ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AP) — Pope Francis said Sunday he is ready to go anywhere, anytime to meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church — even while acknowledging that he doubts the day will ever come that Catholic and Orthodox theologians will agree to end the 1,000-year schism.
Francis spoke to reporters Sunday en route home from Turkey, where he made a remarkable gesture of deference to the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians by bowing down to receive his blessing. Francis also assured Turkey's Orthodox community that the Catholic Church wouldn't force the Orthodox to give up their patrimony on the path to unity.
Asked about prospects of meeting with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Francis said both wanted to meet.
"I said I'll go wherever you want — you call me and I'll go. And he also has the same desire," Francis said. "But with the problems of the war, the poor guy has so many problems, so a meeting with the pope will have to wait. But we do want to meet. We want to go forward."
Earlier Sunday in Istanbul, Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I issued a joint statement saying they were praying for peace in Ukraine "while we call upon all parties involved to pursue the path of dialogue and of respect for international law in order to bring an end to the conflict and allow all Ukrainians to live in harmony."
The Russian Orthodox Church has largely backed Russian President Vladimir Putin's position on Ukraine.
The Catholic and Orthodox churches split in 1054 over differences on the primacy of the papacy. The two churches have grown closer together in recent decades, but long-running tensions in Russia between Orthodox faithful and Catholics in Russia prevented Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI and before him St. John Paul II from achieving their long-sought dreams of a meeting with the Russian patriarch.
Francis said that Catholics and Orthodox are on a path toward unity that must be traveled. "We're on this path, but we must wait until the theologians agree among themselves. We'll never get to that day, I assure you. I am skeptical."
But he said individuals — not just theologians — can work for unity, sharing their experiences, doing charity work together, praying together and working together.
"Unity is a path, a path that we must take and one that we must take together," he said.