08/22/2017, 15.15
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Hopes for a Papal trip to Moscow in Russia and the Vatican’s future

by Vladimir Rozanskij

A very friendly meeting between Serghei Lavrov and Card. Parolin this morning. Great convergence on many international issues: terrorism, Syria, persecuted Christians. Some "differences" on the Ukrainian question. From the meeting in Havana, a new meeting between Francis and the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill anticipated.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - A meeting was held today between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Vatican Secretary of State Card. Pietro Parolin. In the press conference after the talks, they stressed the great convergence of both parties on the major issues of international politics, opening up many perspectives for future developments. After briefly recalling the history of Russian-Vatican relations from the fifteenth century to today, Lavrov listed the various initiatives that have recently intensified the relations between the Russian Federation and the Vatican, such as the exhibition carried out in Rome on Russian Cultural Heritage from icons to contemporary art, joint initiatives in the field of health and education, programs for children suffering from rare diseases. An agreement was also announced to abolish entry visas for representatives with a diplomatic passport from the Holy See.

The Russian minister has reviewed the numerous international political issues discussed with his Vatican visitor: the Near East, with the situation in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, and the internal conflict in Venezuela. Lavrov thanked the Vatican for supporting Russia's positions in the fight against terrorism and extremism, particularly in the dramatic Syrian situation. Palestine and Israeli relations were also a point of convergence. Gratitude was expressed to the Holy See for supporting the Minsk accords on the end of the conflict in Ukraine. According to Lavrov, this support "was not only moral, but very concrete in humanitarian aid to the population of Donetsk and Lugansk, battered by clashes." Both Russia and the Vatican are "overcoming a conflicting approach in Ukraine, and opposed to the use of religion for political ends," added the Russian Chancellor.

For his part, the Vatican Secretary of State thanked the Russians for their welcome, recalling that he came "to express the concerns of Pope Francis for the current problems of the international scene". He expressed satisfaction with cultural, scientific and healthcare agreements, hoping for further future developments in these areas. Concessions to Vatican diplomats, according to Card. Parolin, should lead to further facilitations for the activities of the Catholic Church in Russia, alleviating the working conditions of its personnel and finding shared solutions to other problems.

On issues of international politics, the cardinal expressed his "appreciation for the right solutions to problems in the Near East, Ukraine and other countries." The Holy See emphasized that its primary aim is to alleviate the living conditions of the suffering population, and hope for a joint search for concrete solutions, without being conditioned by the manipulation of information. Referring to the thorny issue of Crimea's annexation, the prelate urged the Russians to reject decisions contrary to international law, to seek solutions in agreement with neighboring states and with the international community. Here the cardinal highlighted his "divergence" with Russian positions, while recalling the full consonance regarding the defense of the rights of persecuted Christians in many countries around the world.

Responding to a question from journalists on a possibility of a Papal trip to Russia, the Cardinal recalled the importance of the Havana encounter, but also the recent pilgrimage of  St. Nicholas’ remains in Russia, assuring that there will be further developments in this regard. In his words, "the concrete realization of these plans is entrusted to the Holy Spirit. There is a positive dynamic, and the future will show us where this will take us. "

Interviews in the build up to the visit had seen the recurring question of a papal visit addressed several times to Card. Pietro Parolin. The opportunity afforded by the official visit of the Vatican Secretary of State to Moscow, the first after nearly 20 years. In 1999, his predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, made every attempt to open the doors of the Kremlin to John Paul II, but without results. The response still seem negative; but, as is the case in the world of information, the succession of denials increases the conviction that the news may be forthcoming. Cardinal Parolin's response, after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, is deliberately evasive and generous, without giving anything away about an imminent possibility.

Moreover, despite the skepticism, signs of a possible trip by Pope Francis the fog of diplomatic hesitation emerge from the Patriarchate of Moscow, beginning from the historic meeting of Havana with the Russian Patriarch Kirill in February 2016. On that occasion, the Pope was welcomed by the patriarch in neutral territory, but very familiar to the Russians, Havana's Soviet-style airport and the company of a historic communist figure such as Raul Castro. The next day, Kirill went to visit Fidel himself, who was already ailing, to celebrate the historic success of the meeting with him.

