In an historic step to heal the 1,000-year schism that split Christianity, Pope Francis and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church will meet in Cuba next week in an attempt to begin bridging the church’s East-West divide.
The Feb. 12 meeting between Francis and Patriarch Kirill was announced Friday by both churches. It will be the first-ever meeting between the leaders of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the largest in Orthodoxy.
Francis is due to travel to Mexico Feb. 12-18. He will stop in Cuba on the way and meet with Kirill at the Havana airport, where they will speak privately for about two hours and then sign a joint declaration, the Vatican said.
“This event has extraordinary importance in the path of ecumenical relations and dialogue among Christian confessions,” said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The two churches split during the Great Schism of 1054 and have remained estranged over a host of issues
This rift is so deep and long running that the mere fact they’ll be near each other for a couple of hours is a monumental accomplishment.
Pope Francis is continuing work that was begun in earnest by Pope John Paul II, who made ecumenical outreach one of the priorities of his lengthy papacy.
With Christianity under oftentimes violent assault in so many parts of the world, this is a unique time for leaders of various Christian denominations to focus on what unifies rather than what divides them. Obviously, that won’t bring about quick reconciliation or a grand unification (probably going to need Divine intervention for that) but it may help Christians be better prepared should things deteriorate rapidly, even in formerly friendly environments.