MOSCOW – Russians ranging from Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to ordinary citizens are seeing the landmark meeting of the heads of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches as having significance far beyond religious doctrine.
The meeting in Havana, Cuba, on Friday between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill was the first between the two church’s leaders. Popes have previously met with other leaders of Orthodox churches; the two churches split about a millennium ago.
Russia’s is the largest of the Orthodox churches.
Medvedev, speaking Saturday at the Munich Security Conference, said the pope-patriarch meeting could encourage closer relations between Moscow and the West.
“Just yesterday we saw a bright example in the religious area of how the movement of one toward the other is beginning,” he said.
Yevgeny Fedorov, a 59-year-old construction worker, held a similar view.
“Maybe this is a small push toward unity, more respect, more correctness in our relations,” he said outside Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, one of the city’s most prominent Orthodox sites. But, he added, “I don’t think the West will begin to respect us tomorrow because of the meeting.”
The Orthodox-Catholic split involves an array of doctrinal issues including papal infallibility and the nature of the Holy Trinity. In addition, the Russian church has bristled at what it believes to efforts by Catholics in the post-Soviet decades to siphon away believers who it feels should have been Orthodox when the Communist repression of religion was ended.
The Havana meeting is likely to do little to resolve the core disputes, theologian Pyotr Chistyakov told the state news agency Tass.
“In the near future, there can hardly be a resolution of the principal differences between the churches,” he said. “It’s likely that the sides understood the theological questions are complex and problematic and it was better simply not to discuss them, and instead speak about urgent problems that distress both sides — the political situation, terrorism and the crisis of traditional society and traditional Christianity.”
The meeting also was welcomed in strongly Orthodox Serbia. Senior Serbian Bishop Irinej said in an article on the church’s website that he hoped the meeting would be “an inspiration for the truthful and peaceful dialogue and work of the representatives of the two Christian churches in our area as well, where Orthodox and Roman Catholics have been living together for centuries. ”
Sinisa Mihajlovic, the coach of AC Milan, saw the meeting from both sides of the theological divide, being of mixed Orthodox and Catholic parentage.
“In a period like this, during which religion is often a pretext for war, a meeting of the leaders of two such important religions cannot be anything but an important sign of peace, and I am very happy,” he said, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.