When the Pope and Patriarchs Go Island Hopping: Cuba, Lesbos, and Crete

by Paul L. Gavrilyuk

In the effort to draw the world’s attention to the refugee crisis, Patriarch Bartholomew invited Pope Francis to meet on the island of Lesbos on Saturday, April 16, 2016. This is the fifth meeting between the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch in the last three years, beginning with Bartholomew’s unprecedented participation at Francis’ inauguration in March 2013. The primary purpose of the meeting on Lesbos was for the Pope and the Patriarch to demonstrate to the world their profound solidarity with the plight of migrants and refugees that have been flooding this Greek island since the breakout of the war in Syria. Leading by example, the two primates ate together with those whose lives had been disrupted by war. Such a demonstration of humility is yet another attempt to nudge the Catholic and the Orthodox churches in the direction of unity.

But the meeting on Lesbos also had other implications.First, the Lesbos meeting happened after the meeting of the Pope with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on Cuba in February of this year. Second, the meeting took place two months before the historic Holy and Great Council would meet on Crete. What do these island meetings have in common? How do the stances of Moscow and Constantinople differ from each other?

The common thread is quite clear: both Bartholomew and Kirill are sending a message to their flocks that they are serious about rapprochement with Rome. For Kirill, the meeting with the Pope represented a certain risk: the traditionalist fringe that considers ecumenism a heresy is quite vocal in the Russian Orthodox Church. Quite recently, the heads of the eight Russian Orthodox Monasteries in Moldova have publicly threatened to break communion with their local bishop and by implication, with the Russian patriarch, unless the bishop publicly condemned the document “On the Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World,” scheduled to be adopted by the Council of Crete. Similar outbursts, while less organized, are not uncommon in other parts of Russia. Within the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the autonomous Church of Greece, there are sectarians that share the sentiments of their Slavic and Moldovan counterparts. The presence of the Archbishop Ieronymos of Greece at the meeting between the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch on Lesbos was meant to diffuse some of these sentiments.

For the world, the common message of these meetings is that the Pope is ready to meet with the Orthodox primates at their first bidding and on their terms. By such gestures, the leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches continue to show to the world that there are many important social issues – especially the defense of the persecuted, the marginalized, the poor, and the refugees, and the issue of world peace – on which the two Churches are prepared to speak with one voice.

The approaching Holy and Great Council of Crete served as a catalyst for both the Cuban and the Lesbos meetings. The fifty-year-long saga of the Council’s preparation often unfolded against the background music of the rivalry between Moscow and Constantinople. Moscow can certainly claim impressive numbers, since it is the largest Orthodox Church in the world, as long as it includes the parishes in Belarus, Ukraine, and elsewhere outside of Russia. Constantinople’s primacy of honor is sanctioned by the ancient tradition, but the patriarchate’s very existence is threatened by the political situation in Turkey. The Russian Orthodox Church is haunted by its post-totalitarian traumas and has aligned itself too closely with Putin’s rebuilding of the Russian Empire to the point of offering a justification to his military aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere. For these reasons, Patriarch Kirill is known primarily for his critique of human rights as a “global heresy” than for a credible defense of those whose rights are threatened. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, in contrast, finds itself at the mercy of the Turkish government, which makes the plight of this Church sadly resemble that of the Syrian refugees. Patriarch Bartholomew has been a staunch defender of human rights. Consistent with this position, the issue of human rights features prominently in the declaration in support of the refugees that the Patriarch signed with the Pope on Lesbos.

Despite its political situation, the Patriarchate of Constantinople is determined to retain its status, which sometimes causes its head-to-head collisions with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. By meeting the Pope on Cuba, Patriarch Kirill aimed at overshadowing the previous meetings of the Roman Pontiff with Patriarch Bartholomew. By arranging the meeting with the Pope on Lesbos, Patriarch Bartholomew sent a message that he would not allow Moscow to cut him to size before the Holy and Great Council.

Despite the political shenanigans of both patriarchates, the meetings of the leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are important steps towards reconciliation. Will the non-Orthodox observers, particularly the Catholics, be given their due role at the Council of Crete? What will be the long-term effect of the ecumenical work of the Council? Will anyone of us live to see the day when the Orthodox and the Catholics are going to share the Eucharistic communion? While it is easy to lose heart, one needs to be constantly reminded that what is impossible for men is possible for God.

Paul Gavrilyuk is Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy, Theology Department, University of St. Thomas