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Pope and patriarch meet for first time in nearly 1,000 years

February 12, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
In the first meeting between leaders of Christianity’s largest churches since the Great Schism of 1054, Pope Francis met with Patriarch Kirill of the Eastern Orthodox Church Friday afternoon in Havana. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, and the Most Blessed Tikhon, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, for more on the historic moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This afternoon in Havana, at Jose Marti Airport, a meeting 1,000 years in the making. Pope Francis met with Patriarch Kirill of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the first meeting between the leaders of Christianity’s two largest churches since 1054, when a schism split the ancient church.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The meeting on neutral ground was decades in the planning. The leaders met for two hours behind closed doors, and later signed a joint declaration decrying persecution of Christians around the world.

We explore this historic moment, and its impact going forward, with His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon. He is the Orthodox archbishop of Washington, D.C., and the primate of the Orthodox Church in America, its senior-most leader in the U.S. and Canada. And His Eminence Theodore Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Roman Catholic archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C.

First, for someone who hasn’t been following the 1,000-year-long rift between these two branches, why is this so important, and why did it happen now?

THE MOST BLESSED TIKHON, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America: There’s been attempts to bridge that gap over the years, none of which have really been successful.

But, in the last, you know, number of years, the last few decades, the groundwork for such a possible discussion has been taking place. So, while this meeting may seem like a somewhat new or surprising event, it has been discussed with both Pope Francis’ predecessors and patriarchals, but somehow the particular meeting that is happening today in Cuba didn’t take place.

But it’s — there have certainly been relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches during the past 1,000 years, but there has been a lot of both theological and ecclesiastical differences that need to be worked out, as well as just the simple physical separation that has sort of contributed to sort of a great divide.

So, a great opportunity now in this time of strife in the world to see two great world leaders come together and begin more — perhaps more formally, a dialogue.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Your Eminence, why now?

CARDINAL THEODORE MCCARRICK, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, D.C.: Well, I think it’s special for many reasons, as the beatitude mentioned many of them.

But many of us think of the Russian Orthodox Church as the church of the martyrs, because during the communist age, it was very, very difficult. It’s a great blessing, actually, that the Russian people kept faithful to the church. There were — it wasn’t easy to be a fervent Orthodox Christian in the days of communism.

And so, that’s all passed now, and the church has come into its own. And we see so many of the people who suffered over those years coming back and very fervently and very wonderfully saying, we are Orthodox Christians, we know who we are.

So what a great time to do it. It’s a good moment because there are a lot of good things happening, and it’s a good moment because there are a lot of bad things happening, and we all have to stay together more than we ever have before.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what are some of the bad things? What are the concerns that your two churches agree on?

THE MOST BLESSED TIKHON: Well, certainly, I think what you will see from the joint declaration from today’s meeting, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

And, really, the persecution of all religious minorities in every context, I think, has been certainly a concern for the pope, and, you know, for Orthodox Christians as well. The care for our brothers, whether they are Christians or not, should be something that’s foremost in our hearts.

And, you know, the Orthodox, not only during communist times, but in previous, you know, decades and centuries, have often lived in various contexts of persecution and strife, but also living together with Muslims, for example, in various countries, where — the very places where strife sometimes erupts have also been places where people have genuinely tried to live together and be together, regardless of their religious or ethnic background.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Your Eminence, 1,000 years ago, when this split happened, the Roman Empire was torn in two, there were cultural differences that were allowed to harden, linguistic differences. The world is in many ways a much smaller place now.

What’s the likelihood of potentially a reunion between these two churches? How long be will that take? Another 1,000 years?

CARDINAL THEODORE MCCARRICK: I don’t have my crystal ball with me on that one.

But I do have a — we do have the Gospels with us, and we hear the lord Jesus saying that all may be one. So, our Orthodox brethren and sisters and Catholic people, the Christians, the whole world that accepts Jesus Christ as lord listens to him saying that all the time: I want you to be one.

And so, as we look around now, with all the troubles, with all the difficulties, with all the persecutions in so many parts of the world, this is the time to be together. This is the time to say, we are together. If there’s any time when we want to get together and embrace each other in our faith, that time is now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Your Beatitude, it seems that, back then, there were political concerns. Now there are also political concerns, especially in regions like Russia and the Ukraine.

How do churches put this behind them and say, for the greater good, we need to make these compromises and we need to — you have a 100-, a 1,000-year horizon, not just who’s elected next?

THE MOST BLESSED TIKHON: I think what we see today with the meeting with the pope and the patriarch is, it’s a personal meeting.

You know, regardless of all the preparation and the churches that sort of are behind them that they lead, this is a meeting of two Christians in a neutral location, but coming — taking the time to meet together and to just be with one another.

Regardless of what plans might be set in motion for the future, whether it’s another 50 years or 100 years, we hope that, you know, the dialogue will continue. But the personal relations, I think, are so crucial, especially, as you say, when the world we live in is so small. So, really, those personal contexts are really crucial.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Same question to you.

CARDINAL THEODORE MCCARRICK: It’s a world whose horrors call for harmony among those who really believe in what we believe in.

We believe in the beatitudes. We believe in the position of the lord Jesus in the world. We believe the Holy Spirit is inspiring us all to come and work together and to be together and to have this one family.

Holy Father is always talking about family these days, and maybe the greatest family of all is the family of the Christians. This is the time now for us to say, OK, we are — we know who we are. We are the children of the lord’s. And we know who our brothers and sisters are. We could have a wonderful world here, and that’s the world God wants us to have.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Your Eminence, Your Beatitude, thanks so much for joining us.