Weekend think piece: The 'Passion' that looms over the historic Rome-Moscow meeting

First things first: Click play on the above YouTube. Now begin reading.

As you would expect, I have received quite a bit of email during the past 24 hours linked to my GetReligion post -- "What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq" -- about the mainstream media coverage of the stunning announcement of a Feb. 12 meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leader of the Orthodox Church of All Russia.

As you would expect, much of the press coverage has stressed what this all means, from a Roman Catholic and Western perspective.

This is understandable, since there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and Francis is the brightest star in the religion-news firmament at the moment. People who know their history, however, know that this meeting is also rooted in the life and work of Saint Pope John Paul II, who grew up in a Polish Catholic culture that shares so much with the churches of the East, spiritually and culturally.

I updated my piece yesterday to point readers toward a fine Crux think piece by the omnipresent (yes, I'll keep using that word) John L. Allen, Jr. Let me do that once again. Read it all, please. Near the end, there is this interesting comment concerning Pope Francis:

... His foreign policy priorities since his election have been largely congenial to Russia’s perceived interests. In September 2013, he joined forces with Vladimir Putin in successfully heading off a proposed Western military offensive in Syria to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Since then, Francis and Putin have met in the Vatican and found common ground on several matters, including the protection of Christians in the Middle East and the growing reemergence of Cuba in the community of nations.

This morning, my email contained another essay by a Catholic scribe that I stress is essential reading for those starting a research folder to prepare to cover the meeting in Havana. This is from Inside the Vatican and it is another eLetter from commentator Robert Moynihan.

This piece is simply packed with amazing details about events -- some completely overlooked by the mainstream media -- that have almost certainly, one after another, contributed to the logic of the Cuba meeting between Francis and Kirill.

Yes, there is also a reason that the YouTube at the top of this post links to a performance of the "St. Matthew Passion" by the Russian composer Hilarion Alfeyev. You see, this composer is also known as Metropolitan Hilarion and he is the Russian church's top ecumenical officer, a man of many languages and talents who has been at the heart of the contacts between Rome and Moscow FOR YEARS. He is also the Orthodox leader who, as I noted yesterday, told Reuters that the primary public purpose of the Cuba meetings will be to call attention to the continuing genocide of Christians in Iraq and Syria -- a cause of special importance to all Orthodox Christians, and also to Rome.

Why the "St. Matthew Passion"? Keep reading, because it shows up in the Moynihan essay.

But first, let me note that he begins with this amazing and symbolic quote:

“Thus, in full awareness and at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome that Peter bathed with his blood, the current successor assumes as his primary commitment that of working tirelessly towards the reconstruction of the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers. This is his ambition and compelling duty. He is aware that to do so, expressions of good feelings are not enough. Concrete gestures are required to penetrate souls and move consciences, encouraging everyone to that interior conversion which is the basis for all progress on the road of ecumenism.
“Theological dialogue is necessary. A profound examination of the historical reasons behind past choices is also indispensable. But even more urgent is that ‘purification of memory,’ which was so often evoked by John Paul II, and which alone can dispose souls to welcome the full truth of Christ. It is before Him, supreme Judge of all living things, that each of us must stand, in the awareness that one day we must explain to Him what we did and what we did not do for the great good that is the full and visible unity of all His disciples.”

Why said that? No, this is not from Pope Francis. The quote is from the first sermon given by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI on the day following his election as pope in 2005.

So why is this Cuba meeting so important? Moynihan offers this punchy list:

-- Such a meeting has never occurred before.
-- Because it is unprecedented, it is of world-historical importance.
-- It is of importance for the history of the Church, that is, for the history of the Christian faith. It is also, therefore, important for salvation history.
-- Finally, it is important for the history of Western culture, and therefore for the history of the world.

There is quite a bit of history in this piece, as in the Allen essay, about the issues that separate Rome and Moscow (as well as Rome and all the Orthodox churches, in general).

That is important, if familiar, material. However, let me stress -- since I am an Orthodox believer (and choir member) -- that Moynihan stunned me with a long list of relatively recent CULTURAL contacts between Rome and Moscow, most of them musical. Here is the start of his list:

(a) A key moment in this process was the decision of Pope John Paul II, in the last months of his life, to return to the Russians the much-revered Russian icon known as The Icon of the Blessed Mother of Kazan, a “wonder-working” icon which is known popularly in Russia as “the Protection of Russia.”
The icon returned to Russia on August 28, 2004, and is now in the Cathedral of Kazan.
(b) Another key moment came in Rome on March 29, 2007, when a Russian orchestra and choir presented The Passion According to St. Matthew, composed by the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, who has now become the “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church (our magazine helped to organize that concert, which took place in the Auditorium on via della Conciliazione).
(c) Another key moment came on December 17, 2007, when a second composition by Hilarion, called Christmas Oratorio, was presented in Washington D.C. in the largest Catholic Church in the United States, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, to a standing-room only audience.
At the same time, a moving exhibit on “The Spiritual Renewal of Russia,” which included a wooden icon of Mary pierced by bullet holes, was offered in the crypt of the basilica (our magazine also helped to organize that concert and exhibit).

The list goes on.

Readers: Please pause for a moment and ponder how important liturgical music and art is to the Russian soul.

Now think for a second about the symbolic nature of an Orthodox archbishop composing a setting of the St. Matthew Passion and seeing it performed in Rome. Many scholars consider the St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach to be one of the greatest achievements in all of Western art and culture.

Now place this same Orthodox archbishop at the heart of years of dialogue between Moscow and the Vatican. I would imagine that Metropolitan Hilarion will be one of the primary authors of the statement that will be signed by Francis and Kirill in Cuba.

Click PLAY on that YouTube at the top of this post and keep reading.

Moynihan reaches the crucial, timely, news hook for all of this:

Why now?
It is not entirely clear why the meeting is being held precisely now, in Cuba, and announced publicly only a week before it takes place.
Both leaders are clearly concerned about the dramatic turn of events now occurring in Syria, and have publicly lamented and warned about the dangers of a wider war. Since August, Russian troops have been directly engaged in Syria, in a battle against the forces of ISIS seeking to overthrow the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.
Recently, the events in Syria have taken on an even more dangerous complexion.
As of this writing, there are unconfirmed reports that thousands of Turkish troops are massing on the Syrian border in what seems to be a prelude to an incursion. Since Russia is now in Syria, defending the Assad regime, such an incursion might lead to Russian casualties, with the possibility of igniting a conflict between Russia and Turkey.
Since Turkey is a member of NATO, such a conflict would have the potential of growing wider.
Pope Francis on several occasions has alluded to the danger of a “Third World War” developing from the various conflicts now occurring in the Middle East, the Ukraine, and elsewhere.
It seems possible that, in this context, Francis and Kirill both desire to have a face-to-face talk, to exchange views and information without any intermediary. It is well-known that Kirill is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has openly declared his support of Russian Orthodoxy in post-Soviet Russia.
In this context, the meeting takes on the significance of a possible effort by two religious leaders to forestall the eruption of a wider war in the Middle East, which could spread outside of the Middle East.
And the choice of Cuba for the meeting -- the place where a conflict between the West and the Soviet Union almost erupted in 1962 at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- seems, in this context, fitting.

Let the music play. In a way, you are listening to the soundtrack for the drama behind these talks. The Moynihan essay is must reading. Please pass this on.

FIRST PHOTO: Metropolitan Hilarion and Pope Benedict XVI.

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