Russia is especially hopeful regarding the meeting.
"You know, it's a mutual step forward and, of course, like everyone else, we expect that this meeting will be successful, and we very much appreciate the willingness of the two religious leaders to hold such a meeting," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Russia’s Sputnik news agency.
While the Pope and the Patriarch are looking to sign a joint declaration of future affiliation and calling for the defense of persecuted Christians, the Russian government is not going to pass up the opportunity exploit the public relations possibilities of the historic meeting. But neither will the Vatican.
In a time when Vladimir Putin promotes military adventurism in Crimea, Ukraine and—seemingly—the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Pope Francis has chosen Father Visvaldas Kulbokas to be the interpreter. Fr. Kulbokas, 41, is a member of the Vatican’s diplomatic service. In June of 2015, Fr. Kulbokas interpreted the pontiff’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kulbokas used to be the first secretary of the Vatican’s embassy in Moscow. He is a graduate of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy. Only four Lithuanian nationals have undergone training in the most prestigious institution of high learning of the Roman Catholic Church. The use of Fr. Kulbokas could be seen as the Pope’s solidarity with the Baltic States which Putin eyes so greedily.
On Friday, the TASS news agency wrote, “The unprecedented meeting between the leaders of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, due on February 12 in Cuba’s Havana, has been prepared for 20 years, a senior Orthodox cleric told reporters in Moscow on Friday.
“The meeting in Cuba will take place when Pope Francis will make a stop on his way to Mexico and where Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia will be on an official visit. A joint declaration will be signed on the future relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church.”
"The meeting has been prepared for a long time. In 1996 and 1997, intense talks were held on organizing a meeting of his Holiness Patriarch Alexy II," said the chairman of the Department for External Church Relations, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk.
A joint statement released by the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow has said that this first-ever such meeting in history will be held after a long preparation and marks "an important stage in relations between the two Churches."
In Britain, The Economist magazine down-played the unique nature of the visit saying that several such meetings had happened before at the highest levels. This is not surprising as Britain feels itself further and further isolated from the new relationships developing in a post-Imperial world.
With this era of new (or renewed) international tension, the meeting between Francis and Kirill gains special importance, Cardinal Walter Kasper, President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told TASS.
"It is very important that this meeting takes place now that there are so many problems in the world. A lot will depend in resolving international issues in the future on the interaction between the two churches," he said.
According to the cardinal, it is too early yet to talk about the possible visit of Pope Francis to Russia. "This is an important step, but we have an important path to cover for the rapprochement between the two churches," Kasper said.
Still, it is a step.
"The Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate hope that it will also be a sign of hope for all people of good will. They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits," according to a joint-statement released by Rome and Moscow.
For Russia, the meeting between Pope and Patriarch is an attempt to bolster Russia’s “civilizational role.”
“The meeting of the two leaders under the conditions of western sanctions confirms the Christian civilizational role of Russia," Moscow’s Ambassador to Vatican, Alexander Avdeyev, said.
The meeting also provides Cuba with a chance to re-enter world politics and culture, especially Christian culture.
According to Vatican Radio, “The Cuban government has said it is ‘honored’ to be hosting the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill on 12 February in Havana. Cuba said it would ‘provide every accommodation’ to ensure the success of the historic meeting.”
Part of that historical nature is the role of Moscow’s Patriarch. Only in the 20th Century did such a role become viable again.
In 1721, Peter the Great minimized the role of the Russian Orthodox Church and tried to supplant it with a more Western model. In 1917, the Patriarchate of Moscow was revived but suffered through the flux of Soviet history. Suppressed under Lenin in 1925, it was revived by—of all people—Stalin in 1943. Stalin’s move was political, not religious, and hoped to appeal to the old patriotism of Mother Russia’s sons and daughters during World War II. Nikita Khrushchev renewed the crack-down on the Church after the death of Stalin.
In the following years, the Russian Orthodox Church was seen as strictly adhering to Soviet policy and was, thus, viewed as an arm of the state. It engaged in church diplomacy with Rome and with the World Council of Churches.
In September of 1978, there was a meeting of Pope John Paul I and Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He was not the head of the Russian church but he was, indeed, second from the top.
Sadly, Nikodim, 48, died of a fatal heart attack during his meeting with Pope John Paul I. It was John Paul who administered last rites to the dying Metropolitan. John Paul I would be dead only three weeks later, having reigned for only 33 days.
Now the true heads of the two churches are set to meet but many observers it could not have taken place much earlier because the Russian church didn’t desire it. The chief objection on the Russian side was Catholic outreach activity in Russia.
But things have changed. Russia’s military is bogged down in Syria with no way to extricate itself. Western sanctions have created an economic crisis in Russia and, perhaps worst of all, the collapse of global oil profits have panicked Russia’s economy which depended so heavily on petroleum exports.
All of this undermines the stability that Putin struggled to create. He needs to find another avenue into global civilization. He turned to the Church.
Let’s see what a Friday in Havana brings.