A Roman Catholic pope and a patriarch of Moscow had never met before. Suddenly, they met in Cuba on February 12. It was an encounter almost as miraculous as the Biblical meeting between the lion and the lamb. 

Nominally atheist Cuba may look like a strange location for two church leaders to meet. But a meeting in either Moscow or Rome was out of the question and would have been regarded by conservative Russian Orthodox believers, traditionally hostile to Catholicism, as a loss of face. The Patriarch could neither visit the enemy in his lair nor invite him to Moscow’s sanctum sanctorum. Cuba, on the other hand, is neutral ground. 

Cuba is traditionally Catholic but has a historical kinship with Russia. The choice of location showed that Patriarch Kirill was meeting Pope Francis not only as the head of the Russian Orthodox church but also as a politician and diplomat. He understood that the meeting would have the greatest national, as well as religious, importance.

This groundbreaking meeting would have been impossible without the blessing of President Vladimir Putin. He had dabbled in clerical diplomacy in the past, particularly the 2007 reunification of the Moscow Patriarchate, which stayed loyal to the Soviet Union, with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, a branch set up in exile after the formation of the USSR. Putin needed this historic meeting to demonstrate that the religious establishment in the West is more sympathetic to him than the Western political elite.

Pope Francis has adopted a down-to-earth role, reaching out to young people and communicating by Twitter. That might suggest he would take the general Western stance and denounce the current Russian regime. In fact, however, the Pope has been restrained in his public criticism of Putin and Russia. He has met with Putin twice—in 2013 and in the spring of 2015—despite U.S. calls to “take a stronger stance” and “say more about concerns on territorial integrity” of Ukraine. 

Pope Francis’s characterization of the civil war in Ukraine as “fratricidal” provoked a storm of criticism and was all the more surprising as there are five million Greek Catholics in communion with Rome in Ukraine, but very few Catholics in Russia.

Pope Francis has good reasons to take this different approach. He is not, after all, a European, and he has a different and wider worldview. Having served in Buenos Aires in the 1980s, during the rule of the military Junta—a regime that received strong Western support—he is inclined to take the comparison between the “civilized West” and “barbaric Russia” with a pinch of salt. Moreover, as a religious leader, he has different priorities, such as the salvation of souls in any country, whether free or unfree.

The Pope’s non-European outlook is evident when he talks about Eastern Christians. “Today ... in the Middle East and other parts of the world, Christians are persecuted.… There are more martyrs (today) than there were in the first centuries” of Christianity, he said in August 2015.

In similar fashion, Vladimir Putin has talked about their plight, saying he fears the Middle East could become “empty” of its ancient Christian communities. 

Certainly, there is a lot of evidence that Syrian Christians feel snubbed by the West and see Bashar al-Assad as their protector. He, in turn, looks to Russia. “When I look at the state of the world, I see that Vladimir Putin is the sole defender of the Christian civilization that one can rely on,” said Assad in a November 2015 interview.

Russia thus returns to the traditional—and flattering—role as protector of Eastern Christians it once had in the days of Catherine the Great.

So, the Pope’s declared solidarity with Eastern Christians suits both the Kremlin’s new domestic policy of posing as the guardian of traditional values and its foreign policy of appealing directly to “naturally conservative” Europeans, bypassing their “godless leaders.”

Pope Francis’s style is the polar opposite to that of both the Russian ecclesiastical hierarchy and the Russian political bureaucracy. Pope Francis used to take the bus to work when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires and says “Who am I to judge?” about homosexuals. Patriarch Kirill heads a church that affirms its bishops’ right to “worthy living quarters and means of transportation” and regards nontraditional sexual orientations as essentially the only unforgivable sin.

Patriarch Kirill, along with President Putin, does not share the same definition of “Christian values” as Pope Francis, despite their common conservative vocabulary. Roughly speaking, to Francis, Christian values mean a readiness to forgive acts like the protest staged by Pussy Riot in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012. To Kirill and Putin, the Pussy Riot action was blasphemous and “Christian values” mean putting them in jail.

Moreover, Pope Francis is popular with Russia’s Christian intelligentsia, who have many differences with the Patriarchate. The words and deeds of Pope Francis—and his deliberate association with St. Francis of Assissi—are an inspiration to them and so the meeting in Cuba was a dream come true.

The meeting with Patriarch Kirill, like previous meetings with President Putin, has likely made the Pope few friends among Western intellectuals, who disapprove of their common agenda on same-sex marriage, female ordination, celibate clergy, abortion, and divorce.

But it did, however, improve the Patriarch’s popularity with the Russian intelligentsia. They had high hopes for him initially, which were all but dashed after Kirill proved to be a Kremlin ideologist, promoting the idea that Russia and the West are fundamentally incompatible. At the same time, the meeting confirmed the worst fears of ultraconservatives, who have long suspected the Patriarch of ecumenism and sympathy for Catholicism. 

The upshot was that everyone needed the meeting—Patriarch Kirill, President Putin, and Pope Francis. The Vatican had long sought a personal meeting, while the Russian side had resisted the idea. One of Kirill’s motivations for finally agreeing was the forthcoming Great Synod of the Orthodox Church in Crete in May, at which all of the world’s Orthodox leaders will convene for the first time in more than a millennium. 

The Russian Patriarch’s main rivals for primacy over the Orthodox flock—especially the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who is the head of the Greek church, among others—have been communicating with the Pope for a long time. Meeting the Pope has put Russians on more of an equal footing.

The disagreements that had prevented this meeting from occurring earlier are still unresolved, but they are no longer as toxic as they used to be. In the 1990s, Moscow was worried about Catholic proselytizing of Russians “on the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church,” but the Russian Orthodox Church is stronger now and the population is more patriotic and less likely to turn to Catholicism. The uncompromising Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz (an ethnic Pole born in Belarus), the former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Moscow, has been succeeded by an Italian bishop who is seen as much less threatening. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic “Uniate” Church is now lost forever, but there are hopes that Pope Francis can persuade them to tone down their hostility to Moscow.

The meeting in Cuba gave Vladimir Putin, who faces threats and hostility on all sides, some much-needed breathing space. Putin is clearly thinking about his legacy in world history. Will he be remembered as the vanquisher of Islamic State, the savior of Eastern Christians, and the man who restored the Christian identity of the West, or as a Shakespearian villain? Might he even be remembered as the ruler who presided over the healing of a thousand-year schism? 

The prospect of Putin healing the schism of 1054 is unlikely—any move toward canonical dialogue with Rome would spark religious discord in Russia. But attempts at rapprochement can’t hurt. Modern Russian ideology calls on all those who espouse traditional religious values to unite in a battle against the new, non-spiritual global order rather than fight each other. The fact that the long-discussed meeting between Pope and Patriarch has taken place during Putin’s presidency—and not when relations with the West were far more friendly under Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin—is remarkable in and of itself.