National Catholic Register


In Belarus, Another Cuba?

How a papal visit could impact the former Soviet republic

BY Kazimierz Cardinal Swiatek

December 06-12, 1998 Issue | Posted 12/6/98 at 1:00 PM


The Eastern European nation of Belarus has been politically independent for less than 10 years, yet it is a focal point for determining the future status of the Church in the former Soviet Union. As an Orthodox-majority nation with a significant Catholic minority, Belarus presents a particularly thorny situation for the Church. Kazimierz Cardinal Swiatek has been head of the Catholic Church in Belarus since 1991. Born into an ethnic Polish family in Estonia, Cardinal Swiatek settled in Polish-ruled western Belarus, where he was ordained a priest in 1939. He was made metropolitan of the newly revived Minsk-Mogilev archdiocese in 1991, and became the first ever Belarusan cardinal in November 1994. Recently, he spoke with Register Correspondent Jonathan Luxmoore.

Jonathan Luxmoore: Belarus, a former Soviet republic, is widely considered one of Europe's most repressive states, with a human rights record that's drawn repeated expressions of concern from Western governments. Yet on Oct. 18 you invited the Pope to make a pilgrimage. Wasn't this a quixotic gesture?

Kazimierz Cardinal Swiatek: I visit the Vatican quite often. And during my private talks there, I've often been told the Pope is ready and willing to come to Belarus. The ideal occasion for presenting him with this invitation came on the 20th anniversary of his pontificate, when almost 1,000 Belarusans descended on Rome. It was the first time in history that so many Belarusans had stood in St. Peter's Square and been received by the Pope at an exclusive audience.

The Pope said he was receiving many letters inviting him to Belarus. I responded that I was inviting him too. In short, both sides concur that a papal visit would be desirable. But it will be a strictly Church event.

If John Paul II comes to Belarus, it would be his first visit to a former Soviet republic outside the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. It would also be his first to a predominantly Orthodox country — one where the Catholic Church makes up just 20% of the population of 10.3 million. Will the government endorse your invitation?

For the moment, I can only say one thing: as leader of the Church in Belarus, I have invited the Pope. This is a Church matter — the leader of the local Church is inviting the head of the universal Church. But it isn't a full invitation. Besides being leader of the worldwide Church, the Pope is also Vatican head of state. So for the visit to become a possibility, there must also be an invitation from the head of state in Belarus.

Will this invitation come? And if so, when? These are matters for the government and president. Here my prerogative ends.

Yet the Minsk government has hinted that it favors a papal visit. On Oct. 29, just 11 days after your Rome audience, Foreign Minister Ivan Antonovic appeared to welcome the idea.

Only the government can explain its reaction, and why it came so quickly. What's most important is that the foreign minister acknowledged publicly that I had invited the Pope to Belarus — and that the possibility of a visit was linked to consultations with Russia and the Orthodox Church.

But the foreign minister's statement has been the only official reaction so far; and it was made at a press conference in reply to a question. In his first sentence, he said a visit was possible; and in the second, he said it was “very likely.” These were his exact words.

In the past, Orthodox leaders in Eastern Europe have effectively vetoed a papal visit like this, arguing that inter-Church disputes must first be settled over the activities of revived Greek Catholic communities and alleged Catholic “proselytism” in traditionally Orthodox areas. Yet there are signs in other countries that the Orthodox stance may be modifying. If called to take part in these consultations, how would you seek to persuade Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk that a Papal visit is desirable?

At this stage, I have nothing more to do. The kind of talks which will take place — with whom, when, where — this is a matter for the Belarusan state. I have done everything necessary, right, and appropriate from the side of the Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church here hasn't proposed talks with me — and I don't expect it to. Nor has there been anything in the media about any Orthodox statement — least of all from Metropolitan Filaret.

A few newspapers have printed commentaries on whether a papal visit would be beneficial. But these were merely the reflections of particular people — everyone has their own opinion.

