This Light of the East

Pope Francis meets Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill

east 1The announcement of a meeting between Pope Francis and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill, was greeted across secular and religious media with excitement. This is a considerable milestone for Russian Orthodox-Catholic relations.

A bit of history

The history of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church has been fraught with controversy since the Schism.

In the sixteenth century, the Pope sent a Jesuit to convert Ivan IV (so-called Ivan the Terrible) to Catholicism, with little luck.east 2

For most of Russia’s history, being a Catholic was either frowned upon, or prohibited by law. The Russian state was sensitive towards the perceived threat of Russians converting to Catholicism.

A bone of contention in this relationship was Poland, a traditionally Catholic country and one of Russia’s neighbours, and also Ukraine. Ukraine is split by linguistic and religious divides, as recent events have shown.

Riches of Eastern Tradition

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Vladimir Solov’ev, Russian theologian

Despite centuries of polemics and generations of theologians writing about subjects such as the filioque, papal infallibility and more, no real movement has brought the Churches closer together, despite efforts by some (such as Vladimir Solov’ev).

Most Catholics and Orthodox might more readily point to cultural and linguistic differences, such as the architecture of Churches, icons and life of prayer. However, many Catholics look to the Eastern traditions, especially icons, with great love and respect.

The Eastern tradition of contemplative prayer, asceticism and silence, which is demonstrated in Dostoevsky’s books such as The Brothers Karamazov, is attractive to many Catholics. (You can read more about this in The Jesus Prayer, by Bishop Kallistos Ware).

What does Pope Francis think?

Pope Francis is not the first recent pope to seek dialogue with Russian Orthodoxy. It was a cause also close to the heart of Pope John Paul II, who said in his encyclical Et Unum Sint that

“the Church must breathe with her two lungs!”

(a metaphor borrowed from the Russian poet and Catholic convert, Viacheslav Ivanov). Pope Francis admires St Francis of Assisi, who is revered among Orthodox as well as Catholics for his love of peace and his ascetic lifestyle.

In 2013, Pope Francis suggested that Catholics should read Dostoevsky:

“When one reads Dostoevsky – I believe that for us all he must be an author to read and reread, because he has wisdom – one perceives what the Russian spirit is, the Eastern spirit. It is something that will do us so much good.

We are in need of this renewal, of this fresh air of the East, of this light of the East.”

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Old Testament Trinity, by Ivan Rublev (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

The Pope quoted Dostoevsky in Lumen Fidei. It seems that Church unity is therefore one of the aims of Pope Francis’ pontificate, one he shared with his predecessors. He invites Catholics to explore the riches of Russian Orthodox culture and meditate on the light of the East.

What will they talk about?

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Tea Russian-style

The two leaders are likely to discuss the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The subjects which they have in common – from fighting global poverty, to battling the worst excesses of the modern world, or encouraging states to achieve ecological goals – are far greater than the issues which divide them.

Many have said that this meeting will not bring us any closer to bridging that great divide which has haunted Christianity for a millennium.

This misses the point somewhat. Ecumenism is not always about concrete outcomes. Dialogue is a goal in itself.

As the Russian writer, Vasilii Rozanov put it:

Thus, the ‘division’ [of the churches] reminds one of a fence, with terrifying
spikes on it, covered in threatening signs, between the backyards of two
neighbours, who have long been drinking tea together in the evenings.


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