With war in Ukraine, Pope Francis’ yearslong outreach to Kirill appears to be in ruins

For years popes have hoped to meet the Russian Patriarch in Moscow, but the war in Ukraine has set back the clock on overcoming the Christian divide between East and West.

Pope Francis, left, reaches to embrace Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill after signing a joint declaration at the Jose Marti International airport in Havana on Feb. 12, 2016.  (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool, File)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — High-ranking Vatican officials criticized Patriarch Kirill of Moscow this week for his failure to push for peace in Ukraine, nearly ensuring that among the casualties of Russia’s invasion may be Pope Francis’ yearslong campaign to strengthen the Catholic Church’s bonds with Russian Orthodox Christians.

Only a month ago, the Vatican still eagerly anticipated a possible meeting between Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Pope Francis this summer, building on a historic 2016 meeting in Havana, where they signed a 30-point joint declaration calling their churches “to prudence, social solidarity and to action aimed at the construction of peace.” 

That document cast Europe’s two dominant Christian churches as peacemakers in the region and specifically in Ukraine. The pope promised to promote harmony between the Orthodox communities in Ukraine, which had already begun to fracture over Russian political meddling.

Expectations have increased ever since that the pope might crown ecumenical efforts begun by his predecessors by becoming the first pontiff to visit Moscow, or that the two leaders would meet in the southern Italian town of Bari, which increasingly under Francis has become a hub of Catholic ecumenical efforts. In 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the town a statue of St. Nicholas, beloved by Catholics and Orthodox, as a sign of reconciliation.

Before becoming patriarch, Kirill visited Rome as chair of the Russian church’s department for external church relations and was a familiar face to many at the Vatican. As patriarch, he joined Francis in his push for further cooperation, focusing on charitable work and the promotion of religious freedom rather than attempting to reconcile complex theological issues.

But with Russia’s entry into Ukraine Feb. 24, the possibility of a meeting between Francis and Kirill began to fade. Francis abruptly canceled his appearance at a meeting with Mediterranean bishops and politicians to promote peace, citing knee pains, but days later he left the Vatican to meet with the Russian ambassador to the Holy See.

The pope did not openly condemn Russia as the conflict began, possibly attempting to retain a diplomatic disinterest in hopes of serving as an intermediary. But at a prayer service on Sunday (March 6), he pushed back against Russian claims that the invasion of Ukraine was a minimal “special military operation.” 

In a sermon the same day, Kirill sided heavily with Putin, providing a spiritual platform for the aggression in Ukraine and condemning Western influence, particularly what he alleged was an LGBTQ agenda.

“We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance,” Kirill said, accusing Western powers of promoting values contrary to Christian teaching.

Francis’ No. 2 at the Vatican, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, spoke candidly about the repercussion of Kirill’s remarks. “Kirill’s words do not favor or promote an agreement. Instead, they risk heightening spirits toward an escalation and not solve the crisis peacefully,” Parolin, who heads the Vatican Secretariat of State, said at an event in Rome on Wednesday.

Asked about the possibility of a meeting between Francis and Kirill, the cardinal said that “the situation is complicated by the tensions that exist between the churches, so at the moment there hasn’t been the opportunity” to plan a meeting.

Parolin spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier this week but said he “was given no reassurance” by Moscow concerning the protection of civilians in Ukraine and seemed to express doubts about the possibility of a peaceful solution to the conflict.

On Tuesday, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, president of the European Catholic bishops’ official delegation to the European Union, appealed to Kirill directly in an open letter asking him to “show goodwill for seeking a diplomatic solution to the conflict, based on dialogue, common sense and respect for international law.”

Hollerich cited the Havana declaration and urged Kirill in the letter to “not let those powerful words go in vain.”

Meanwhile, Metropolitan Archbishop Hilarion, who now heads the department for external church relations for the Russian church and who played a crucial role in Francis’ and Kirill’s meeting in Havana, has remained silent on the Ukrainian and Russian conflict. His refusal to condemn Russia’s actions cost him his teaching position at the University of Freiburg, which suspended him earlier this week. 

With ecumenical and diplomatic channels seemingly exhausted, Francis sent two Vatican officials, Cardinal Michael Czerny and Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, to the border with Ukraine as representatives of the pope with the mission to help immigrants, promote peace and rekindle dialogue with the local churches.

Krajewski, the papal almoner, spoke with the head of the autocephalus church of Ukraine, Epiphanius, online on Tuesday and expressed the closeness of the Vatican and Pope Francis with the suffering people of Ukraine.

The Vatican’s outreach to Moscow has been complicated by its warming relations with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, archbishop of Constantinople, who is considered the “first among equals” of the Eastern Orthodox patriarchs and who has visited the Vatican repeatedly and attended Catholic events. In 2019, Bartholomew recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as an independent entity, formalizing its split from Moscow and creating a breach with Kirill. 

According to a Pew Research Center Survey conducted in 2016, roughly 46% of Orthodox Ukrainians adhere to the autocephalous church, while 17% look to Kirill as their spiritual leader.

RELATED: New York governor, clergy and ambassadors join Orthodox leaders to pray for Ukraine

Aside from his difficulties with Rome, Kirill is facing increased backlash from his own clergy for his support of Putin’s war. On March 3, hundreds of Russian Orthodox priests declared they will no longer commemorate the patriarch during services. Some Orthodox bishops in Europe have also called for Kirill to speak up against the war.

Before the conflict in Ukraine erupted into war, some at the Vatican hoped it could calm the interreligious tensions in the country through the mediation of the Greek Catholic Church, which is loyal to Rome.

On Thursday, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk urged Ukrainians to accept forced migrants fleeing combat in eastern Ukraine: “Disregard the language they speak, the church they go to, which traditions they have. Open to them your hearts, your homes, embrace them in the name of God!”

It’s a message that Francis might have wished he and Kirill could have once issued together.

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