In an interview with AsiaNews before the end of his tenure in Moscow, Mgr Jurkovic looks back at his time in the Russian capital, a time that saw the end of the Soviet Union, the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and the Holy See, and the first meeting between the pope and the patriarch. For him, the first consequence of the Cuba meeting is the normalisation of relations between Orthodox and Catholics. In late October, Moscow will host a big Christian conference organised by the Patriarchate and Billy Graham’s evangelical movement. The Holy See is expected to send a large delegation. The nuncio hopes that the dialogue between Churches can contribute to a renewed political dialogue between Russia and Europe.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – Mgr Ivan Jurkovic, 64, (pictured with the Patriarch) ends his tenure as apostolic nuncio to the Russian Federation by the end of this month to take up the post of Holy See permanent observer at the United Nations in Geneva.
He spoke to AsiaNews a few days before his departure, which takes place in a year marking the 25th anniversary since the opening of the Holy See office of representation in Russia, which was later raised to the status of nunciature. "Twenty-five years and growing," he added, including the latest step, i.e. the meeting between Francis and Kirill.
In all, Mgr Jurkovic spent nine years in Moscow (1992-1996, 2011-2016). During this period, he has seen major historical events like the end of the Soviet Union, and the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba.
His new appointment was officially announced on 13 February, the day after the historic embrace between the spiritual leaders of the two sister Churches. This led to some speculation, which he dismisses. "My superiors,” he said, “were planning to transfer me before, but when the meeting in Cuba was announced, they waited before making the appointment official. These are extraordinary things.”
In the nunciature’s sitting room, where he receives guests, stands a statue by the Russian artist Aleksandr Burganov, which he likes a lot. It shows the pope and the Russian Orthodox primate as the two sides of a broken wafer coming together: two parts of the same thing. "I wrote to the pope, and if he likes the statue, it will go to Rome," the Slovenian prelate said.
For the Vatican diplomat, it is too soon to know what has changed between the two Churches after the historic meeting, but at least, "talking about relations between Catholics and Orthodox has become normal."
"Now we have this image of the two spiritual leaders embracing, which was something we needed," Jurkovic said.
How would you assess your time in Moscow?
I will not stress what is obvious, but it is certain that the Havana meeting shed some light on what happened before. For me, it was a source of joy and happiness that it took place during my tenure. Still, any objective assessment should transcend the personal aspect, and must look at the today’s Russia-Vatican relations after 25 years of permanent representation in the country.
How would you describe them?
"They are at an unprecedented level. Twenty-five years and growing. A senior Patriarchate official, who shall remain nameless, corrected me when I spoke in these terms, saying that “perhaps they were declining a bit”. I responded that perhaps it was some ‘tempo rubato*’, stolen time. He liked that. Relations sped up and slowed down within the same timeframe.
For the Orthodox Church, the last 25 years have been a positive period in terms of religious freedom, especially in terms of bishop appointments. For the first time, it has been to organise itself according to its own rules. The same goes for the Catholic Church, which now has many possibilities of expression.
Can you tell us the background that led to Cuba?
It began with the visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to John Paul II, which led to the exchange of diplomatic representatives in 1989. This was followed in 1991 with the arrival of a pontifical representative in Moscow.
At that time, a coup was underway in Moscow, and the city was under a state of emergency. The furniture sent ahead for the Vatican delegation had not arrived and so the official in charge of the office slept on cardboard the first night. I arrived a few months later.
The third step was Pope John Paul II’s gift of the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan to then Patriarch Alexis II. In 2009, full diplomatic relations were established. Finally came Cuba. For me, what I like the most is the fact that my mandate included various players.
After nine years in Russia, what did you understand about this country?
Although some people have tried to describe Moscow as anti-religious or areligious, the city is a true religious capital, like Rome or Istanbul. I have always held to this view because it reflects the truth. Moscow is a Christian religious capital, a different kind of Christian, different from our tradition. It is one of most desirable destinations for an ecclesiastical diplomatic mission. As far Russia is concerned, I believe that it must accepted as it is, because here our ideas do not apply, for example when it comes to State-Church relations.
Close cooperation, if not dependence . . .
You do not understand. The Russian Church was destroyed, annihilated by the State; its destruction was planned by the State. The devastation was total and lasted nearly a century. Under Khrushchev alone, 38,000 churches were destroyed. How can Church life restart amid the ruins without state support? As Cardinal Achille Silvestrini (prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches) put it, the Catholic Church only needs freedom because it can rely on international solidarity. Here, this concept does not exist; for this reason, state support is needed. On this point, one cannot judge too quickly; we need to understand the situation.
What has changed in the relationship between the two churches after Cuba?
If you look at a two-metre by two-metre painting close-up, you lose perspective. Thus, to form an opinion about the Cuba meeting and its consequences, we need time for an historical perspective to form. However, what has changed, now and forever, is that now we have the image of this embrace that was expected by the public and that unites us. That was essential. Seeing in the pope and the patriarch was necessary; for all of us, it is a consolation.
We can also say that a certain maturity and a new normalcy now exist. For us, dialogue between brothers should not be seen as something extraordinary. After Cuba, impossible and rare things have become normal, everyday life. There is also another important element.
I think that overcoming this obstacle in the Cuba meeting will give relations between the Catholic Church and other Orthodox Churches a positive spin. I am referring here to the patriarchs who still do not have any direct contact with the Holy Father. The Russian Orthodox Church is always crucial, partly because of its importance, as well as its intellectual and practical powers to act and be present.
For the Orthodox Church, there are still obstacle that divide the two, like Ukraine’s Greek Catholics who follow the Orthodox rite but are faithful to the pope.
If we use the family as a metaphor, we see that all sorts of things happen in families, like quarrels and misunderstandings. Yet, a family is still a family.
Once, after this meeting, we can recognise ourselves in the proper religious, theological, and spiritual format, and in a more formal setting, problems in the future will have another source for a solution. Something as complex as this cannot be simplified; it needs to mature, a new understanding and capacity for dialogue.
Undoubtedly, both Russian and Ukrainians are hoping that this meeting will benefit everyone and exclude no one, especially those who are suffering like the people of Ukraine. I cannot add any more. I was nuncio in the Ukraine for seven years; now I have to speak from a Russian perspective.
What are the next steps towards normalising relations between the two Churches?
I think that now we need to meet on a regular, normal basis as well as engage in some common initiatives. At the end of this October, Moscow will host a big conference, organised by the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate and Franklin Graham, son of the famous American evangelist Billy Graham.
More than a thousand Christian delegates are expected, especially from the Middle East. At least one hundred Catholic officials should attend. In terms of size and importance, it will be comparable to the millennial celebration of Christianity in Russia. It is a major event, even though it is not the direct result of the meeting between the pope and the patriarch.
Do you expect the pope to visit Moscow?
Not any time soon.
* Tempo rubato (It. stolen time) is a musical term that refers to the slight speeding up and then slowing down of the tempo of a piece at the discretion of the soloist or the conductor.