BEIJING–The Vatican rocked the world Friday with news that Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow will meet in Havana, Cuba on Feb. 12 in a historic exchange loaded with symbolism.

Kirill is the spiritual leader of over 150 million Russian Orthodox faithful who represent about half of the 300 million estimated adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church worldwide. Kirill is a religious force behind Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose political views are often at loggerheads with western countries.

Pope Francis arrives for a special audience with members of the dioceses of Cassano allo Jonio, southern Italy, at the Vatican
Pope Francis arrives for a special audience  at the Vatican

The Roman Catholic Pope, on the other hand, is the leader of the largest unitary religion of the world with some 1.2 billion people. He represents a spiritual office that played a key role in the Cold War against the atheistic and anti-religious front of the communist bloc. Yet the Cold War is long over, and the global world view has changed completely.

The Catholic Church, at this juncture, hasn’t ranged itself against any single world leader and appears to be a force willing to lead anyone that will follow her, Moreover, it is busy designing a specific approach to “geopolitics,” says Antonio Spadaro writing in the the Jesuit publication La Civiltà Cattolica on Feb. 13 (La diplomazia di Francesco. La misericordia come processo politico). His viewpoint offers a critical window on papal thinking notes Italian Vatican expert Gianni Valente, since the Jesuit publication is reviewed by the Vatican Secretariat of State.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow

The Russian Orthodox Church has been separated from Rome for centuries, following a rift between the Vatican and Constantinople over an obscure and complex theological issue in the 12th century. For its part, Moscow has always styled itself as the third Rome, an heir of the Byzantine Empire, which fell to the Muslim Turks in 1453. By Russian lights, Rome has traditionally been considered tricky and invasive after a very uneasy collaboration during the Crusades that ended with the sack of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204.

What’s more, behind the theology there has always been the issue of Christian politics. Who should lead world Christianity? Should it be the pope in Rome, fully independent, or Constantinople with the patriarch and Byzantine emperor over him?

Ties between the two churches improved greatly in the last century after Russia fell to communism in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Rome threw its support behind the Russian Orthodox Church during the Soviet era. But with the collapse of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s, such support became fragmented. Polish Catholics became involved in Russian Orthodox matters, while the new non-communist leaders in Moscow leaders looked to its indigenous church for political support.

There were insensitivities on both sides. Russians perceived a spiritual and political invasion on the Polish side in their religious affairs. This tore apart a bond with Rome that had been carefully sewn during decades of tight, underground collaboration.

This is why a meeting in Cuba later this month between the Pope and the Patriarch is fraught with religious and political significance. It signals that the two churches want religious reconciliation. This reconciliation ignores old Cold War political boundaries. Cuba is Catholic. But the island nation is still officially communist, with good ties with Russia and political pledges with officially communist China. The Pope has also played a pivotal role in improving relations between Havana and Washington. The meeting between Francis and Kirill, therefore, is intended as a religious and political signal for peace that’s not directed against any side or person.

Francesco Sisci (left) interviews Pope Francis at the Vatican with papal staffers
Francesco Sisci (left) interviews Pope Francis at the Vatican with papal staffers.

The move resembles the occasion in late January when the Pope met Iran’s political and spiritual leader Hassan Rouhani in Rome, or when he gave an interview on China to this columnist who works for the Hong Kong-based website Asia Times.

The Pope clearly wants to change the old game of geopolitics that bloodied the last century with the two ideological wars — against fascism and communism. He rejects the so-called Yalta logic at the end of World War II, as he defined it in our interview, of carving up the world as if it were a cake, in different slices. He desires a world that is “a cake that grows bigger for everybody to share.” This must be based on respect (with capital “R,” as he said) for different civilizations and cultures, where “the Church has great potential to receive culture.”

It is also here that all criticisms of the Pope for pursuing a normalization of diplomatic ties with China or failing to raise issues of religious freedom in China or Iran, misses a larger point. Pope Francis seems to want something much more far reaching: To change the logic of geopolitics that dominated the world in the 20thcentury.

No more blocs pitted against the other. No more ideologies — masked at times as religions — in which one confronts the other. In its place he favors a constant search for a common ground based on dialogue, mercy for one another, respect for different cultures and civilizations,  and human empathy for others’ sufferings. He thus ignores boundaries of religion and wants to reach out to all people Christians, Muslims, and through his recent interview, the Chinese.

The Pope seeks to do this by lowering the political status of Rome, as “headquarters” of the Catholic Church. But his spiritual outreach to the world confers a new centrality to the Bishop of Rome as the driver of a new global equilibrium. Here the Pope no longer follows say, the Holy Roman Emperor, as in the Middle Ages. Rather, he appears to be reaching out for a new catalyst role, as in the case of some popes during the Renaissance.

In those days, the Roman Church was bounded by Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. It was locked in a centuries-old conflict between Christianity and Islam. But the religious landscape has changed radically. It is now a world where half of its people are not heirs of the Biblical religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). On the fringes are the new millennial Satanists who disguise themselves as Muslims or extremists of different stripes. There are, for example, the pseudo-Hindus who lynch Muslims or Christians in India. There are the pseudo-Buddhists lynching Muslims in Burma.

At the same time, the current century has eased some institutional pressures. The church no longer carries the burden of the so-called Pontiff State which for centuries had confused Rome’s spiritual and political ambitions. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Pontiff State ensured Rome’s independence against the Byzantine emperor.

In 2016, the balance of power in the world and the tiny Vatican state are sufficient enough to guarantee the religious independence of the Roman Church, which has no invasive political ambitions and wants to play a positive role for peace in the world. The Obama administration, along with the Cuban government, has already recognized the Pope’s role. Moscow also appears to be a willing partner with the scheduled meeting between Kirill and the Pope in Havana later this month. There are similar signals in the Muslim world with the Pope’s meeting with Rouhani, and in China, where the Pope’s Asia Times interview enjoyed unprecedented coverage in the local press.

The pontiff is filling a political and spiritual vacuum in a world that has far deeper divisions than the long-dead triumphalist mercantile rhetoric of the past cared to see. He is facing reality, and the reality is very strong. This Pope is a realist, who knows that reality must first be taken for what it is before any effort can be made to change it. The strength of his approach should be measured by the almost effortless success he has enjoyed in pursuing his aims after only two years in the pontificate.

This is a game changer and those who fail to see it might as well be steamrolled by it.

Francesco Sisci is a Senior Research Associate of China Renmin University. The author of Asia Times’ Sinograph column, he was also Asia Editor for the Italian daily La Stampa and Beijing correspondent for Il Sole di 24 Ore, and has written for numerous Italian and international publications. He was the first foreigner admitted to the graduate program of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, he is the author of eight books on China and a frequent commentator on CCTV.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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