When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Pope Francis at the Vatican in Rome on Monday, Nov. 25–a 35-minute meeting for which Putin (as is his custom, and partly caused by pro-Pussy Riot protesters outside his hotel) was 45-50 minutes late–the former KGB agent made a great show of religious reverence.
He and the Roman Catholic pontiff both crossed themselves and kissed an icon of the Madonna of Vladimir, an important image for the Russian Orthodox faithful, that Putin presented to Francis as a gift. Francis gave Putin a ceramic mosaic of the Vatican gardens.
According to official reports, the two had a cordial chat in which they discussed the violence in Syria–which already prompted the pope to send a letter to Putin in September, during the G-8 meeting in Moscow–and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and around the globe.
While Putin and Russia have difficult relations with many sovereign states for a variety of political, economic, and military reasons, one strain on its ties to the Vatican is, surprisingly, religious in nature. The origins of the issue go deep into Christian history, to at least 1054 A.D.
On July 16 of that year, a cardinal sent by Pope Leo IX (who had died on April 19) to the Turkish city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) entered the sanctuary at the beginning of a service in the Church of the Holy Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia.
Having already endured a long wait in the city for an audience that never came with Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople (click on the preceding two links to read both sides of the story), the cardinal delivered a Bull of Excommunication, which was probably invalid because of Leo IX’s death. The Patriarch responded with a bull of his own, and the effective result was mutual excommunication (rescinded in 1965).
This unfortunate turn of events is now called the Great Schism, centering on the authority of the papacy, differences in religious practices, and on a theological turn of phrase inserted into the Nicene Creed by the Latin Church in the West, which the Eastern Church did not accept. But it came about after a long period of estrangement, affected by attitudes, geography, shifting power structures, and barbarian invaders.
At that point, most of the Eastern Church split from the primacy of Rome, forming a loose and largely self-governing family of churches referred to as Orthodox Christianity (always with a big “O,” since small “o” orthodox just means adherence to accepted norms, including, but not limited to, religious doctrine).
Some Eastern churches remained in, or later restored, communion with Rome. These are now the Eastern Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, representing a wide variety of languages, cultures, and styles of worship. But they are united to the Holy See both in theology and in their acceptance of of the pope as the Supreme Pontiff.
Many on both sides have long sought to heal the breach and establish good relations and close ties between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, if not restore them to full communion. In his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That they may be one”), Pope John Paul II said, “the Church must breathe with her two lungs!”
In recent decades, there has been a series of meetings between Orthodox leaders and the pope. The most recent was when Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (Orthodoxy doesn’t have the equivalent of a pope, but he represents “the highest and holiest center of the Orthodox Christian Church throughout the world”) attended Pope Francis’ Installation Mass on March 19, the first time that has happened since 1054.
Also, on Nov. 30, Pope Francis marked the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, patron of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, by sending Bartholomew I a message via Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Church Unity.
This missive was in response to a yearly delegation from Bartholomew to Rome on the occasion of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, which met with Pope Francis on June 28. Held on June 29, the feast honors the apostle Catholics regard as the first pope (and who was Andrew’s brother), and one of Christianity’s first great post-Resurrection converts and evangelists, who knew each other and are believed to have both been martyred in Rome under Emperor Nero.
At the close of the message, Francis wrote, “I renew my best wishes and exchange with you a fraternal embrace of peace.”
But what the Ecumenical Patriarch chooses to do is not binding on the Russian Orthodox Church and the Moscow Patriarchate, currently held by Kirill (a k a Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev), the first patriarch elected after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It appears that Putin and the pope did not discuss existing tensions between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, stemming from a belief in Moscow (denied in Rome) that the Catholic Church has tried to lure away–also referred to as “poaching” and “sheep-stealing”–Orthodox believers.
The Russian church is not just being paranoid. Catholics alive during the Cold War may remember being asked to say rosaries for the conversion of Russia, which most Americans probably considered an effort to seek divine assistance to free Russia from atheistic Communist control, but which some Russian Orthodox considered a call for their adherents to become Catholic.
This stemmed from one of the messages received by children who claimed to see visions of the Virgin Mary at Fatima in Portugal over a lengthy period in 1916 and 1917 (a year that coincidentally saw the beginning of fierce Christian persecution in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution).
One of the visionaries, Lucia dos Santos, claimed Mary promised: “But in the end, My Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father (and the remaining bishops) will consecrate Russia to me. Russia will be converted and a period of piece will be given to mankind.”
Pope Pius XII (in 1952) and Pope John Paul II (in 1982) both consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, with only Pius specifically mentioning Russia. On Oct. 13, Pope Francis did the same for the world (with no specific mention of Russia), as part of a Marian celebration that involved a statue of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima.
While all of this likely seems rather esoteric to many outside Russia, it’s not to Vladimir Putin. His relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church has become integral to maintaining his power base and recasting his foes as enemies of the faithful. Kirill went on television to say, “Liberalism will lead to legal collapse and then the Apocalypse.”
Putin’s strategy popped into the headlines when the punk band Pussy Riot chose Moscow’s central cathedral to deliver a message that included a plea to the “Mother of God to rid Russia of Putin.” When human-rights groups and Western celebrities came to Pussy Riot’s defense, Putin’s supporters claimed that this was attempt to foist foreign ideas on Russia.
While Putin’s devout mother had him baptized in the Russian Orthodox faith and took him to services, it’s anyone’s guess whether his public religiosity is for personal or pragmatic reasons.
Asked by Time magazine in 2007 about how his faith affects his leadership, Putin said, “First and foremost, we should be governed by common sense. But common sense should be based on moral principles first. It is not possible today to have morality separated from religious values.”
While Patriarch Kirill has made no plans to visit Rome, he did receive a visit on Nov. 26 from Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. They reportedly discussed the situation in Syria and the future of traditional family values in an increasingly secularized European society.
But, when Putin took his leave of Francis, he didn’t–as usually, if not universally, happens with world leaders visiting the pontiff–extend an invitation for him to come to Russia.