“We Christians must be ambassadors of peace,” Pope Francis wrote in a letter sent to Leonid Sevastianov and opera singer Svetlana Kasyan on May 5, 2022.
The Russian Orthodox couple has met Pope Francis eight times since their first correspondence in 2013.
She is an opera singer beloved by Pope Francis; he is the president of the World Union of
Old Believers, a branch of Russian Orthodoxy. While the war in Ukraine has already left thousands dead and millions displaced, I.MEDIA asked Leonid Sevastianov what it means to be an ambassador for peace today.
We received this letter from the Pope inviting Svetlana and me to be ambassadors for peace, but we’ve been doing this already since our first meeting with him in 2013. At that time, we organized a concert for peace at the Conciliazione Auditorium [in Rome, ed.], dedicated to the war in Syria. After the concert, the Pope’s secretary told us that the Pope wanted to see us, so we went to his private Mass at Saint Martha’s. He put us in the front row, talked to us and asked Svetlana to sing for the promotion of peace. That was in November.
Three months later, in February 2014, the tragic events began in Ukraine. From then on, the Pope started sending us letters, reiterating his calls for peace. I remember very well that when I met the then Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in April 2014, Pope Francis gave him a pen and wished him to use it for peace.
So we have been friends with Pope Francis for almost 10 years now, and our relationship with him has always been based on promoting peace.
What do you think of the Pope’s action in the face of this war?
For Russians, seeing a Jesuit Catholic pope, given the history of Jesuits in the country, is almost a symbol of an intrusive West. Instead, this pope is so humble. He is outside the political arena. When people ask me why I side with the pope, I say that from the beginning I was struck by the fact that he was always on the side of those who suffered, whether they were Orthodox, Catholic or others. In 2014, he always asked what he could do, how he could help. Even when I talked to him about the war in Ukraine, he never took a political position, and that’s important.
Also, he doesn’t just talk about the war on the European continent, he also talks about the people who are dying in Africa, Latin America and other places. War is a mortal sin everywhere.
In an interview with Corriere della Sera, the Pope said that Patriarch Kirill “cannot become Putin’s altar boy” and that “NATO’s barking at Russia’s door” has led Putin to react. What do you think of these words?
I liked them because he is tough, but he is tough on everyone. When he talks about Kirill and NATO, he is right about both.
The Russian Orthodox Church has always been mixed up with the state: today as well as 10, 100, 200 years ago. As an Old Believer [a Russian Orthodox religious movement, ed.], I criticize this openly, because in my opinion this is not the function of the Church.
As for NATO, the Pope takes into account the psychology of the adversary—something no one else does. Russia may have felt a bit “left out of the party.” The Pope’s words helped me to understand the situation better, because I didn’t see the economic or political motivation of this attack. We often talk about economics and not psychology.
I pray that the Pope will come to
Russia; it could change people’s mentality. The Pope would be able to propose ways of coexistence and, precisely because of his neutrality and his opposition to any war, he would be able to influence Putin. We must open the doors to proponents of democracy, to dictators, to everyone, make them sit together and exert moral influence. What else could the Holy See do to help resolve the conflict?
I promote the idea that the Vatican should become the capital of international politics, morally speaking. I think there is no other alternative for peace, not only for Ukraine but for the whole world. Indeed, after the Second World War, we did not create an institution that preserved us from war. When we base our relations only on economics, war always breaks out in the end. We must create a new institution based on faith. There is only one institution, one state, that has always been neutral and opposed to war: the Vatican. I remember that in 2003, when I was studying in Italy, my friend Cardinal Roger Etchegaray was sent by John Paul II to talk to Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Even with Saddam Hussein, the Vatican has always tried to promote peace and seek common ground to avoid conflict.
How can this be done concretely?
I propose the creation of a kind of “round table” within the Vatican. The Holy See should invite Biden, Zelensky, NATO representatives, Putin, Xi Jinping, etc., for a summit meeting with the Pope as moderator. I can’t think of any other institution, any other neutral country, that can promote peace. All the others are more concerned with economic issues. It’s impossible to stop the war without dialogue and, in my opinion, the Holy See must assume the principal and moral role. I have suggested this to the Pope but he has not responded.
And what do you think of the actions of Patriarch Kirill? Do you think he could change his attitude?
I agree with Nietzsche who said that man always acts for power, even when he talks about religion. One can only change one’s attitude if one finds some use for it.
Russia, the Church experienced a renaissance after the fall of the Soviet regime which it had opposed. I now expect an enormous existential and religious crisis after this conflict in Ukraine, because this time the Church supports the regime. I imagine that many Ukrainians, many Russians will lose their Christian faith in the face of a Church that promotes war. What do Orthodox believers think of Kirill’s attitude?
He is not popular at all. Even among the bishops, many suffer in silence but inwardly do not agree. It’s difficult to support militarism. I can understand very well from the point of view of propaganda and politics, but not from the point of view of the Gospel; [this support] does not exist and cannot be explained.
What is your relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church?
I worked for a long time in the Russian Orthodox Church as the director of the St. Gregory Foundation, which supported the Department of External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, chaired by Metropolitan Hilarion. In 2018, the problems with the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the problems with Ukraine began. From that moment on, I felt that I didn’t want to be part of that; I didn’t want to enter into those quarrels, and so I left that office.
I am now the president of the World Union of Old Believers. This is a Russian historical religious tradition that separated from the Orthodox Church in the 17th century because it did not accept its attachment and submission to the state. Since these reforms of the 17th century, the Church has always supported the State, for better or for worse. For Old Believers, on the other hand, the Orthodox tradition is based on community. My family comes from this tradition. Today, I am its representative at the political and social level. Some communities recognize Patriarch Kirill, others are still separate.
Why do you think the Pope has such a close relationship with you?
I have been told in the past: “Who are you to talk to the Pope?” or “Aren’t there more important singers than Svetlana?” But in my opinion, the Pope appreciates normal people. You can’t understand the people by giving priority to the “elite.” From the beginning he told us that things can only change if normal people work for peace. Because a politician can promote peace today, and forget it tomorrow, but if the majority of people promote peace, then the politicians will be influenced.
And we are working for that with Svetlana. We decided to stay in Russia when this war started, but it isn’t easy. We try to talk and promote peace, we try to publish in the Russian press, and to talk about it publicly, despite the risks. We also organize cultural events and concerts dedicated to peace. We are organizing one in Kaliningrad, the westernmost part of Russia, on June 1. We are also helping the many refugees who have arrived here since the beginning of the conflict.