Feb 16, 2016
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.