"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch


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Tuesday, 9 February 2016


Documentary about the original Divine Mercy image – is this really what Christ looked like? 
One of the most familiar images in Catholic churches today is the Divine Mercy image.

Most will be aware of the story of the vision of Sr Faustina and how she instructed an artist in Lithuania to paint it. What I did not know is that the images that we see most commonly in churches, and which are usually reproductions, are not reproductions of the original, but of painted copies of the original.

You can see this in the trailer for the documentary here.

I present this because I know that this image has a central place in popular piety of Catholics. But I am going to have to come clean here and give my personal opinion. I do not like the Divine Mercy image – I find it a poorly rendered naturalistic image and very sentimental and not conducive to prayer at all. Although now that I look at it, the original, shown above, does look less sentimental than the one I am used to seeing, which always looks something like this:

I did hear a story that Sr Faustina was never happy with the image either and in the end reluctantly agreed to its use assuming that no artist could ever reproduce satisfactorily what she had seen. Then years later, so the story went as related to me, she saw an image of Christ painted in the iconographic style and said, ‘That’s what he looked like!’ I can’t corroborate this, but I find it plausible.

Putting my personal preferences about the style aside, there is another very interesting point about this image, I am happy to accept that there is at least a basic likeness between the image and what Sr Faustina actually saw in her vision and described to the artist. The Divine Mercy image of Christ corresponds to the classic likeness that we are used to seeing in so many paintings from the tradition. He has a beard and long hair, for example. This corresponds also to other images not created by human hand, such as the Turin Shroud and the Mandylion.

Is this what Christ looked like historically? The skeptic would say that the Divine Mercy image looks as it does because Sr Faustina’s vision came from her imagination, which had been influenced by images that she had already seen; and it was not a vision direct from God at all. The criticisms from the politically correct who are interested in cultural diversity, would take the same line and then go further. They say that the whole tradition is influenced by a Eurocentric vision of the world that makes him a white Western European in flat contradiction to what history tells us about him.

I argue from faith and say that Sr Faustina did see a vision from God, and that (for all my reservations about the style of the painting itself) Christ did look like this. Furthermore, I would say, history backs this up.

What Does 'Divine Mercy' Actually Mean?

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Oct 27, 2010)
The following is an excerpt from the book Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI, by Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD, and published by Marian Press.

Before we can walk through the story of God's merciful love for the human race, we need to have some knowledge of what "Divine Mercy" actually means. The phrase presents us with a semantic problem right from the start. After all, the word "mercy" in contemporary English has a very restricted meaning. It is usually used to refer to an act of pardon, as in "Let me off, judge; have mercy!" or "He threw himself on the mercy of the court." In the Catholic tradition of theology, however, mercy means more than just the cancellation of punishment, far more than that. 

Divine Mercy is God's love reaching down to meet the needs and overcome the miseries of His creatures. The Bible, the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Pope John Paul II all assure us that this is so.

The Old Testament provides us with many images of human misery and of God in His mercy seeking to relieve it. One of most poignant images of such misery is that of a woman suffering the aching loneliness of having no husband and no children — of being completely bereft in the world. This is the spiritual plight of all of us without God. It was used by the Old Testament prophets to signify Israel being reduced to utter misery because of her sins and unfaithfulness to the Lord. But this is not the end of the story. The Lord Yahweh Himself has compassion on the woman by marrying her and making her fruitful. He reaches down to the woman in her misery and raises her up. Where there was only despair, loneliness, and heartache come joy, fruitfulness, and abiding love.

An inspiring example of such steadfast divine love relieving human misery is found in the Old Testament prophet known as Second Isaiah. As he writes, he is encouraging the Jews who are exiles in Babylon not to give up hope that God in His compassion will deliver them:

"Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in travail! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her that is married, says the Lord. Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; hold not back, lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities.

"Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be put to shame; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer.

"For this is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you" (Is 54:1-10).

