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Can a pope help Ukraine? (Interview)


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I.Media - published on 03/04/22

For Bernard Lecomte, "Russia fascinates all the popes," but the Vatican must comfort the Catholics of Ukraine.

How much room does the Pope have to maneuver in the face of the Russian offensive in Ukraine? What is thought to be the power of Russian influence on the actions of the Pope and Vatican diplomacy? I.MEDIA interviewed journalist Bernard Lecomte, who has reported on numerous occasions in Eastern Europe.

He’s the author of a biography of John Paul II and of the book “The Pope who Conquered Communism” (“Le pape qui a vaincu le communisme,” 2019). He points out that from Moscow’s point of view, the Vatican cannot be considered a neutral body, given the important place of the Catholic Church in Ukraine.

Faced with this Russian offensive in Ukraine, has the Holy See found itself in the same state of perplexity as the diplomatic services of Western countries?

Lecomte: I think so. When I came to the Vatican, I was always struck by the fact that there were very few people who knew the USSR well or who know Russia today. This country fascinates all the popes, but there are very few specialists within the diplomatic apparatus of the Holy See. So they have probably been stunned by what is happening.

So the Ukrainian crisis is difficult to interpret from Rome?

Lecomte: The problem is that Christianity in Ukraine presents an extremely complex landscape, with essentially three different entities, between the autonomous Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church that remains under the jurisdiction of Moscow, and the Catholics. With the war, we can see that the Church dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate is moving towards secession, which is a fundamental evolution.

But if Ukraine has resisted to this point, it’s mainly thanks to the Catholics of the West who have always been radically opposed to communism, and who are also in opposition to the Patriarchate of Moscow, this “third Rome” from which they broke away in 1596.

It’s a very complex landscape in which Vatican diplomacy has difficulty in moving, because it cannot assume a neutral position. The Pope would like to establish contacts with Moscow, as proved by his visit to the Russian embassy, which was a spectacular gesture, but from the Russian point of view he cannot be seen as impartial.

When talking about the relations between the Holy See and the countries of the former Soviet bloc, the word “Ospolitik” is often used. How do you define this term and how did this strategy unfold?

Lecomte: It’s a German term that first refers to West German policy towards the communist countries in the 1960s and 70s, but it’s also applied to John XXIII and Paul VI when they softened the Vatican’s approach to Moscow.

One of the symbols of this change was the presence of Russian observers at the Second Vatican Council. Moreover, on John XXIII’s 80th birthday in 1961, he received a congratulatory telegram from Khrushchev and was visited by the leader’s son-in-law, Alexei Adjoubei, who was the editor-in-chief of Izvestia (one of the leading Moscow dailies). This was absolutely unheard of at the time.

Then, under the pontificate of Paul VI, the Vatican moved towards a “policy of small steps.” It was a matter of sending prelates to meet officially with the local communist authorities, in order to obtain some compromises, notably for the appointment of bishops, and for the reopening of some churches.

How long did this risky strategy last?

Lecomte: It was a discussion with the enemy, in an extremely difficult context for the Catholic Church, marked in particular by the persecutions suffered by Cardinals Mindszenty in Hungary, Slipyj in Soviet Ukraine, and Wyszynski in Poland. 

However, Ostpolitik was taken up by papal diplomacy, especially in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It was carried in the 1970s by Archbishop Casaroli, who was its most symbolic figure. But when John Paul II was elected, he put a stop to this policy by saying, in substance: “Stop! We do not make pacts with the enemy. It can only hurt us.”

So Archbishop Casaroli had to agree to change his strategy. John Paul II explained that he had appointed him as Secretary of State to give a signal of continuity, so as not to panic the East, but in fact he was assuming a strong position in the relationship with the communist countries.

Under John Paul II, was there a sort of “role play” between the Pope, who assumed the confrontational role, the prophetic dimension, and the Secretariat of State, which took up a search for compromise and a certain political pragmatism?

Lecomte: Yes, absolutely, but the boss was still the Pope. During a trip, John Paul II praised Casaroli, saying that his Secretary of State did “90% of the work.” But the rest was the most important: the trips, the encyclicals, etc…

Indeed, it was the Pope who set the tone, and he panicked Vatican diplomats by announcing that he would go to Poland at the beginning of his pontificate, and that was an absolutely colossal event. So there was a sharing of tasks, but it was not equal.

Since the death of John Paul II, has the decline of the Slavic presence in the Vatican’s diplomatic apparatus caused a disinvestment in this region of the world?

Lecomte: During the pontificate of John Paul II, all the corridors of the Vatican were filled with prelates from the East. It was spectacular. Then, starting with Benedict XVI, there was a rotation, which is normal. There is no longer this Eastern European tropism.

We have understood, especially since 2013, that Francis does not have this European sensitivity that marked all the previous popes. He’s not familiar with the subtleties of Ukraine.

And even if he personally would like to be above the fray, from the Russian point of view, he’s necessarily seen as the leader of the Western Ukrainians. His position is unplayable, because if he plays the card of contacts with the Moscow Patriarchate, he offends the Orthodox of the Autocephalous Church.

Can one imagine what John Paul II’s attitude would have been in the face of such a crisis?

Lecomte: John Paul II, who knew Ukraine perfectly, would probably have addressed himself first to the Ukrainian Catholics to comfort them, and then, in a second phase, he would’ve addressed a message of charity to the Orthodox.

He was a scintillating Slavic pope, a formidable unifier, with his insistence on the theme of “solidarity.” But to understand the situation in Eastern Europe, you really have to come from these lands, or from the crossroads of these countries, as was the case with Cardinal Koenig (the archbishop of Vienna, Austria, from 1956 to 1985, Ed.)

What were John Paul II’s relations with Moscow?

Lecomte: Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was a tireless defender of human rights in the East and of the reunification of Europe, and this allowed him to have convergences with Mikhail Gorbachev. On December 1, 1989, when he received the Soviet leader at the Vatican, it was a significant event.

The two heads of state agreed on the concept of a “Common European House.” At the time, the idea that bridges could be built between the two parts of Europe was exciting.

The Soviet leader, visibly moved, spontaneously said to John Paul II: “I invite you very warmly to Moscow.” He introduced the Pope to his wife, saying: “Raissa, I present to you one of the most important men in the world, and he is a Slav, like us!!” He was as enthusiastic as a child!

And John Paul II dreamed of going to Moscow, but he was blocked by the Moscow Patriarchate, which hated him and was on a very anti-Catholic line. Gorbachev didn’t understand the rules of the game from the point of view of the Orthodox Church.

More recently, Vladimir Putin has met the popes on several occasions, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. How do Russian leaders view the Vatican?

Lecomte: Gorbachev and Yeltsin had respect for the figure of the Pope. Vladimir Putin also considers him a very important person.

During his meetings with successive popes, Vladimir Putin was happy to show himself as a defender of Christian values. He’s at the head of a huge country, so, on a political and cultural level, he had an interest in having good relations with all the religions present in his country, and not only with Orthodoxy and Islam.

Through these meetings with the popes, it was not a question of “putting the West to sleep,” even if this has been a fundamental axis of his diplomacy since the beginning of his presidency. The issue was rather to cultivate his links with Catholics, even if they are few in number in Russia.

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