With a hug and an exclamation of “Finally,” Pope Francis met Friday with Patriarch Kirill in the first ever meeting between a pontiff and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, a historic development in the 1,000-year schism that has divided Christianity.
“We are brothers,” Francis said as he embraced Kirill in the small, wood-paneled VIP room of Havana’s airport, where the three-hour encounter took place.
“Now things are easier,” Kirill agreed as he and the pope exchanged three kisses on the cheek. “This is the will of God,” the pope said.
Francis was having the brief talks in Cuba before heading off on a five-day visit to Mexico, where the pontiff will bring a message of solidarity with the victims of drug violence, human trafficking and discrimination to some of that country’s most violent and poverty-stricken regions.
The meeting and signing of a joint declaration was decades in the making and cemented Francis’ reputation as a risk-taking statesman who values dialogue, bridge-building and rapprochement at almost any cost.
In the 30-point statement, the two leaders declared themselves ready to take all necessary measures to overcome their historical differences, saying “we are not competitors, but brothers.”
Francis and Kirill also called for political leaders to act on the single most important issue of shared concern between the Catholic and Orthodox churches today: the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria who are being killed and driven from their homes by the Islamic State group.
“In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa, entire families of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being exterminated, entire villages and cities,” the declaration said.
While the meeting has been hailed by many as an important ecumenical breakthrough, Francis has also come under criticism for essentially allowing himself to be used by a Russia eager to assert itself among Orthodox Christians and on the world stage at a time when the country is increasingly isolated from the West.
The declaration was signed in the uniquely ideal location of Cuba: far removed from the Catholic-Orthodox turf battles in Europe, a country that is Catholic and familiar to Latin America’s first pope, but equally familiar to the Russian church given its anti-American and Soviet legacy. The pope helped mediate the declaration of detente between the U.S. and Cuba in 2014.
“If this continues, Cuba will become the capital of unity,” the pope said.
Calling the talks “very substantive,” Kirill said: “The results make it possible to say that today the two churches can actively work together to protect Christians around the world.”
The Vatican is hoping the meeting will improve relations with other Orthodox churches and spur progress in dialogue over theological differences that have divided East from West ever since the Great Schism of 1054 split Christianity.