In the Old Testament, there are two principle Hebrew words that we usually translate as mercy. First of all, there is the word hesed, which means "steadfast love, covenant love." Someone who has the attribute of hesed is someone you can always count on, someone who never lets you down. According to the Catholic Biblical scholar John L. Mckenzie, the word hesed is often used in Hebrew in connection with other words which bring out its meaning, such as hesed-emet (steadfast, dependable love), hesed-sedekah (righteous, holy love) and hesed-yesua (rescuing, saving love). In a remarkable endnote to his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), Pope John Paul II teaches that hesed contains the meaning of faithfulness to oneself, to one's own promises and commitments to others (Thus, Professor Scott Hahn's popular book on the Bible is entitled The Father Who Keeps His Promises). The Holy Father writes:

When in the Old Testament the word hesed is used of the Lord, this always occurs in connection with the covenant that God established with Israel. This covenant was, on God's part, a gift and a grace for Israel ... God had made a commitment to respect it ... [this divine hesed] showed itself as what it was at the beginning, that is, as a love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin (no. 52).

As we have seen in our opening example, in a sense, the whole experience of Israel with God is an experience of His hesed-love (Is 54:10): "For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love [hesed] shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord who has compassion on you." As John L. Mckenzie has written: "The entire history of the dealing of Yahweh with Israel can be summed up as hesed; it is the dominating motive which appears in his deeds, and the motive which gives unity and intelligibility to all His dealings with men" (Dictionary of the Bible).

The second most common word for God's mercy in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word rachamim: tender, compassionate love, a love that springs from pity. Someone who has rahamim is someone who feels for your plight and is moved with compassion to help you. Rachamim is often used in conjunction with hesed. It comes from a root word rechem, which means a mother's womb. Thus, there is a special intimacy and responsiveness about this kind of love, and a special concern for the sufferings of others. The Holy Father sees hesed as, in a sense, a masculine form of love (steadfast, dependable, righteous, being true to oneself and to one's promises), while rachamim is more feminine (tender, responsive, compassionate, like a mother responding in love to the sufferings of her child).

In the New Testament, the Greek word that is usually translated as "mercy" is the word eleos. It can also be translated as loving kindness or tender compassion. The Greek word comes from a root word meaning oil that is poured out. Thus, when the Church sings in her liturgy the Greek words Kyrie Eleison and Christie Eleison, she is praying that the merciful love of God will be poured out upon her children, like holy oil from above. According to the ancient Fathers of the Church, the Church herself was born from the wounded side of Christ, when out of His heart there poured out blood and water, symbolic of all the graces of the two chief Sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist (Jn 19:34). In short, eleos is God's love poured out upon His people.

In the Latin tradition, the principal word for mercy is misericordia, which means, literally "miserable heart." Father George Kosicki, CSB, the great Divine Mercy evangelist, once summed up the meaning of this Latin word as follows: misericordia means "having a pain in your heart for the pains of others, and taking pains to do something about their pain."

The most comprehensive statement by the Magisterium on the meaning of Divine Mercy can be found in Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy, 1981). In that encyclical, the Holy Father made two very important statements about mercy. First, he wrote, "Mercy is love's second name." Secondly, he taught that mercy is "the greatest attribute of God."

Let us look at each of these statements in turn.

Mercy is Love's Second Name
Here the Pope was not saying anything new. According to the Catholic theological tradition, mercy is a certain kind of love, a certain expression of love.

Love in general might be defined as a sharing and giving of oneself to another, a selfless seeking of the good of another. According to the Polish theologian Ignacy Rozycki: 

Traditional Catholic moral theology treats of the virtue of mercy as flowing from love of neighbor. Namely, it is that virtue which inclines us to offer assistance to a person suffering from want or misery. This being so, "mercy" in moral theology ... is not love itself but love's result and extension (quoted in Pillars of Fire in my Soul: the Spirituality of St. Faustina, Marian Press, 2003, p. 95).

Thus, playing games with one's children, or enjoying and sharing conjugal love with one's spouse, or singing the praises of the Lord at Holy Eucharist, while each of these acts would be considered acts of "love" of various kinds, ordinarily we would not call them acts of "mercy." On the other hand, giving bread to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and shelter to the homeless — or indeed bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the lost and the broken — these are all acts of merciful love: love reaching down to lift people out of their physical and spiritual miseries.

