On the second day of his landmark visit to Russia, Cardinal Pietro Parolin spoke of “positive momentum” behind the idea of Pope Francis making an historic visit to Russia, but suggested more work needs to be done to make it happen.

The Vatican Secretary of State made the comments at a joint press conference Aug. 22 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.

The Holy See’s top diplomat is on a four-day visit to Russia, the first by a Vatican Secretary of State in 18 years, and Cardinal Parolin’s first trip to the country.

He did not give any possible date for a papal trip and, on the eve of his visit, stressed it was not on the agenda of any of his meetings this week, but his high-profile diplomatic visit is expected to help pave the way for it to happen. Some inside sources say it could take place as soon as next year.  

If so, it would be the first such trip by a pope in the modern era, and further help build bridges between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, one of the priorities of this pontificate.

Relations have thawed considerably over the past 50 years, and especially after the end of the Cold War, leading to Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill meeting in Havana, Cuba, last year — the first such encounter since the Great Schism of 1054. 

During their bilateral meeting today, Cardinal Parolin and Foreign Minister Lavrov discussed issues of international concern and afterwards, at the press conference, signed an agreement waiving visa requirements for holders of diplomatic passports.

 

Content with progress

The two leaders called the step a sign of the two countries’ desire to continue to work together on international issues. “We are content with the progress in our cooperation with Russia, including high-level contacts in the field of culture, science and medicine,” the cardinal said. “We confirm our willingness to enhance these contacts in the future in all these areas,” he added.

But he said difficulties remain between the Vatican and Russia regarding “working residency permits for non-Russian personnel and the restitution of several churches necessary for the pastoral care of Catholics in the country.”

Earlier, in an interview with the archdiocese of Moscow, Cardinal Parolin pointed out that the question of the Church’s historic buildings, never returned from the time of communism, "is a theme that has a long history.”

He said he recalled the same unresolved question in 1999 when his predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, visited the Russian capital. “It is an issue that is being discussed for a long time,” Cardinal Parolin said. “We hope that every visit, and especially this visit, can help solve this problem precisely in accordance with the principle of religious freedom, so every religious community has the right to have the necessary space to profess, live and witness to their faith.” 

Turning to international affairs, Lavrov spoke of the need for solutions for Christians living in the Middle East. “We need to find similar solutions that would provide proper balance between different ethnic and religious groups in Yemen, Libya, and Iraq, where state building processes are underway,” he said.

Cardinal Parolin said he recognized the difference in approach between Russia and the Holy See on these issues. But he said the two share a “strong concern for the situation of Christians in several countries of the Middle East and the African continent.”

Without going into any detail, he said that during the meeting he “reiterated the hope” that “just and lasting solutions” to conflicts can be found, in particular in the Middle East, Ukraine, and “several other regions of the world.”

He also expressed hope that the Holy See, through being more directly involved in efforts to “promote initiatives aimed at alleviating the plight of the people” while at the same time giving “precedence to the common good, principally justice, law, the truth of the facts and abstain from manipulating them,” can help bring security and decent living conditions to those people affected.

The cardinal stressed that while the Holy See does not desire, nor is able “to identify with any political positions,” it recalls the duty to “strictly adhere to the great principles of international law, respect for which is essential both to protect order and world peace, and for the recovery a healthy climate of mutual respect in international relations.”

 

Religious freedom

He also underlined the importance of the Holy See’s concern for preserving religious freedom “in any country and in any political situation.”

Responding in the press conference to a question about the situation in Venezuela, Cardinal Parolin said he believes Russia, which has closed ties with President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist regime in Caracas, can help to “overcome this very difficult moment.” Russia, he said, can promote the Vatican’s efforts to create dialogue between Venezuela’s government and the opposition.

“This is the only solution the Holy See sees for an exit to this situation,” he said, referring to the continued violence and unrest in the country.

Lavrov said the Russian government is “glad” that dialogue between Russia and the Holy See “is developing dynamically, including at the top level,” and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin has met with Pope Francis twice at the Vatican over the past few years.

Cardinal Parolin is scheduled to have talks with President Putin in Sochi tomorrow, his last engagement before returning to the Vatican on Thursday.

This afternoon he met with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, and yesterday discussed a range of issues with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the de facto foreign minister of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Noticeable by way of omission in the statements today was any specific mention of the war in Syria — a conflict which the Pope has frequently condemned but without coming down on either side, mainly due to concerns for the fate of Christians there if President Bashar Al Assad falls. Russia has been a firm supporter of the Asssad regime which has generally allowed Christians to live the faith without state restrictions.

The conflict is believed to have been discussed, however, and is, together with the continued conflict in Ukraine, on the agenda during talks tomorrow with President Putin.