By Elise Harris
As he arrived to Russia for his official three-day visit, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the Holy See has a special role on the global scene given its attention to both spiritual and diplomatic themes.
“The Holy See simultaneously performs both a spiritual and a diplomatic role,” Cardinal Parolin said in an Aug. 20 interview with Russian news agency TASS. “That is why the Vatican diplomacy is of special nature.”
“It does not rely on any other force, except for taking care of every person and every nation through dialogue,” he said, adding that with these aspects in mind, discussion with his Russian counterparts will focus on “the issues which are of mutual interest for us, as well as crises in different parts of the world, which are both distant and very near.”
The meeting with Patirarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular serves as proof of the openness that has come as a result of his historic meeting with Pope Francis in Havana last year, Parolin said, noting how both Kirill a nd Francis “spoke of rapprochement as a shared path.”
“When we walk this path together and conduct fraternal dialogue, we can feel the moments of unity. This path requires the search for truth, as well as love, patience, persistence and determination.”
Cardinal Parolin spoke to TASS the day before his official Aug. 21-24 visit to Russia, during which he is set to meet with several heavy-hitters including Patriarch Kirill, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and several other high-level members of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The interview touched not only on the Holy See’s diplomatic task, but it also focused largely on relations between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, specifically in terms of preserving traditional Christian values. Parolin also spoke of U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies so far during his brief tenure, and the ongoing crisis in Venezuela.
Traveling with Parolin as part of his official delegation is Msgr. Visvaldas Kulbokas, adviser to the apostolic nunciature of Russia and an official in the Relations with States section of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
On Aug. 21, the first day of this visit, Parolin met with the Catholic cardinals and bishops of Russia, and in the evening presided over Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Moscow, after which he held a friendly encounter with clergy and the laity.
He also met with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, President of the Department for External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Tomorrow morning, Aug. 22, is dedicated to a working session with Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, while in the evening Parolin will meet with Patriarch Kirill, and will hold a brief press conference afterward.
On Wednesday, Aug. 23, the last day of his visit, Cardinal Parolin will head to Sochi for his official meeting with President Putin. No other official meetings are on the schedule before the cardinal returns to Rome Aug. 24.
In his interview with TASS, Cardinal Parolin said the Vatican has been “working on the idea of the visit to Russia for a long time,” and that it is finally possible largely as a result of the February 2016 meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill.
“That meeting was the first step that had been expected for a long time,” he said. Not only did it strengthen contracts between representatives of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, “which became more frequent and filled with concrete content,” but it also prompted the churches “to look at the discrepancies we had in the past and their causes in a new way.”
Although tensions can still be felt as the result of differing opinions on various issues, Parolin said Francis and Kirill’s meeting “helped us see the unity we are striving for, the unity which is required by the Gospels we profess.”
“It is very important that we have this renewed mutual positive view that every servant of the God, priest and believer will share,” he said, stressing that in his opinion, this is the condition “for the fulfillment of new and, I would say, unprecedented steps in the development of the ecumenical dialogue and the rapprochement of our Churches.”
When asked how their Churches can work together to preserve traditional values and not impede efforts for modern democracy, Parolin noted that unfortunately “there is no shortage of challenges that the modern world produces.”
It’s not just about preserving values so much as “the very concept of human personality and human dignity,” he said, pointing to the specific challenges presented by showing respect for humanity and his work, striving for social justice, interpersonal relations and relations among States.
“These are all challenges of a peaceful existence,” the cardinal said, noting that when their Churches insist on following the Gospel and upholding the values found in scripture, “they do so not to humiliate a modern person or to put unnecessary pressure on him but to show the path to salvation and fulfillment.”
“When performing this mission, which never ends, it is extremely important to establish effective cooperation between different religious denominations,” he said, adding that greater mutual understanding between Churches and the exchange of experiences “may become an important contribution to understanding of these problems.”
Pointing to the Catholic Church’s decision to “loan” relics of the well-loved Orthodox Saint Nicholas, consisting of several bone fragments currently housed in Bari, to Russia over the summer, Parolin said the gesture served as a “spiritual uplift” of sorts for the Russian Orthodox Church.
“There is no doubt that this event and other similar initiatives, which can be called the ‘ecumenism of the saints,’ give an opportunity to fully feel what already unites Christians,” he said.
The relics were sent from Bari to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow from May 22-July 12, and were venerated by President Putin and thousands of Orthodox faithful.
Not only was the event important for the spiritual life of believers, but it also served as an example for future initiatives and gave “a new impetus” to dialogue on “more complex” issues in Church relations, he said.
When it comes to fighting terrorism, Parolin said there are two important factors to keep in mind, the first being the decisions on the part of governments “which are often dictated by concrete situations.”
“When one faces a situation of this kind, one has to make a certain choice based on the politicians’ assessments,” he said. “No doubt, the need to tackle terrorism is evident for the Church, but all actions must be weighted in order to prevent a situation in which the use of force would trigger spiraling violence or lead to violations of human rights, including the freedom of religion.”
On the other hand, the Church is always guided by a “long-term perspective,” he said, which first of all involves fostering personal development, particularly among younger generations, as well as “solid dialogue between religions.”
“During the past decades, the Holy See has been making all possible efforts to establish, strengthen or restore dialogue on the cultural and religious levels and in the social and humanitarian sphere,” the cardinal said, adding that he is “absolutely convinced that life under the guidance of the Gospel would in itself make an important contribution into forming the society and culture.”
Asked about some of U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial policies since taking office, including his decision to pull out of the 2016 Paris Climate agreement, and what the Vatican expects from Trump, Parolin voiced hope that the two States can move forward in mutual respect.
The meeting in May between Pope Francis and Trump “was held in the atmosphere of mutual respect and I would say, with mutual sincerity” in which both men were able to voice their thoughts and concerns.
Parolin voiced his hope that despite Trump’s determination to “fulfill the electoral promises” and despite Washington’s withdrawal from the Paris accord, “pragmatic approaches will prevail in continuation to the US administration’s decision to keep the climate change discussion running.”
“We, in our turn, can only wish that President Trump, just like other members of the international community, does not neglect the extremely difficult task of tackling the global warming and its negative consequences.”
The cardinal then said that in his opinion, international relations are “increasingly dominated” by policies and strategies “based on open clashes and confrontations.”
Describing this phenomena as a “’dialogue of the deaf,’ or, worse, (policies that) fuel fears and are based on intimidation with nuclear or chemical weapons,” Parolin said he believes there is a common realization that such approaches “do not lead to correct solutions and fail to ease tensions between states.”
He pointed to how Pope Francis’ insistence that “building peace is a path,” explaining that this path “is a lot thornier than war and conflict.”
“Building peace requires a patient and constructive dialogue with mutual respect instead of focusing all attention to own national interests,” Parolin said. “This is all that is expected from the leaders of global powers.”