Mercy is the Greatest Attribute of God
Pope John Paul II wrote in Dives in Misericordia: "The Bible, Tradition, and the whole faith life of the People of God provide unique proof ... that mercy is the greatest of the attributes and perfections of God" (no. 13). As we shall see later in this book, the Pope was reiterating here the teaching of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. But we still may want to know how this can be true. How can any of God's perfections be "greater" than any other? According to the Christian philosophical tradition and the definition of God given at the First Vatican Council, God is one, simple, spiritual, infinitely perfect act of Being. He does not have "parts" as bodily creatures do. Rather, each of His perfections — such as His love, His goodness, His power, and His wisdom — is just another name for what He is. The Polish theologian Fr. Ignacy Rozycki explained it like this: 

In this sense, all of God's attributes are God, one and the same. For this reason, all are absolutely equal to each other. Divine Mercy is as infinitely perfect as His Wisdom or Power, for it is likewise God, and the same God, just as Divine Wisdom and Divine Power are God (Pillars of Fire, p. 96).

In other words, God does not just do merciful things sometimes, nor does He have a merciful "side" to His character, as a human being might have. On the contrary, He is always and everywhere and at all times merciful. Everything He does is an expression of His Mercy — and of all of His other attributes too, all at once. All of His attributes are eternally in action! But then Fr. Rozycki goes on to write:

If, on the other hand, mercy is understood in the Biblical sense as functional, then, even though it is called an attribute, it first of all denotes the results of the infinite and eternal love of God in world history, and especially in the history of mankind's salvation. In fact, both hesed (mercy in the Old Testament), as well as eleos (mercy in the New Testament) signify active manifestations of God's love toward mankind. In the Old Testament the manifestations found their expression in the calling and directing of the chosen people, and in the New Testament they were found in the sending of the Son of God into the world and in the entire work of redemption. This Biblically formulated relationship between love and mercy is expressed by [St.] Faustina in the words: 'Love is the flower, mercy the fruit' (Diary, 948).

So, if we understand mercy in the Biblical sense, then without any fear of error contrary to the faith, it can be said that mercy is the greatest attribute of God ... [in other words] within this Biblical understanding, the results of the activity of merciful love are the greatest in the world and in this respect, mercy surpasses all other Divine attributes (Pillars of Fire, p. 96).

Another way to express this insight would be as follows: Divine Mercy is supremely manifest in all of God's actions toward mankind, and to show mercy must be the motive and intention behind all of God's actions in the world.

Drawing upon the biblical words for mercy, and upon the magisterial teachings of Pope John Paul II, therefore, let us try to formulate a clear definition of what we mean by "Divine Mercy."

According to the first epistle of St. John, "God is love" (4:8). He is infinite, eternal, self-giving love within His own being, among the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From all eternity, therefore, within His own infinite essence, He enjoys the fullness of love given, love received, and love returned. He enjoyed that fullness of perfect love before He ever made the world — and even if He had never made any world at all, He still would have enjoyed this perfect beatitude of eternal love, for "God is love."

In the infinite, eternal love that He is, in the inner life of the Blessed Trinity, there is no need for "mercy," for there is no "want" or "misery" or "suffering" that needs to be overcome in the Infinitely Perfect Being. What then is Divine Mercy?

Saint Thomas Aquinas defined mercy in general as "the compassion in our hearts for another person's misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him" (ST II-II.30.1). Divine Mercy, therefore, is the form that God's eternal love takes when He reaches out to us in the midst of our need and our brokenness. Whatever the nature of our need or our misery might be — sin, guilt, suffering, or death — He is always ready to pour out His merciful, compassionate love for us, to help in time of need:

In fact, God's love for His creatures always takes the form of merciful love. As we read in the Psalms (25:10) "all the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth," and again (145:9), "His tender mercies are over all His works."

When He created the world ex nihilo, therefore, and holds it in being at every moment, it is an act of merciful love: His merciful love overcoming the potential nothingness, the possible non-existence of all things.

When the divine Son became incarnate and dwelt among us, that was an act of merciful love too: His merciful love in sharing our lot, showing us the way to the Father, and making the perfect offering for our sins.

When He sends His Holy Spirit into our hearts to refresh and sanctify us, that too is His merciful love: His merciful love pouring into our hearts the power to grow in faith, hope, and love, and to serve him with joy. Psalm 136 says it best. While celebrating all the works of the Lord in creation and redemption, the psalm bears the constant refrain: "for His mercy endures forever" (Robert Stackpole, Jesus, Mercy Incarnate, Marian Press, 2000, p. 112).

