ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis said on Monday that plans were in the works for a possible second meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and that he would be willing to travel to Moscow for the encounter.
The pope made his remarks in a news conference on the papal plane while returning from a five-day visit to Cyprus and Greece in which he tried to put the global spotlight on the plight of migrants. On the flight, he also spoke for the first time about the resignation of Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris last week, saying that unfair gossip had forced him to accept it.
Francis became the first pope to meet a patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church since the schism that split Christianity in 1054 when he met Kirill at a Cuban airport in 2016. Another meeting would go a long way to mending the fractured ties — and promoting unity and cooperation — between Christianity’s Eastern and Western branches.
Responding to a question from a Russian reporter, Francis said he would meet next week with the Russian church’s foreign envoy “to agree on a possible meeting” with Patriarch Kirill, who leads the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been split with Rome for centuries.
Francis pointed out that Patriarch Kirill was expected to travel out of Russia soon and that the pope himself was “ready to go to Moscow” even if diplomatic protocols were not yet in place.
“Because talking with a brother, there are no protocols,” Francis said. “We are brothers. We say things to each other’s face like brothers.”
In response to a question from a French reporter, Francis also addressed the resignation of Archbishop Aupetit who had admitted to an “ambiguous” relationship with a woman in 2012. The archbishop said he was stepping down “to preserve the diocese from the division that suspicion and loss of trust are continuing to provoke.”
On the flight to Rome, Francis said that the archbishop had not committed any grave sin, but that he had no choice but to accept the resignation. The archbishop, he said, instead had lost the ability to govern because of what amounted to hypocritical gossip from people who were themselves sinners.
Francis said that Archbishop Aupetit had been accused of violating the Sixth Commandment against adultery, “but not totally, but of little caresses and massages.”
The pope said the “sins of the flesh are not the gravest,” and, in any case, everyone has sinned in some way, including himself.
But, he added, “When the gossip grows and grows and grows and strips the good name of a person, that man can no longer govern, because he lost his good name.”
Francis suggested he then had no choice.
“This is an injustice,” he said. “For this I accepted the resignation of Aupetit, not on the altar of truth but on the altar of hypocrisy.”
Francis was also asked at the news conference about the antimigrant positions of governments in Eastern Europe, in particular with the situation on the Polish-Belarus border.
Belarus has ushered migrants to the border as part of an effort to destabilize the European Union, and the Polish government responded by refusing to let them cross, occasionally resorting to harsh measures that included dousing the migrants with water hoses in the freezing cold.
“The first thing I would say if I had a leader in front of me would be, ‘Think of the time that you were an immigrant and they didn’t let you in,” he said. By building walls, he said, one loses memory of a time “when it was slave to another country,” apparently a reference to when the countries were behind the Iron Curtain and their citizens desperately sought to reach the West. He added that many of the leaders of countries that favored building walls had come from this experience.
Francis said that when governments believed they were receiving more migrants than they could handle, they should say, “I can receive this much,” and then turn to the European Union, which should help by distributing the migrants among the 27 member states.
Francis also reiterated his warnings against the slippage of democracy and the threat posed by populism, weighing in on an internal European Commission document suggesting that the bloc’s officials use more inclusive language by using the term “holiday season” rather than Christmas.
Some conservatives have turned the guidelines, sent in October by the commissioner for equality, Helena Dalli, into ammunition and claimed that the European Union was trying to cancel Christmas, mirroring a long-running dispute in the United States.
The Vatican has also interpreted the draft guidelines as an assault on Christmas.
Francis said Monday that the commissioner’s effort was “an anachronism,” adding: “In history lots of dictatorships have tried to do it, think of Napoleon. Think of the Nazi dictatorships. The Communists.”
History has shown that diminishing the importance of Christianity does not work, he said, warning that doing so “could lead to dividing the countries and the failure of the European Union.”
In Cyprus, Francis spoke angrily about how the world, and especially the European Union, had both become used to and turned a blind eye to the migrants dying at sea, imprisoned and tortured in shadowy detention centers, and left to wither for years in hopeless camps. He called it his “responsibility” to open eyes and force the world to stare at the issue straight in the face.
The Vatican arranged for 12 asylum seekers in Cyprus, an island itself divided between a Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish Cypriot north, to be relocated in Italy. As part of the agreement, the Cypriot government has said a total of 50 migrants would be transferred.
Francis’ remarks came after he wrapped his five-day trip to Cyprus and Greece on Monday with a visit to a Catholic school, where he sat on a throne on a basketball court, watched traditional Greek dances and talked about the importance of keeping a sense of wonder in life.
Crucial to this, he said, was putting down the phone and avoiding social media platforms and fitness crazes that he compared to the sirens of Greek mythology, who charmed sailors and led them to crash upon the shoals.
“Do you want to do something new in life? Do you want to stay youthful? Then don’t settle for posting a few tweets,” he said. The young should not be “prisoners of the cellphone in their hand,” he said, adding that they should not “look for visibility, but for those who are invisible in our midst.”
He also likened the harrowing tale read to him by a young Syrian refugee who fled bombings at home and then a perilous journey at sea to the Odyssey, characterizing the boy’s story as an adventure marked by “facing the fear of the unknown, emerging from the chaos of uniformity, deciding to take your life in hand.”