Since being granted sweeping powers in a 1996 referendum, President Aleksander Lukashenka has curbed press freedoms and harassed opposition parties. In June, the U.S. and European Union governments withdrew their ambassadors. Wouldn't a visit by the Pope confer unfair legitimacy on Lukashenka's regime?

Any papal visit would be a strictly pastoral occasion as far as the Church is concerned — a visit to Catholics by the Church's supreme shepherd. We haven't any other thoughts; and if other consequences and implications are drawn from it, they will not be ours. Some commentators have made this point — it is one possible interpretation. But others have used a different analogy, recalling the Holy Father's visit to Cuba last January.

Looked at meritorically, the prospects for the Church seem mixed. In 1995, a law requiring visiting Catholic clergy to obtain central government approval was widely expected to restrict the work of 150 priests from neighboring Poland, who are making up for a post-communist shortage of native Belarusan pastors. Yet the Church, under your guidance, seems to have forged ahead regardless. A synod to coordinate its revival staged its third session in September. A statue of the Virgin of Fatima was returned to Portugal the same month after touring the Catholic Church's 380 Belarusian parishes.

I have always been an optimist — I still am, and I will be to the end of my life. But there are certain factors in today's situation which provide for a particular optimism — or at least for avoiding pessimism. For one thing, the Church in Belarus is growing — and not only in numbers, but in qualities too. It is emerging as a strong force for spiritual faith and morality. The Belarusan nation needs this spiritual and moral renewal. And just about everyone has underlined this.

When the president sent a congratulatory message to the Holy Father for his 20th anniversary, he stressed that the Catholic Church was playing a great role in the Belarusan nation's rebirth. This came straight from the head of state. And it wasn't just exaggerated or empty praise — it reflects a point of view that is widely held. The Church really is gaining strength and authority here. And it is gaining them not only among its own members, but in Belarusan society as a whole — as well as in the eyes of the highest state authorities.

For several years, you've attempted to open a permanent dialogue with the government on the Church's rights and duties. Last March, when the president visited the republic's only Catholic seminary at Grodno, you predicted agreements would follow. But is this a genuine dialogue, rather than just a polite monologue?

Yes, there are permanent contacts now. And although these reflect current needs and emerging priorities, a steady dialogue now exists — and this is a good development in itself. It doesn't mean both sides are necessarily reaching a consensus or common denominator. But the fact that it's possible to talk and debate, to express one's opinion and listen to the other side's, provides hope for the future.

Yet this isn't the view which predominates about the Lukashenka regime. In its latest October report, the International Helsinki Federation said presidential decrees are increasingly replacing other legislation. It drew attention to arbitrary court rulings, ill treatment of detainees, violations of basic human rights. Until recently, government officials were accusing neighboring Poland of using the Catholic Church as a subversive Fifth Column. Can the Church help repair the country's image?

Our evangelical mission gives us a clear role. The more the Church appeals for justice, peace, love, and goodness, the stronger will be its spiritual contribution. The topics you mention all lie across a certain threshold. They soon acquire political dimensions. By contrast, the Church in Belarus will remain firmly, resolutely non-political. This is what I demand from myself, and from my clergy. And it's this non-political direction which is allowing our work to develop in a steady way. If issues arise which have a bearing on politics, we hold back with our words and actions. We reply that our field is the Church and the Gospel.

—Jonathan Luxmoore

Kazimierz Cardinal Swiatek

Personal: Born 1913 to an ethnic Polish family in Estonia. Ordained a Catholic priest in 1939. Appointed vicargeneral of Pinsk in 1989, metropolitan of the newly revived Minsk-Mogilev archdiocese in 1991, and the first-ever Belarusan cardinal in November 1994.

Background: Exiled to Siberia as a child; returned with his family to settle in Polish-ruled western Belarus. Condemned to death after Belarus' occupation by the Soviet Red Army. Released during the 1940 German invasion, only to be rearrested by the NKVD (Soviet secret police) in 1944, and sent back for a further 10 years in Siberian labor camps. After his release in the 1950s, he worked as a Catholic priest for three decades, more or less secretly or discreetly, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.