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

Saturday, 6 February 2016


Orthodox, Catholic Leaders Meeting Vital to Protect Christians
Pope Francis and Russian Patriarch Kirill may transform the focus of the ecumenical movement to concentrate on protecting Christians persecuted around the world and to promote social justice, eminent US Catholic and Orthodox scholars told Sputnik.

WASHINGTON (Sputnik) — Pope Francis will meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill on February 12 in Havana, Cuba, according to a joint statement published between the two churches earlier on Friday.

Photo: AP/Andrew Kelly

“This might be one of Pope Francis’s most important firsts,” Catholic University of America (CUA) Theology Professor Reverend Regis Armstrong said on Friday.

Their meeting “has the potential for changing the landscape of Ecumenism,” Armstrong pointed out.

He said the meeting fitted into the pattern of bold and innovative initiatives the Pope had taken since assuming office nearly three years, ago and described the upcoming meeting as one of the pontiff’s “Franciscan firsts.”

The two church leaders are scheduled to meet at the airport in Havana, and the main topic of their meeting will reportedly be the persecution of Christians.

Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia Archpriest Victor Potapov of the Washington Cathedral said the Pope had shown himself willing to cooperate in key areas that Russian Christians had long recognized to be of crucial importance.
Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia Archpriest Victor Potapov of the Washington Cathedral said the Pope had shown himself willing to cooperate in key areas that Russian Christians had long recognized to be of crucial importance.

“I welcome this meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis. The Russian Orthodox Church has long held that churches should work together for the defense of persecuted Christians and social justice,” Potapov said.

He too emphasized the importance of the meeting taking place when Christians around the world, especially in the Middle East, faced huge and growing dangers to their faith and physical survival.

“This is especially important in our times, when the plight of our brothers and sisters barely garners any mention in the mainline Western media,” Potapov noted.

The meeting, Potapov added, would give hope an encouragement to hundreds of millions of believers.

“May their historic encounter bear fruit,” Potapov concluded.

The Christian Church split into a Catholic Church and an Orthodox Church in 1054, an event that is known as the East-West or Great Schism.

Metropolitan Hilarion: “It is necessary to put aside internal disagreements and unite efforts for saving Christianity “

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Department for External Church Relations (DECR), held a press conference on February 5, 2016, at the DECR. The meeting with Russian and foreign mass media reporters was devoted to the Primatial visitation of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia to Latin America, which will take place from February 11 to 22, 2016, His Holiness will visit the Republic of Cuba, Republic of Paraguay and Federal Republic of Brazil.

"   There will be another important event in Cuba. Because of the intersection of the itineraries of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis of Rome, who will be on a visit to Mexico in the same days, it has been decided to hold a meeting between the heads of the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church on the Freedom Island on February 12. The meeting will take place at Havana’s international airport.

