In what some observers are heralding as a historic shift, Pope Francis received Russian President Vladimir Putin in Rome for a little more than a half hour of private conversation on November 25. According to a press release from the Vatican, the Pope and the Russian leader discussed the current situation of the Catholic Church in Russia, as well as the welfare of Christians in the Mideast in general.
According to the Vatican communiqué, the afternoon discussions were “cordial” and pleasure was expressed about the current bilateral relations. The Vatican statement noted that besides the issues mentioned above, the pontiff and president also discussed “the defence of and promotion of values regarding the dignity of the person, and the protection of human life and the family.”
Putin thanked the Pope for a letter addressed to the Russian president during the G20 summit meeting in St. Petersburg this year. The two men gave “special attention” to the “grave situation in Syria,” while they also spoke about the provision of humanitarian aid to the countries of the Mideast affected by the conflict in Syria, while they expressed “favouring negotiation and involving the various ethnic and religious groups, recognising their essential role in society,” while emphasizing "the urgency of the need to bring an end to the violence" and "to ensure necessary humanitarian assistance for the population."
Making a display of religious fervor not witnessed before, Putin was seen crossing himself and reverently kissing an icon of the Virgin Mary before giving it to the Pope during the customary exchange of gifts. Putin gave the Pope an icon of the famed Vladimir Theotokos or Mother of God, which is one of the holy images most revered by Christians in Russia and Eastern Europe. The Pope also kissed the icon.
As to whether relations between Rome and Moscow may be warming, Vatican observer Robert Moynihan, who resides in Rome, wrote “It is too early to say. But certainly one more important step has been taken...” The papacy and the Russian Patriarch, which were separated by schism in 1054, also have a long way to go towards full reconciliation.
Putin, a former KGB officer, does not necessarily see himself as a Christian emperor or czar, but he has made attempts to proffer himself as protector or moral guardian with regard especially to traditional values. He has presented himself as especially concerned over the wellbeing of Christians in the Mideast. And his international standing was significantly burnished when he brokered a deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and thus avert possible U.S. strikes on Syria, which has seen devastation and horrific human tragedy during a prolonged civil war. Russia’s involvement in Syria boosted its claim to be the protector of beleaguered Christian minorities in the Mideast.
Pope Francis paid tacit recognition of Putin’s international standing in his letter just before the G20 Summit in September of this year. In the missive, Pope Francis begged the Russian leader to find a peaceful resolution to the Syrian civil war, in concert with world leaders. "To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution [in Syria]," Pope Francis wrote.
While Putin may not be an ally for Pope Francis, he may now become an interlocutor in disputes over “gender” and family issues, and the defense of the millennial Christian presence in the Mideast. Putin, for example, has shown no affinity whatsoever for calls to allow same-sex marriages or civil unions.
Putin has tried to show that he is a believer, having made a number of efforts to display close relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. He puts in regular appearances at observances of holidays such as Easter, and claims to read scripture and keep a Bible on his jet. He was a friend of the late Russian Patriarch Alexy II and is also friendly with the current leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch Kirill, who has proven to be a strong political ally.
However, Ukraine may be critical in any further rapprochement between Moscow and the Vatican. Putin has Pope Francis has a great affinity for the Greek Catholic Churches of Russia and Ukraine. These Churches uses the same liturgies as the Orthodox Christians, but have long accepted communion with the Holy See. However, the Russian Orthodox Church sees Ukraine as part of its "canonical territory" and brands the Greek Catholics as Uniates or defectors from Christian Orthodoxy. Nonetheless, last week Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill told the influential Cardinal Angelo Scola "We live in an epoch when many of our historic differences should stop playing the critical role they have played in relations between our Churches."
There are only about 700,000 Catholics in Russia, accounting for about 0.5 percent of the population, while in Ukraine, Catholics number approximately 2 million or 8 percent of the total population. The treatment meted out to Catholics and their Church by the Soviet government, in concert at times with Orthodox Church, still stings. Following WW2, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin seized Eastern Catholic churches and seminaries, mostly in the Ukraine, and granted them to the Russian Orthodox Church. Following the end of the communist government and the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Catholics took some 500 churches, mostly in the Ruthenian homeland bordering Poland. The Pope and the Russian Patriarch have never met personally because of the simmering dispute over the properties. Putin may have a say in how relations between the two churches proceed.
Relations between the Papacy and the Russian Patriarchate may be on the mend, since it was on November 12 that the Pope received Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev as an emissary from the Patriarchate. It was after that meeting that Metropolitan Hilarion gave a broad hint that a meeting may be possible. "We are not yet ready to say when and where such a meeting may occur, but we are ready to prepare and work for such a meeting."
The Vatican or Holy See, as a political entity, has had full diplomatic relations with Russia since 2009. The United States, for its part, appears to be downgrading its presence. It was recently announced that the embassy to the Holy See on the Aventine Hill in Rome will be closed and its functions folded into an annex of the U.S. the embassy to the government of Italy, supposedly as a cost-saving measure.