— Your Eminence, this is the first time you come to Russia as the Cardinal Secretary of State. What is on the agenda of your visit? Are you going to meet with Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill and President Vladimir Putin? You act simultaneously in two capacities – as a high-ranking representative of the Roman Catholic Church and as the head of the Holy See’s government. How would you describe the contacts between Catholics and Orthodox believers, between the Roman Catholic Church and the Moscow Patriarchate, as well as relations between Vatican and Russia?
We have been working on the idea of the visit to Russia for a long time, and it will take place from August 20 to 24. The meeting with President Putin is scheduled for August 23. A day earlier, I will have a conversation with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. On August 21, I will meet with Catholic bishops of Russia and on the same evening I will serve a liturgy for the Catholic community of Moscow at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin Mary.
I will also meet with Patriarch Kirill and have a conversation with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk. As you correctly noted, the Holy See simultaneously performs both a spiritual and a diplomatic role. 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. Taking into account these very aspects, I will discuss with my Russian dialogue partners 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 conversation with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church proves the openness that emerged in recent years and was marked by the historic meeting in Havana last year. Then Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill 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.
— Did the historic meeting in Havana of Pope Francis and Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill give an impetus to a better understanding? What are the future steps to develop the ecumenical dialogue and the prospects for an even closer rapprochement between the two (Christian) Churches?
That meeting was the first step that had been expected for a long time. Not only it strengthened the contacts of the representatives of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, which became more frequent and filled with concrete content, but also prompted the two churches to look at the discrepancies we had in the past and their causes in a new way. Although the negative effect of those differences can still be felt now, the meeting also 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. This is the condition, in my opinion, for the fulfillment of new and, I would say, unprecedented steps in the development of the ecumenical dialogue and the rapprochement of our Churches, the steps that the Holy Spirit will hint to those who listen carefully to his voice.
— Millions of believers in Russia had an opportunity to venerate relics of St. Nicholas, which had been brought for the purpose from the city of Bari to Moscow and St. Petersburg. This was one of the practical results of that landmark meeting. What is the significance of bringing such a revered Christian relic to Russia?
I know that the relics of St. Nicholas were received in Russia with a special spiritual uplift, and that for more than two months an impressive number of clergymen and believers in Moscow and St. Petersburg venerated the relics. 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. This was not only an important event in the spiritual life of believers, but also an example for other initiatives that strengthen mutual understanding and cooperation in various fields. At the same time, a new impetus was given to dialogue on more complex issues in church relations, as well as to dialogue between churches and society on spiritual, cultural and political issues of our time.
— Both our churches, Catholic and Orthodox, now face the danger of losing traditional Christian values. What can be done to preserve them? Russia in this sense is widely regarded as the last stronghold of those values, for example, such as traditional family values. On the other hand, it's no secret that our country is often criticized in Europe for the lack of liberalism and rejection of relations between people of nonstandard sexual orientation. Is it possible today to ensure that traditional values are not in conflict with modern vision of democracy?
Today, there is no shortage of challenges that the modern world produces. It is not only about preserving values but the very concept of human personality and human dignity. Showing respect to a human being and his work, social justice, interpersonal relations and interaction between different states – these are all challenges of a peaceful existence. As we face these challenges, our task remains the same as St. Peter defined it in his First Epistle General:
“But in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to articulate a defense to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But respond with genetleness and respect.” (Peter 3:15)
When the churches insist on following the evangelical message and respecting the values established in the Holy 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. It is also important because, as you noted, the challenges Christians are facing in the West and in Eastern Europe are seen from different angles. Greater mutual understanding between the Churches, exchange of experience in different regions, may become an important contribution to understanding of these problems. It is always useful to learn a different vision, so to speak, a look from beyond, in order to have the most complete picture of reality, less prone to the trends that gradually become very common.
— Another serious threat of the present day is the Islamic terrorism, which makes no difference between peoples and religions. How can this phenomenon be defeated and how does the Holy See views Russia’s counter-terrorism efforts?
I can see at least two aspects in this matter. On the one hand, there are steps made by this or that government, 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. 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 the long-term perspective. First of all, it is the encouragement and assistance in personal development, especially among the young 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. I’m absolutely convinced that life under the guidance of the Gospel would in itself make an important contribution into forming the society and culture, which simultaneously assists personal development and encourages an intense and constructive dialogue with other authentic cultures and religions.
— At the moment, the whole world has its eyes set on US President Donald Trump, who has been making rather controversial decisions during his first months of office, starting from his decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord on climate change. It turned out that even a meeting with Pope Francis, who pays great attention to the climate change problem, could not change his mind. Of course, you have plenty of information about the United States, a country that plays a very important role in the modern world. What can be expected and what does Vatican expect from the current US president?
The meeting between the Pope and President Trump (in late May - TASS) was held in the atmosphere of mutual respect and I would say, with mutual sincerity. Both the Pontiff and the US leader were able to share their visions on numerous issues, including the climate change problem. I hope that despite the determination to fulfill the electoral promises and despite Washington’s announced 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 that affect the global population, in particular spurring the growth of inequality and poverty.
In my opinion, modern international relations are becoming increasingly dominated by the understanding that policies and strategies based on open clashes and confrontations, with I would describe as a dialogue of the deaf, or, worse, (policies that) fuel fears and are based on intimidation with nuclear or chemical weapons, do not lead to correct solutions and fail to ease tensions between states. It has to be noted, as Pope Francis often says, that building peace is a path, which 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. This is all that is expected from the leaders of global powers.
— Before Pope Francis appointed you to your current post, you have spent several years of diplomatic service as the Apostolic Nuncio (ambassador) in Venezuela. What is Vatican’s opinion of the situation in this Latin American country?
A.: I’m seriously concerned by the situation in Venezuela, a country which is dear to my heart and where I have many friends. As I have already said on numerous occasions, the Holy See has closely followed the development of the Venezuelan crisis from its very outset and made numerous attempts aimed at searching for a peaceful and democratic solution, despite lots of differences that still remain. As far as prospects for reconciliation are concerned, I think that there is always only one way: it is necessary to negotiate, to create the atmosphere of trust and at the same time avoid steps that may aggravate tensions and incite new clashes. One should treat opponents with respect, conduct a serious dialogue, observe the principles of democracy and respect justice. One also needs to stay focused and determined in fulfilling the reached agreements, viewing the well-being of the people, who have many needs, as an utmost priority. The country is hit by a serious humanitarian crisis, and people are dying due to lack of food and medicine, and this should not be forgotten or treated as a secondary problem. I would also like to add that the international community, including nations that have friendly ties with Venezuela, have great responsibilities and should offer selfless assistance aimed at facilitating a positive solution for the current situation.
Interviewed by Vera Shcherbakova (Vatican).