The meeting of the Primates of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church has been in preparation for a long time. Throughout the years 1996-97, intensive negotiations were held on the arrangement of a meeting between His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II and Pope John Paul II to be held in Austria, but these negotiations were stopped because of the problems on which the agreement failed. In the first place, it concerned the actions of the Greek Catholics in Ukraine and proselytism of Catholic missionaries in the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate. At the same time, the Supreme Authority of the Russian Orthodox Church has never rejected a possibility itself for such a meeting in the future when the necessary conditions for holding it will be in place.
All these years, the principal problem in the relations between the two Churches and the principal obstacle for holding a meeting between the two Primates has lied in Unia. The fact that the Uniates devastated three dioceses of the Moscow Patriarchate in western Ukraine in the 1980s and 1990s, that they moved the headquarters of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church from Lvov to Kiev, that the UGCC’ mission extended to the traditionally Orthodox lands in eastern and southern Ukraine, that they supported the schismatics – all these factors only aggravated the problem. The situation aggravated further as a result of the recent events in Ukraine, in which the UGCC representatives took a direct part, coming out with anti-Russian and russophobic slogans. So, regrettably, the problem of Unia is still there, with Unia, remaining a never-healing blooding wound that prevents the full normalization of relations between the two Churches.
Nevertheless, the situation as it has developed today in the Middle East, in North and Central Africa and in some other regions, in which extremists are perpetrating a real genocide of the Christian population, has required urgent measures and closer cooperation between Christian Churches. In the present tragic situation, it is necessary to put aside internal disagreements and unite efforts for saving Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to the most severe persecution.
The Sacred Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, which completed its work on February 3, in Moscow, called to make the year 2016 a year of special efforts to be taken in this respect, Therefore, despite the remaining obstacles of ecclesial nature, it has been decided that a meeting should be urgently held between His Holiness Patriarch Kirill and Pole Francis of Rome. The problem of the persecution against Christians will become central at this meeting.
Throughout the recent years, numerous proposals have been coming in concerning the venue of such a meeting. However, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, from the very beginning, did not want it to take place in Europe, since it is with Europe that the grave history of divisions and conflicts between Christians is associated. The coincidence of the date of Patriarch Kirill’s visit to Latin American countries with that of the Pope of Rome’s visit to Mexico has become an opportunity for holding the meeting in the New World, and we hope that it will open a new page in the relations between the two Churches. Along with the main topic – the situation of Christians in the Middle East and other regions in which they are subjected to persecution, the talk will also involve the pressing problems of the bilateral relations and international policy. The meeting will be concluded with the signing of a joint statement.
On February 14 and 15, His Holiness Kirill will visit the Republic of Paraguay at the invitation of President Horacio Manuel Cartes. The visit will become a historical memory tribute to the Russian émigrés who made a considerable contribution to Paraguay’s development in the 1920s-30s, by undertaking research expeditions to the regions difficult of access for studying the mode of life of local Indians and by teaching in local universities.
On February 15, the Day of the Meeting of the Lord, His Holiness the Patriarch will celebrate the Divine Liturgy at the Russian church of the Protecting Veil of Our Lady in Asuncion. Then he will the Russian part of the city cemetery to conduct the Office for the Dead. On the same day, His Holiness will meet with President Horacio Manuel Cartes and our compatriots living in that country.
His Holiness’s visit to Brazil is timed to the 95th anniversary of the day when 1217 Russian refugees arrived in Rio de Janeiro from Gallipoli and the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church’s diocese of Argentina and South America, in which Brazil occupies an important place.
The program will begin with a visit to the capital city of Brasilia, where His Holiness will meet with the President of the Federative Republic of Brazil Ms Dilma Rousseff. Then His Holiness will visit Rio de Janeiro to celebrate a thanksgiving on Mountain Corcovado at the Statue of Christ the Redeemer. He will also visit the Russian Orthodox church of the Holy Martyr Zinaida and meet with Cardinal Orani João Tempesta, Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro. The visit to Brazil will be concluded on Sunday, February 21, with a visit to São Paulo, where His Holiness will celebrate the Divine Liturgy at the Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In the evening of the same day, His Holiness and his party will fly to Moscow.”

Russian Catholics place high hopes on meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill
Moscow, February 5, Interfax - Russian Catholics are hopeful that a meeting between Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia and Pope Francis in Havana on February 12 will help unite all efforts to protect Christians from persecution and genocide.

“The pope has regularly met with the heads of different Orthodox churches. A meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, as the largest of them, will serve as a crucial milestone not only in strengthening the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, but, first and foremost, will help unite the Christians’ efforts to defend fundamental values and primarily protect the Christians themselves from persecution,” the secretary general of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia, Priest Igor Kovalevsky, told Interfax-Religion.

“It is a scandalous situation that Christians in different regions of the world are subject not only to persecution, but also to genocide in the 21st century,” he said.

Hopefully, the upcoming meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis will help unite efforts of different faiths to protect the Christians around the world, he added.