From Havana to the next meeting

After the Cuban embrace, the Holy See activated a very significant change in Russia: instead of the Slovenian nuncio, Msgr. Ivan Jurkovic, who was awarded with the UN headquarters in Geneva, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, a diplomat Vatican was plucked from a very authoritative career, parallel to that of the same Card. Parolin, and signaled out for Russia. He became well-known in 2002 when it was sent to the UN headquarters in New York, representing the Vatican at the highest levels. In 2003, he went to Moscow to discuss issues of international politics with the Russians, including the situation in Vietnam, on a mission prepared in tandem with Parolin, then Substitute of the Secretariat of State. His experience was then made available to the new Vatican Ostpolitik, which began under Benedict XVI and has been vigorously strengthened by Pope Francis: Migliore was nuncio to Poland during the phase of retirement of Cracow Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz (former secretary to St. Pope John Paul II), and from May 2016 he has in Moscow to work for the follow-up to the Havana talks.

Before Migliore, in November 2015, it was the turn of Msgr. Claudio Gugerotti, one of the most competent Vatican officials in Eastern European issues, coming from specific studies and serving in the Congregation for Oriental Churches. Very close to Enzo Bianchi, and to the ultra-ecumenical positions of the Bose community which he regularly attended, Gugerotti took the place of Monsignor Thomas Gullikson, an American Archbishop, nuncio to Kiev since 2011, who during the crisis between Ukraine and Moscow was a bit too unbalanced in favor of the Majdan movement, creating a few ill feeling in Russia. Since the arrival of Gugerotti, the Patriarchate of Moscow has not missed the opportunity to thank the Holy See for its neutrality in Ukrainian affairs, as Hilarion stated in the meeting yesterday with Card. Parolin.

The same cardinal carried out an official visit to Ukraine in June 2016, where he obviously failed to pay tribute to Majdan Square and its victor, President Poroshenko, but the most interesting part of the trip was the visit to Zaporizhia, a town in the eastern part of the country, in Donbass partially controlled by Russian "volunteer" militias. By bringing humanitarian aid and comfort to the local population, severely challenged by the conflict, the cardinal assured them that the pope himself had a great desire to visit those areas. A meeting of Francis and Kirill in Ukraine divided by the epochal confrontation between East and West would be a gesture of incomparable historical and symbolic value.

"Cheering" for Francis to come to Russia

In January this year, the Archbishop of Moscow, Msgr. Paolo Pezzi, made very optimistic statements about the Pope's possible trip to Russian soil: "It seems to me that after Cuba, that is, after the reactions that were not easy for the Orthodox Church in Russia, today we can speak about a possible visit by the Pope to Russia. When? I do not know when. But I do think that it is no longer viewed as problematic "said the bishop of the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow, intervening at the margins of the Catholic Forum in Rome.

According to Msgr. Pezzi, the negative reactions among Russian Orthodox after Cuba's meeting "were not so many, but they were very noisy. It is gone. And this has allowed the Patriarch, but also others, to return to the reasons for that encounter. And they were convincing. You can also continue to discuss whether the meeting was political, cultural, religious but certainly this wave that has had a very strong impact has swept over it all and has left greater tranquility for a possible trip by Francis to Russia. We are cheering for it. " The Pope in this regard - he pointed - "has always been discreet. I never heard him say 'I wish I could come.' He would surely like to meet Patriarch Kirill. And if this happens in Moscow, in Rome, it would be equally ok anywhere. But he is very discreet, and will not force it."

Card. Parolin’s visit has also provoked negative comments in Russian society especially from the most radical members of "nationalist" orthodoxy: the cardinal is seen as the usual Catholic invader who comes to conquer Russia with the subtle weapons of Jesuit diplomacy. Even local Catholics, by the mouth of the secretary of the Russian bishops Msgr. Igor Kovalevski, believe that a visit by Francis to Moscow would be premature, fearing the reactions of Orthodox clergy, politics and society, which today suffers from a Western phobia, especially because of the "war of sanctions" .

However, Patriarch Kirill has shown that he is able to handle these situations in a brilliant way, without being subjected to his most intransigent collaborators, such as Bishop Tikhon (Ševkunov), "Putin’s confessor" who, more than anyone cried traitor after the meeting in Havana. As Cardinal Parolin has said, any surprises are entrusted to the work of the Holy Spirit.

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