The recent announcement that Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic church, and Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox church, plan to meet in Cuba later this month will mark the first such gathering in more than 950 years.
The summit comes after decades of diplomacy between the Russian Orthodox church and the Vatican.
The two branches split in 1054 over disagreements regarding theology, when they officially became two separate faith traditions: Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians.
While modern popes have met in the past with the Istanbul-based ecumenical patriarchs, the spiritual leaders of Eastern Orthodoxy, the meeting with Kirill is more substantial. Eastern Orthodox patriarchs play a largely symbolic role, while the Russian church is seen as wielding considerably more influence because it includes 165 million of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.
Whereas past efforts to bring the two faith leaders together have failed, the two churches are now willing to meet largely because of the “current turmoil facing Christians in several parts of the world, and particularly in the Middle East,” according to the Christian Science Monitor.
Both the Vatican and the Orthodox Church have long been vocal in denouncing Islamic extremist attacks in the Middle East, North and Central Africa, in which radical Islamists have waged wars on Christians, often causing a rift between Muslims and Christians, the publication reported.
“In this tragic situation, we need to put aside internal disagreements and pool efforts to save Christianity in the regions where it is subject to most severe persecution,” Metropolitan Illarion, foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, told the Associated Press.
In addition, concerns that Ukrainians are losing faith with the Orthodox church over its acquiescence to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “aggression in Crimea and the Donbas,” and the Roman Catholic church’s desire for religious freedom for Catholics in Russia and Ukraine are also driving the meeting.
The split dates back to difficulties between Michael Cerularius, patriarch of Constantinople, and Pope Leo IX, head of the Roman Catholic church.
By the middle of the 11th century, there were a number of ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes standing between the Greek East and Latin West. These included the source of the Holy Spirit, whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used in the Eucharist, the Pope’s claim to universal jurisdiction and the position of Constantinople in the organizational structure of Christendom.
Michael Cerularius was determined, if possible, to have no superior in either church or state. He took several actions against the Western church, including attacking it because it used unfermented bread in the sacrifice of the mass and closing the Latin churches in Constantinople, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia.
In 1054, Leo IX sent a letter to the patriarch that cited a large portion of the Donation of Constantine, a forged Roman imperial decree which was purported to have been written by the emperor Constantine the Great, supposedly transferring authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the pope.
Leo believed the Donation of Constantine to be real and cited it to show that the Holy See possessed both an earthly and a heavenly imperium, the royal priesthood, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia.
The upshot of the Donation was that only the apostolic successor to Peter – the bishop of Rome – was the rightful head of all the Church.
In early 1054, Leo IX sent a legatine mission under Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida to Constantinople to negotiate with Michael Cerularius in response to his actions concerning the church in Constantinople.
Humbert quickly disposed of negotiations by delivering a bull excommunicating the patriarch. This act, though legally invalid due to Leo’s death on April 19, 1054, was answered by the patriarch’s own bull of excommunication against Humbert and his associates.
Not surprising given the bad blood that had been brewing between the pope’s representatives and Michael Cerularius, the patriarch rejected the claims of papal primacy, and subsequently the church was rent in two in the Great East–West Schism of 1054. That split continues to this day.
(Top: Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill.)