More on the Pope Francis-Patriarch Kirill Meeting in Cuba
my source: Inside the Vatican 

February 5, 2016, Friday — More on the Pope Francis-Patriarch Kirill Meeting in Havana, Cuba, on February 12

“Thus, in full awareness and at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome that Peter bathed with his blood, the current successor assumes as his primary commitment that of working tirelessly towards the reconstruction of the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers. This is his ambition and compelling duty. He is aware that to do so, expressions of good feelings are not enough. Concrete gestures are required to penetrate souls and move consciences, encouraging everyone to that interior conversion which is the basis for all progress on the road of ecumenism.“Theological dialogue is necessary. A profound examination of the historical reasons behind past choices is also indispensable. But even more urgent is that ‘purification of memory,’ which was so often evoked by John Paul II, and which alone can dispose souls to welcome the full truth of Christ. It is before Him, supreme Judge of all living things, that each of us must stand, in the awareness that one day we must explain to Him what we did and what we did not do for the great good that is the full and visible unity of all His disciples.”
—Remarks of Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, on April 20, 2005, the day after he was elected Pope, in the first homily of his pontificate, which made clear how central the work of seeking Christian unity must be to any Roman pontiff, and so, also to Pope Francis (link)


There are several points to keep in mind in the run-up to the just-announced two-hour meeting in Cuba between Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome — and so the head of the Roman Catholic Church — and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, scheduled for February 12 at the airport in Havana.

The Pope will be traveling from Rome to Mexico, where he will make a week-long pastoral visit. So the meeting has been added on to the beginning of his trip.

Kirill will be in Cuba for a visit to a Russian Orthodox community in the country, and after meeting the Pope, he will proceed to visit other Russian Orthodox communities in several countries in South America. So the meeting has been inserted into the middle of his continental visit schedule.

(1) The importance of the meeting.
  • Such a meeting has never occurred before.
  • Because it is unprecedented, it is of world-historical importance.
  • It is of importance for the history of the Church, that is, for the history of the Christian faith. It is also, therefore, important for salvation history.
  • Finally, it is important for the history of Western culture, and therefore for the history of the world.

(2) Prior attempts to have such a meeting.

Such a meeting almost occurred 20 years ago between Pope St. John Paul II and Patriarch of Moscow Alexi II.

But that meeting was canceled at the last minute, for reasons that have never been made entirely clear, and it has been postponed each year since, for two decades now.

(3) Reasons the meeting has not been held.

The postponement of such a meeting has largely been due to disagreements involving:

(a) alleged Catholic “proselytism” among the Orthodox Russians in Russia;

(b) theological and pragmatic disagreements between the two Churches over the existence and activity of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine.

Note: The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church dates back to 1596, when it reunited with Rome. Then, some 350 years later, Stalin suppressed the Church, declaring it illegal in 1946. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church went underground for 45 years, re-emerging only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is based primarily in the western part of Ukraine, in the area close to Catholic Poland and Catholic Austria. It is a Church which celebrates its liturgies according to the Eastern (Byzantine) rite — just as the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox do — but is in communion with Rome, and so is a part of the Catholic Church. The Russian Orthodox Church itself has a strong presence in Ukraine — about one-third of the Russian Church’s bishops are in Ukraine.

This is the background of disputes during the past 25 years over who owns churches which were Catholic prior to 1946, then Orthodox between 1946 and 1991, then Catholic again after 1991, and are today claimed by both Churches.

(3) The “diplomacy of music” and of “exchange of gifts.”

In recent years, the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox have been in contact through many and diverse channels, creating a number of opportunities for conversation and improved mutual understanding.

These channels included exchanges of gifts, including musical exchanges (concerts), which were effective in allowing contacts to take place in a non-polemical context.

(a) A key moment in this process was the decision of Pope John Paul II, in the last months of his life, to return to the Russians the much-revered Russian icon known as The Icon of the Blessed Mother of Kazan, a “wonder-working” icon which is known popularly in Russia as “the Protection of Russia.”

The icon returned to Russia on August 28, 2004, and is now in the Cathedral of Kazan.

(b) Another key moment came in Rome on March 29, 2007, when a Russian orchestra and choir presented The Passion According to St. Matthew, composed by the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, who has now become the “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church (our magazine helped to organize that concert, which took place in the Auditorium on via della Conciliazione).

(c) Another key moment came on December 17, 2007, when a second composition by Hilarion, called Christmas Oratorio, was presented in Washington D.C. in the largest Catholic Church in the United States, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, to a standing-room only audience.

At the same time, a moving exhibit on “The Spiritual Renewal of Russia,” which included a wooden icon of Mary pierced by bullet holes, was offered in the crypt of the basilica (our magazine also helped to organize that concert and exhibit).

