Several Tokyo-based priests on Saturday welcomed the meeting in Cuba between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, calling it an important development but one that is unlikely to lead to reunion.
“The meeting was very historic,” said the Rev. Russell Becker, a Catholic priest with the Franciscan Chapel Center. “They’re not going to come into communion with us, but this is a breakthrough because at least they’re talking.”
Russian Orthodox believers gathered on Saturday afternoon for an all-night vigil at St. Alexander Nevsky Church in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward. People present declined to be interviewed.
A priest of the Japanese Orthodox Church said he welcomed the meeting.
“Christians should cooperate,” said the Rev. Kliment Kitahara at the Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward.
He noted that Moscow and Rome have had dialogue in the past, and rated this meeting as “symbolic” rather than epochal.
Pope John Paul II was invited to visit Russia by both Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but not by the Russian church — and an offer to visit by Pope Benedict XVI was rebuffed.
It is unclear what pushed Moscow into agreeing to the Cuba meeting, but some analysts see it as connected to an upcoming synod of Orthodox churches. They said Kirill wants to wield influence over this gathering as the head of the largest Orthodox church and the point man for contact with Rome.
In Japan, the two churches have sharply different profiles.
Catholic missionaries made many converts at various times in history, but growth of the faith has stalled, with Catholics now numbering about half a percent of Japan’s population.
Orthodoxy arrived in the form of expatriate Russians. A church attached to the consulate in Hakodate was one of the few institutions built to serve them.
The Orthodox obtained few converts until the arrival in 1861 of a young priest named Ivan Kasatkin, who set up the Japanese Orthodox Church, headquartered in Tokyo.