Leaders of the Catholic and the Russian Orthodox churches who had separated during the Great Schism of 1054 A.D. are scheduled to meet today at the unlikely location of Cuban Threadbare International Airport.
The Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church split mainly over the issue of papal authority.
Earlier popes have tried to bridge the gap especially Pope John Paul II who tried to reach out to the Russian church.
However, those efforts were hindered by post-Cold War suspicion – above all in Moscow – which was only added to by the Pope’s own Slavic roots.
The significance of the meeting is clear as the meeting may indicate an end to years old rift between the two churches.
One of the main drivers of this meeting was the realisation over the past few years that when Christians are persecuted or driven out of their homes in the Middle East and Africa, their killers are not interested in which Christian denomination they come from.
It is what Pope Francis has termed the “ecumenism of blood”, and the Pope, the Russian president and the Russian patriarch regard what is happening to Christians in Syria and Iraq as genocide.
Some in Russia still worry about the Western Church’s influence in Ukraine in particular, where the Greek Catholic Church is viewed with hostility by many Russian Orthodox. They see it as encroaching on Moscow’s canonical turf, and taking a mostly anti-Russian political stance.
Under the leadership of Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union handed over Eastern Catholic churches to the Orthodox Church.
But following the collapse of Communism, the Catholics took back some 500 churches, mainly in Western Ukraine in the 1980s and 1990s, to the bitter dismay of the Orthodox.
Likewise, post-Soviet Russia worried about Catholics trying to win over the Orthodox faithful in its sphere of influence after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a period when missionaries from many denominations headed east to win converts – although very few Orthodox actually converted to Catholicism.
The dialogue is proving a useful interlocutor between East and West on issues ranging from the war in Syria to the protection of Christians across the Middle East, while the Vatican is also a potential theological ally in the question of how to deal with the global threat from radical Islamism.
No Pope has ever visited Russia. So perhaps this meeting in Cuba might just pave the way for yet another first for a papacy that continues to be full of surprises.