(d) Still another key moment came on May 20, 2010, when Benedict XVI attended a concert in Rome in which a number of the pieces had been composed by Hilarion.

Hilarion attended that concert and sat next to Pope Benedict during the performance.

(e) A pivotal moment also came on November 12, 2013, when a “Concert for Peace” was presented in Rome in honor of Pope Francis following the Pope’s calling of a day of prayer for peace in Syria and the Middle East in September, 2013 (our magazine and our Urbi et Orbi Foundation for Church Unity also helped to organize that concert).

(f) Finally, on December 17, 2015, in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, the choir of the Moscow Patriarchate sang alongside the Sistine Chapel choir, the choir of the Pope, as a gift to Pope Francis on his 79th birthday, which fell on that day. Pope Francis was not in attendance at the concert, but Cardinal Kurt Koch was.

All of these events — and many others too numerous to list — made up the “diplomacy of music” and the “diplomacy of gifts” which helped prepare the way for this historic meeting schedued to take place in Havana, Cuba.

(4) Why now?

It is not entirely clear why the meeting is being held precisely now, in Cuba, and announced publicly only a week before it takes place.

Both leaders are clearly concerned about the dramatic turn of events now occurring in Syria, and have publicly lamented and warned about the dangers of a wider war.

Since August, Russian troops have been directly engaged in Syria, in a battle against the forces of ISIS seeking to overthrow the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.

Recently, the events in Syria have taken on an even more dangerous complexion.

As of this writing, there are unconfirmed reports that thousands of Turkish troops are massing on the Syrian border in what seems to be a prelude to an incursion.

Since Russia is now in Syria, defending the Assad regime, such an incursion might lead to Russian casualties, with the possibility of igniting a conflict between Russia and Turkey.

Since Turkey is a member of NATO, such a conflict would have the potential of growing wider.

Pope Francis on several occasions has alluded to the danger of a “Third World War” developing from the various conflicts now occurring in the Middle East, the Ukraine, and elsewhere.

It seems possible that, in this context, Francis and Kirill both desire to have a face-to-face talk, to exchange views and information without any intermediary.

It is well-known that Kirill is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has openly declared his support of Russian Orthodoxy in post-Soviet Russia.

In this context, the meeting takes on the significance of a possible effort by two religious leaders to forestall the eruption of a wider war in the Middle East, which could spread outside of the Middle East.

And the choice of Cuba for the meeting — the place where a conflict between the West and the Soviet Union almost erupted in 1962 at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis — seems, in this context, fitting.

(5) What will be the result of the meeting?

It is impossible to know, of course, but clearly a new historical phase is opening up.

The two religious leaders are concerned first of all about spiritual matters, the lives of their Churches, the lives of Christian believers, the preaching of the message of Christ in the world, the ending of the Great Schism of 1054, which has divided Catholics and Orthodox since that time — now almost 1,000 years.

But they are also concerned about the events of our time, particularly the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, where 2,000-year-old Christian communities — some still speaking the Aramaic language used by Jesus himself — are being threatened, scattered, and killed.

It is believed that the common statement that Pope Francis and Kirill will sign will address this ongoing persecution, and call for action to protect the Christians of the Middle East.

At the same time, even though some unresolved theological disagreements remain, the leaders of the two Churches are expected to call for collaboration in defense of certain fundamental values and institutions, like the dignity of human life and the defense of the traditional family.

So two important Christian leaders will be meeting for the first time, and the world will be watching with considerable interest to see what results from their meeting.


My friend Peter Anderson of Seattle, Washington, who has followed developments in the Orthodox Churches for more than 30 years, today sent me this email. It is worth sharing…


By Peter Anderson

Father Hyacinthe Destivelle, O.P., of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity gave a very interesting interview today to Philippa Hitchen of the English-language service of Vatican Radio (link).

Father Hyacinthe is responsible for the Vatican’s relations with the Slavic Orthodox Churches and was probably the person most involved at the Vatican for working out certain details of the Havana meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill.

Father Hyacinthe speaks fluent Russian and was the pastor of the Catholic Basilica of St. Catherine of Alexandria in St. Petersburg, Russia, immediately prior to his assignment to the Vatican in 2013.

