But the possibility of a meeting in Kazakhstan also had a downside: the Central Asian country’s link with its neighbor Russia. Kazakhstan is the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Another possible location mentioned was Hungary. This hypothesis was based on the desire that Pope Francis expressed to return to the country that he visited for a single day last September.
The suggested venue was Pannonhalma Archabbey, one of Hungary’s oldest historical monuments. This was considered in 1996 as a possible meeting place between Pope John Paul II and the then head of the Russian Orthodox Church Alexy II. The encounter did not, of course, take place.
The idea would have been for Pope Francis’ trip to coincide with a visit to Hungary by Patriarch Kirill, marking the restoration of the Orthodox cathedral in Budapest or the inauguration of the new Russian Orthodox church in Hévíz, western Hungary.
But this hypothesis faded away, to be replaced by the idea of a meeting in Slovakia, a country that the pope called “a message of peace in the heart of Europe” during his September trip.
The proposal of a meeting between Francis and Kirill in the capital Bratislava was advanced by Ján Figeľ, the special envoy of the European Union for religious freedom from 2016 to 2019.
Why Bratislava? Partly because it is the capital of a country that borders Ukraine and is receiving refugees from the war-torn Eastern European country. And also because it is a nation at the center of Europe, the continent that experienced Soviet oppression and knows the need for reconciliation.
“Peoples and the Church,” Ján Figeľ told CNA, “need to share important messages and commitments of loving faith and truth, courage, peace, reconciliation, and brotherhood, now mainly in and for Europe.”
He added that, “conscious of the historical spiritual and political divisions in Europe, and facing the reality of bloody conflict in the east of Europe, we must urgently converge our effort towards true Christian brotherhood and unity on this continent, where Christianity gave roots and orientation to its cultures and identities.”
Slovakia is a bridge between East and West. The opening lines of its constitution refer to the “the spiritual bequest of Cyril and Methodius,” the “Apostles to the Slavs” who are venerated by both Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
John Paul II spoke of a Europe that needed to breathe with two lungs — eastern and western — and for Figeľ, “this grand vision is still possible and achievable.”
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“But the war must end,” he said, “and its consequences cannot represent any imperial expansion of Russia, religious or mental triumphalism, but an actual conversion of Eastern European nations to truth, respect for the dignity of all, proper reconciliation, and shared responsibility.”
Therefore, Bratislava is a strong candidate to be a meeting place for the pope and the Moscow patriarch, the first of its kind in Europe.
Figeľ added that the potential meeting could also “gather together other groups of goodwill, organized lay Christians,” faith-based organizations, and civil society organizations.
“For example, the ICLN [International Catholic Legislators Network] and the IAO [Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy] could start their regular biannual joint meetings in the center of Europe,” he suggested.
In this way, Figeľ said, the meeting “may inspire and encourage the missing post-war process of reconciliation and integration in Eastern Europe as we witnessed in Western Europe, starting with France and Germany under Robert Schuman’s plan.”
“Importantly as well, the name of the city [Bratislava] resonates exceptionally with the Holy Father’s repeated calls for human fraternity. Indeed, ‘brati’ and ‘slava’ in the Slovakian language mean ‘Glory to brothers,’ ‘Glory to brotherhood,’ as ‘brat’ means brother and ‘slava’ is glory. This meaning is the same in other Slavic languages. So, the pope and the patriarch can express, confirm, and visualize their brotherhood in Bratislava in the center of the two Christian and European lungs.”