MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Before he gets to Mexico today, Pope Francis stops in Havana, Cuba, for an unprecedented meeting. The meeting is with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, who's coming in for Moscow. It's the first encounter ever between the leaders of the two estranged churches. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The split between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy dates from the beginning of Christendom, from a time Christianity first spread through the Roman Empire.
JUSTO GONZALEZ: The eastern part of the Roman Empire spoke mostly Greek, and the western parts spoke mostly Latin. So very soon, already in the second century, you begin getting different emphases between the Eastern church and the Western church.
GJELTEN: Justo Gonzalez, who has written several books on the history of Christianity, says those differences soon widened. Latin died out as a popular language, surviving only as the language of liturgy. But Greek flourished. Greek priests spoke directly to their worshipers. The church in the East was tied to the popular culture. This pattern continued as Orthodoxy extended across the Balkans and onto Russia. Each country had its own Orthodox church with its own language and its own national leader or patriarch. In the West, meanwhile, the Catholic church was tied firmly to Rome. It was focused on the pope, whose authority, as Gonzalez notes, was held paramount.
GONZALEZ: It's a matter of each of the two churches being very deeply enculturated in its own setting and having difficulty understand the other.
GJELTEN: And the division extended beyond language and politics. Brett Whalen from the University of North Carolina explains how Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy diverged even in their practice of Christianity.
BRETT WHALEN: Catholic clergy are celibate. Greek clergy are married. There's arguments over the proper way to practice the Eucharist. The Roman church uses unleavened bread. The Greeks use leavened bread. And there's even these disagreements on a real deep theological level about the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
GJELTEN: Bishops in the East gradually looked more to their own patriarchs for guidance, largely ignoring the pope.
WHALEN: It really isn't until the 11th century that you see the pope really starting to assert authority as the head of the church. And this contributes to generating some new antagonisms with the Greek church.
GJELTEN: In 1054, Pope Leo the Tenth excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople. Only in the modern era has there been much formal communication between Roman Catholic and Orthodox leaders. Gregg Roeber teaches early church history at Penn State University.
GREGG ROEBER: There have been international commissions between the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox that have met repeatedly on a number of issues. And it's precisely those dialogues that have troubled some elements in the Russian church.
GJELTEN: The meeting today in Havana is the first between a pope and a Russian patriarch. But, Roeber points out that Francis invited the patriarch of Constantinople to his installation as pope.
ROEBER: That was hugely historic because that had never happened. So I would not place the meeting in Havana on quite that level of significance. But it is important, in the sense, that this might indicate a Russian willingness to try to integrate themselves more into these ongoing discussions between Rome and the rest of Orthodoxy.
GJELTEN: And it's probably not a coincidence the meeting is happening in Cuba, a relatively unchurched country far from Rome, far from Moscow, neutral ground for an encounter centuries in the making. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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