National Edition

Pope, Putin meeting symbolic, but rift between churches remains

Published: Monday, Nov. 25 2013 7:00 p.m. MST

Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting at the Vatican, Monday, Nov. 25, 2013. Putin is in Italy for a two-day visit during which he will also meet Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Premier Enrico Letta. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)

Mikhail Klimentyev, ASSOCIATED PRESS

News reports of Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit with Pope Francis on Monday in Rome indicated the event was symbolic, but mending a centuries-old rift between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Church isn't likely to happen soon.

The Associated Press reported on Putin crossing himself and kissing an icon of the Madonna of Vladimir, an important religious icon for the Russian Orthodox faithful, that he gave to the pope as a gift during the visit.

"But Moscow's improving relations with the Vatican went only so far: Putin didn't invite Francis to visit," AP reported.

According to NBC, the main obstacle is Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.

"The pope has had a standing invitation to the Kremlin since Mikhail Gorbachev formally invited Pope John Paul II in 1989, but the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church never shared the government’s enthusiasm," NBC reported. "Afraid of Catholic evangelization in Eastern Europe, the patriarch never opened the doors of the Orthodox Church to the pope."

But NBC added that Pope Francis has reached out to Orthodox Church leaders since becoming pontiff. He invited Patriarch Bartholomew, the Archbishop of Constantinople New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, to his installation mass.

"He was the first Orthodox leader to attend a papal inaugural Mass since the Great Schism split Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054," NBC reported.

The split created the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Christian churches, of which the Russian Orthodox Church is a part. The Orthodox Church is also called the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Voice of Russia asked a history scholar if the visit between Putin and Pope Francis could be a step toward an eventual meeting between top leaders of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.

"No longer than 10 days ago the Metropolitan Hilarion, which is the sort of foreign minister of the Eastern Orthodox Church, was in Rome to talk to Pope Francis," said Leo Goretti, an expert in Contemporary Italian History from the University of Reading. "So, I guess indeed this meeting is another step toward improving the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. But obviously it is an issue for the Patriarch of Moscow and the Pope to decide when and where to meet."

AP reported that officials have floated the idea of a meeting in a third country, but the Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said ecumenical issues weren't discussed Monday.

Instead they discussed strife in Syria, an issue in which the Vatican, Russia and the Orthodox church have common interests, according to The Economist.

The magazine noted that the main sticking point between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches has to do with an obscure Christian minority in the Ukraine: the Uniate or Greek-Catholic church, which uses eastern Christian rites but accepts the authority of the papacy.

"Pope Francis is said to have a soft spot for Ukraine's Uniate ... the current head of the Greek-Catholics has served in the pontiff's native Argentina," the magazine reported. "The Russian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, sees Ukraine as part of its 'canonical territory' and brands the Uniates, who were ruthlessly repressed in Soviet times, as a kind of Trojan Horse."

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @deseretbrown

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