VCU expert discusses historic meeting between Pope Francis and head of the Russian Orthodox Church

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R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D.
R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, will meet in Cuba next week, marking the first meeting between the two leaders of the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity since they split in the 11th century.

R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and a professor of religious studies in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, is a widely cited expert on Pope Francis and Latin American religious history. Chesnut said he expects the meeting will result in an agreement between the two religious leaders to embark on further dialogue about unity.

“Pope Francis’ dynamic papacy has been one of many firsts, the latest being the monumental meeting in Havana with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.

“A convergence of Francis’ great emphasis on ecumenism with the geopolitical context of armed conflicts in the Ukraine and Syria has resulted in the unprecedented meeting in Cuba. Persecution of Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic in Syria, and throughout the Middle East and North Africa unites the two churches in defense of a Christian population that is in real danger of extinction through both systematic slaughter, at the hands if ISIS, and emigration from the region.

“The Argentine 'Pope of Peace' has also paved the way for the possibility of rapprochement by refraining from pointed criticism of Russian aggression in Ukraine where Greek and Roman Catholics account for 16 percent of the population, who are majority Orthodox, a plurality belonging to the Kiev Patriarchate and another large segment to the Moscow one.

“In Havana, the two Christian leaders will likely announce an agreement to engage in further dialogue about unity. Pope Francis enjoys much greater autonomy and leverage than the Russian patriarch who must contend with the power of Putin.

“The last-minute, historic meeting in Havana dims the spotlight a bit on the pope’s Mexican tour. There was already some resentment among Mexicans when the first Latin American pope omitted their country from his recent U.S. and Cuba trips.”


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