ROME — Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin met Monday amid high expectations that their visit could mark the beginning of the end of the centuries-old rift between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Since becoming pontiff in March, Francis has met with more than a dozen heads of state, and Putin met with both of his predecessors Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II.
But this meeting comes at a unique time.
“What's making (this visit) different this time is who he will meet: a pope, Francis, who for the first time is not from Europe,” said Andrea Tornielli, a Vatican expert who writes for the Italian daily “La Stampa.”
"And [Francis] therefore has a more independent approach on international issues such as the relations between Orthodox and Catholics. Being from Argentina, (Francis) is not tied to the old idea of Western Christianity, so this could play in [Putin’s] favor,” Tornielli added.
Francis has ushered in a period of reform at the Vatican, but the timing is right for a thawing of relations between the Eastern and Westerns Churches for other reasons, too: full diplomatic ties between Russia and the Holy See were only re-established in 2009.
But despite numerous visits by Russian leaders to the Vatican, the head of the Rome Catholic Church has never been allowed to repay the favor and travel to Moscow.
The pope has had a standing invitation to the Kremlin since Mikhail Gorbachev formally invited Pope John Paul II in 1989, but the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church never shared the government’s enthusiasm. Afraid of Catholic evangelization in Eastern Europe, the patriarch never opened the doors of the Orthodox Church to the pope.
That may soon change.
Francis showed that reaching out to the Orthodox Church was at the top of his agenda from day one of his pontificate when he invited Patriarch Bartholomew, the Archbishop of Constantinople New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, to his installation mass. He was the first Orthodox leader to attend a papal inaugural Mass since the Great Schism split Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054.
Still, Putin’s personal style couldn’t be more different from the low-key Francis
Putin traveled to Rome followed by a delegation of 11 ministers and countless delegates who sped towards the Vatican in 50 cars that sent Rome into a massive gridlock — and he was still 50 minutes late to the meeting.
The Vatican did not offer any comment after the meeting that lasted 35 minutes.
But it was expected to be dominated by at least one major foreign policy issue on which the two have found common ground: Syria. The two leaders agree that a non-military response to the Syrian conflict is best course of action.
Still, could a historic papal visit to Russia also come out of the meeting?
Not unless the ultimate blessing comes from Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Although, Tornielli, the Vatican expert, pointed out that Kirill “doesn't really need Putin to mediate. He is capable of doing that himself.”
“So I think what will happen next is that he and the pope will meet, but in neutral territory, neither in Rome or Moscow... And they'll go from there.”