Card. Parolin in Moscow: Ostpolitik conquers distrust
by Vladimir Rozanskij

The theme is a meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, not in Moscow, but in some holy place of the Christian East, or in Bari. An international conference on the future of Ukraine and Crimea. Commitment to Christians and Peace in the Middle East. 

Moscow (AsiaNews) - From August 21st to August 24th, Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin will be in Moscow with an intense program that was announced yesterday. This is the third visit of a Pope's "prime minister" after that of Card. Casaroli in 1990 and Card. Sodano in 1999. In fact, many senior Vatican officials have travelled to Russia in the past for the extraordinary consideration that Rome has always had for the largest orthodox country in eastern Europe.

The "state" visits of the cardinals resume after a long pause, due to the many misunderstandings between the Catholic Church and Russia at the beginning of the millennium. In fact, diplomatic relations, which were restored in 1990, after almost a century, were never interrupted, despite cold fronts and distrust, and were remarkably revived after the historic meeting in Cuba between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in February 2016.

In 1990 Casaroli inaugurated the Vatican nunciature, then in a service apartment, and today housed in the former residence of the Turkish ambassador. The great protagonist of Vatican Ostpolitik set up one of his closest collaborators in Moscow, Cardinal Francesco Colasuonno, already nuncio to Poland and all the countries of the east, and finally a nuncio in Italy.

Colasuonno remained in the Russian capital from 1990 to 1994, in a short time restoring the structures of the Catholic Church in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. His successor, nuncio John Bukowski, in turn belonging to the historic "Casaroli Special Team", doubled the number Russian bishops 'seats, bringing them to four (Moscow, Saratov, Novosibirsk and Irkutsk) and joining them to the present-held Catholic bishopric held by the German bishop of Saratov, Msgr. Klemens Pickel. At the end of Bukowski's mandate in 1999, Cardinal Sodano was able to admire the reconstruction of Catholic structures, re-opening the majestic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in the center of Moscow, where the Curia is currently headed by Archbishop Paolo Pezzi. It was the seal of the spiralling "religious rebirth" of the 1990s, of which the cathedral was one of the most striking symbols: it had been transformed into a factory and offices, with a center for the School of Atheism, and was reconquered with patient determination by the Catholics, mostly Polish. In 1995, led by the Italian prelate, Msgr. Bernardo Antonini, the seminarians together with the faithful managed to break through the barriers and recover the whole building, after years of praying at the entrance, even at the 20° subzero. Where the militant atheism was taught, for a period of time, theology lessons were held for lay people.

Sodano's visit marked the greatest distance between Catholics and Orthodox, which saw in the early successes as a form of invasive "proselytism." Already since 1997 the parliament had approved a new law on religious freedom, which set limits on all confessions, exalting the Orthodox "State Church". Yeltsin, now in full decline, had not had the power to oppose, and ran aground of Putin's new nationalist and confessional politics, who became prime minister in 1999, and year after president. In that context, Sodan's visit, on the one hand, took place in an euphoric climate of Catholic pride, on the other hand in a rather embarrassed atmosphere, for Orthodox distrust. In those years, on the Vatican's side, every effort was made to organize the visit of Pope John Paul II to Russia, initially Yeltsyn enthusiastically gave his assent, but the opposition of the Patriarchate made every effort.

Shortly thereafter, in January 2000, a new apostolic nuncio was appointed, Msgr. Giorgio Zur, president of the Vatican Diplomatic Academy. His decision in 2002 to elevate Catholic apostolic administrations to the rank of diocese was the classic last drop: the Orthodox Church found it to be a serious confrontation, and a shining example of the Vatican's proselytical intentions in Russia. From that point on relations were frozen. When in 2004 Cardinal Kasper returned to the Patriarch the icon of the Virgin of Kazan, which the pope wanted to deliver personally, he felt that it was a kind of returning the rings from ex-fiancèes

The new nuncio Antonio Mennini, in office from 2002 to 2010, had to restore Ostpolitik's more prudent line, surrendering to Russians on every Catholic project in the country. In this way, the situation was slowly restored, especially after the election of Patriarch of Moscow in 2009 of Metropolitan Kirill (Gundjaev), a historic friend of Catholics and Jesuits. The meeting in Cuba was the seal of Mennini’s diplomacy and of the Secretary of State of Card. Bertone, where Parolin long worked as a Substitute. The contribution of the nuncio Msgr. Jurkovic, successor to Mennini, was decisive.  He had worked as secretary in the first nunciature in 1990, and after the Cuban triumph was promoted to a representative of the Holy See at the UN in Geneva.

The new nuncio, Msgr. Celestino Migliore, one of the most active protagonists of Vatican diplomacy in the last decade, will accompany Cardinal Parolin on his trip. The re-established climate of mutual trust will help to deal with issues of Catholic status in Russia, though it is unlikely that the Pope's visit to Russia will be re-proposed, which would not be very welcome to the clergy and to the local population. It is easier for Parolin to address to an invitation to Patriarch Kirill to meet the pope again in Catholic land, perhaps in Bari at the remains of the beloved Saint Nicholas, or even in Rome.

The Secretary of State will  focus on major international issues, starting with the thorny issue of Ukraine, where Greek-Catholic Orthodox Christians oppose Greek Catholics, protagonists of the changes in Ukraine, resulting in the conflict that led to the annexation of the Crimea to Russia and of the Russian "masked invasion" in the Donbass. It is likely that Parolin will support an international conference that rediscovers the status of these territories by ending the conflict and the "war of sanctions".

The other great topic of the talks will certainly be the situation in Syria and the Middle East, where the Holy See moderately supports the Russian positions for a definitive defeat of the ISIS, and the independence of the territories from the protectorates of the superpowers. Certainly, the cardinal will relaunch humanitarian aid programs for refugees of war and for the protection of persecuted Christians, already in concert with the Orthodox Church: this is the most effective consequence of the Cuban encounter. And who knows , maybe the Pope and the Patriarchs will meet tomorrow at some holy place of the ancient Christian East, evoking the ancient fathers of the Church of Antioch and Jerusalem.