Both Cardinal Koch and Father Hyacinthe will be in Havana for the meeting.

According to Father Hyacinthe, the personal conversation between the Pope and the Patriarch “will be a long encounter – almost two hours.”

After the encounter, there will be an exchange of gifts between the Patriarch and the Pope.

Then there will the signing of a joint declaration.

Father Hyacinthe states that “it is a long declaration.”

He adds: 

“it will be a declaration of different aspects of collaboration, of testimony that the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church can give to our world today. Probably important aspects will be the question of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the question of secularization, the question of the protection of life from its beginning to its natural end, the question of family, marriage, and youth, and other important things to give a common testimony to the world today. But it will not be a theological assessment. The role of this meeting is in the frame of the dialogue of charity.”

Father Hyacinthe, who is from France, also gave an interview to the French-language service of Vatican Radio (link).

This common declaration to the world will probably cover a number of the points that will be also made by the 14 autocephalous (independent or “self-headed”) Orthodox Churches in their message to the world when the pan-Orthodox Council meets in June on the island of Crete.

A detailed summary of Metropolitan Hilarion’s remarks to the press (in Moscow) after the announcement of the Havana meeting have now been posted in English (link).

In his remarks, Metropolitan Hilarion stressed that in view of the persecution Christians, “it is necessary to put aside internal disagreements and unite efforts for saving Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to the most severe persecution.”

The attention given by the world to the historic Havana meeting will probably equal or exceed the great attention given by the world media to the meetings (in the past two years) between the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis.

Anderson concludes: 

“I believe that Pope Francis was concerned that his very close friendship with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew not be construed as a lack of interest in a good relationship with Patriarch Kirill. The Havana meeting has the practical, and perhaps unintended, advantage to Moscow in that it will show that Moscow is not ‘playing second fiddle’ to Constantinople.”

Excerpts from ABC News 

Although next week’s meeting is significant, observers of both the Russian and Western churches said it represented more of a pragmatic step to unite efforts to preserve Christian communities threatened with annihilation in the Middle East, rather than a serious move toward reunification.

“The meeting has a political, a humanitarian significance,” said Yevgeny Nikiforov, a prominent Russian historian of the Church who helps run an Orthodox radio station. “But it has no divine significance.”

The reasons why the two have decided now to meet are complex. The initiative for the meeting appeared to have first come from the Vatican, with Francis telling Kirill in 2014, “I’ll go wherever you want. You call me and I’ll go,” according to The Associated Press.

John Julius Norwich, a bestselling historian of the Byzantine Empire, as well as of the papacy, said he believed the meeting was likely part of a broader effort by Francis to try and strengthen a Catholic church under assault by changing lifestyles in South America and mass violence in the Middle East.

“Christianity is being threatened on every side and he wants to strengthen all the internal bonds he possibly can,” Norwich said.

But Diarmaid MacCulloch, an Oxford University professor and author of an authoritative history of Christianity, believes the rapprochement is, in fact, the result of a fracture within Orthodoxy itself.

MacCulloch said he thought the Russian side’s participation was likely part of a “grand strategy” to position the Moscow Patriarchate as the supreme representative of Orthodox believers, displacing the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, who currently formally heads the faith but whose influence in practice falls far short of Moscow’s.

“It’s a huge, bitter power struggle,” MacCulloch said. “What’s going on in the Orthodox world is that the Moscow Patriarchate is waging a very determined bid to be supreme in the Orthodox world.”

The Moscow Patriarchate oversees the world’s largest number of Orthodox believers and views itself as having inherited the seat of the church after Constantinople was sacked by Muslim armies in the 15th Century. Under President Vladimir Putin’s rule, the Russian church has become increasingly assertive, MacCulloch said, and that by meeting with the pope, it hoped to present itself as the voice of Orthodoxy.

MacCulloch said the Russian church was effectively “parking tanks on the lawns of other churches.”

Still, most observers viewed the meeting as a positive development, although they said they struggled to see how far reconciliation could go, given the centuries of hostility and compacted dogmatic dispute between the two churches.


The Vatican has asked for the prayers of all Catholics, and of all Christians, for the success of this meeting between the Patriarch of Moscow and the Bishop of Rome.

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