, by their meeting in Havana, took one small step for the unity of East and West, but one giant leap for Christianity!

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