Raised in the last days of the King James era, I marveled as a child at the mysterious phrases and idioms I encountered in my black leather and gold trim Bible. One arresting verse I especially remember fixating on was Paul’s admonition to “Salute one another with an holy kiss” (Romans 16:16). Ours was a rather affectionate home with an acceptable level of hugging and kissing, and surrounded in church and school by World War II veterans, I witnessed a fair amount of saluting, too. But the apostolic imperative to salute and kiss, made even more curious by the injection of the note of holiness and the unusual indefinite article, sorely taxed the capacities of my young, very twentieth-century, imagination.
A recent salute and kiss, accompanied by visual and verbal trappings of holiness, if not the reality of sanctity itself, may have stumped a significant number of very twenty-first-century imaginations, both young and old. Just weeks ago, Pope Francis and Russian Patriarch Kirill representing two massive churches—nearly two thirds of the world’s Christian population—met for the first time, officially bringing to historic conclusion a one-thousand year streak of non-communication and non-recognition. For many observers, the ritual embrace and cheek kissing, not to mention the démodé ecclesiastical attire (including Kirill’s kouloulion topped with a now internet-famous foldable cross), may have appeared to be something on the order of an outtake from a House of Romanov docudrama. The mainstream media, desperate for a credible angle on the event, couldn’t help classifying the whole affair as more evidence of Vladimir Putin’s attempt to reprise a neo-czarist regime. One member of the press corps even (unintentionally) referred to the Patriarch’s cassock as a cossack.
Ecumenical encounters often make the news, but we’re never quite sure what exactly the news is. Pope and Patriarch kiss. What does it mean? Why is it important? Too often we reduce the phenomenon, coached by our masters in the media, to clichés: (1) ecclesiastical nice guys on paid vacation or (2) clerical naïfs abroad, over their heads in the machinations of some political mastermind. In fact, reductionism has been the master scheme of the study of religion as a whole for well over a hundred years. The media learned this modus operandi from the academy. Whatever religious people say they’re doing, we know it really boils down to something else: sex, power, status, ambition, or revenge. Many of us schooled in this approach have had to relearn the hard way how to speak again with a genuinely theological voice. In most cases, it takes a Barth-like encounter with the strange world of the Bible or the church to jar us from our dogmatic slumbers.
So then how to exegete an ecumenical kiss? Here’s an angle less taken: Living apostles with power to bind and loose in heaven and on earth repair the Body of Christ. That the churchmen met in Cuba is profoundly significant—as they said, “at the crossroads of North and South, East and West.” And that they released a 30-point Joint Declaration addressing topics such as religious persecution, modern martyrdom, global poverty, creation care, cultural genocide, the crisis of the family, and the right to life is of even greater importance. But the real headline here, I think, is this: Pope and Patriarch give the unity of Christians the right kind of lip service.
And the subheading is like unto it: Roman church advances century-old ecumenical agenda. Coming on the heels of the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Cuba kiss reminds us that the Vatican’s strategy for the restoration of Christian unity has long been—at least since the time of Leo XIII—first mending the relationship with Eastern Christianity and then attending to the multiple and multiplying rifts of the Christian and post-Christian West. When Leo introduced “separated brethren” into Catholic parlance, he was speaking primarily of fellow Christians in the Orthodox churches.
A striking passage from a book published just months after John XXIII announced a new council for the modern age confirms this view of the ecumenical past. In The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (1959), Jaroslav Pelikan, whose pilgrimage from Reformation West to Orthodox East is one of the fascinating personal stories of the Vatican II era, accurately captured the theological consensus on the eve of the council. “The ecumenical council being summoned, presumably for 1961,” he said, “will take up points of difference between Orthodoxy and Rome. Yet Protestants cannot be indifferent to the outcome of the council, even if it should turn out that they are not directly involved.”
The surprise, of course, was the extraordinary degree to which Protestants were directly involved in the council—and the degree to which historians, theologians, and journalists have for decades interpreted Vatican II as the church’s response to very Western questions of Reformation and Enlightenment. In many ways, the past fifty years can rightly be summed up as a Catholic reckoning with Protestant principle. At the papal level, though, the ecumenical aim has remained consistently ad orientem—from Paul VI’s reconciliation with Constantinople’s Athenagoras at the conclusion of Vatican II to the showcasing of Patriarch Bartholomew’s ecological wisdom in the beginning of Francis’s Laudato Si’. Standing between these landmarks we find the most beautiful expression of Catholic eastern aspiration: the Slavic Pope Wojtyła’s “the Church must breathe with her two lungs!”
Come June of this year, the much anticipated Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church on the island of Crete—what in effect could turn out to be the East’s Vatican II—will dramatically overshadow the modest embrace and declaration of Francis and Kirill. The costumery of the Orthodox representatives to Crete alone will make the garb of the Pope and Patriarch in Cuba’s seem decidedly low budget. Dynamism on both sides of the ecclesial equation, though, will likely enhance ecumenical prospects. An Orthodox renaissance on par with Rome’s Franciscan revolution could be just what we need to lead kissing cousins into “an holy” alliance of full fraternal unity.