Archbishop of Moscow: The War in Ukraine Should Enable Christians to Rediscover the Strength of Forgiveness

Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow discusses the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, speaking with the Register on the sidelines of this week’s Continental Assembly of the Synod on Synodality in Prague.

An Orthodox Christian takes care of candles during the Sunday prayer at the basement of the Church of All Saints as sounds and vibrations of shelling continue in Bakhmut on February 5, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
An Orthodox Christian takes care of candles during the Sunday prayer at the basement of the Church of All Saints as sounds and vibrations of shelling continue in Bakhmut on February 5, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP/Getty)

PRAGUE — The Continental Assembly of the Synod on Synodality, which opened in Prague on Feb. 5 and will conclude on Feb. 12, is bringing together delegations of Catholic leaders and lay faithful from across Europe to discuss the future of the Church.

While the challenges arising from de-Christianization and growing cultural and political differences between European countries are at the heart of discussions and debates here, the issue of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war cannot be evaded, as its consequences on the landscape of the Old Continent could be great in the coming years.

War-related suffering was mentioned in the interventions of the members of the Ukrainian delegation, and more broadly addressed in the working groups divided by language, nationality and marital status, as Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow points out in this interview with the Register. These sessions, which are held behind closed doors, are not accessible to the media.

Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of
Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow. (Photo: Solène Tadié)

Archbishop Pezzi, who has served as archbishop of Moscow since 2007, is originally from Russi in northern Italy. He was first sent on a mission to the Siberian lands in the difficult context of the fall of the USSR in the 1990s. This led to a long experience in the service of Catholic communities of different nationalities and cultures, which he described in his recent book La piccola Chiesa nella grande Russia. La mia vita, la mia missione (The Little Church in Great Russia: My Life, My Mission).

In this interview conducted on the sidelines of the synodal assembly, the archbishop discusses the special dimension of his mission as a representative of the Catholic Church in a Russia that is almost 80% Orthodox, in the highly sensitive context of Russia’s war against its Ukrainian neighbor.

You have just published a book about your experience as a Catholic leader in Russia. How would you describe the reality of the Catholic Church in general, and in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine?

I would describe it as an opportunity given to me, as well as to our whole local Church, to live or relive the depth of the experience of faith. Second, the opportunity to ask ourselves what is the specific role of Christians in this specific situation. We have identified such specificity in forgiveness, in offering forgiveness as Jesus did on the cross.

Would you say the situation has changed for Catholics, compared to before the war? Has there been any change in the way the Russian and Orthodox Church authorities have been treating you as a representative of the Roman Catholic Church?

I would say that from the civil point of view, the activity of our Church has not changed particularly, at least from the pastoral point of view. Of course, there may be greater tensions, particularly related to my public participation in certain Russian state initiatives.

As for the relationship with the Orthodox Church, paradoxically while I do not agree on certain positions, the dialogue and also the amount of relations and meetings have increased lately. They are happening with more frequency.

The crisis that started on Feb. 24 last year leads us to seek with greater intensity not to close the dialogue. From this point of view, it has created certain tensions among some Catholic circles towards me because they feel that this dialogue with all Russian authorities should at least be suspended. They told me this in a straightforward way and explicitly, which is very positive because there is sincerity. I understand their position, but I believe that this dialogue should be all the more intensified.

While these Catholics have reproached you for not taking a public stand against the Russian government — a reproach also made against Pope Francis — you have also not issued any statement justifying Russia's invasion of Ukraine as the Patriarch of Moscow did. Were you pressured to do so?

I believe that religious organizations, and in particular the Catholic Church, should not enter at the level of statements, into the political sphere. We have not seen fit, as bishops, to make our own statement in support or against.

But I also do not agree to say that I remained neutral. We, with the bishops, have tried to maintain unity among Catholics. We made a proposal of prayer and fasting to foster forgiveness and peace in the face of the ongoing tragedy. This does not mean that others cannot choose to intervene to give their opinion in the public sphere. But our decision was not diplomatic, or one moved by fear of retaliation. It was just a search for what is specific to the Catholic, the Christian, in such a situation.

As for pressure from the Russian authorities, I wouldn't really use that word, which I think is a bit strong. But there have been calls to take a stand, yes.

Have you also developed local and national initiatives to support the victims of the war?

In addition to our ongoing initiatives of prayer and fasting for change, peace and conversion of hearts — which should not be underestimated, as prayer has immense power that can change everything — we have tried to give as much attention as possible to refugees or migrants generated by the situation in Ukraine.

The Catholic Church in Russia did its best to take people in where there was this need.

And it also depended on the areas, it especially concerned the Diocese of St. Clement in Saratov, where there are several parish churches closer to the border with eastern Ukraine.

Caritas in Rostov has also done an important work in helping war victims and displaced persons.

We also joined an initiative of all religious organizations in Russia to bring material aid to Ukrainians directly in the conflict zones.

Our third initiative was to join through Caritas International and the Holy See in a direct economic contribution to Ukraine.

Do you also manage to cooperate with the Ukrainian religious authorities?

Unfortunately, given the situation, we only have telephone contacts with the various bishops and other priests, but they are mainly contacts of a friendly, encouraging nature. Direct and institutional meetings are more difficult now, because it is difficult for us to move between the two countries.

This continental meeting of the Synod on Synodality in Prague is also an opportunity for you to meet other European Catholic representatives, including some from Ukraine. What have been the fruits of these meetings so far?

Yes, it is a wonderful opportunity for all of us to be together, and gather in prayer and dialogue in this same call to forgiveness, which is decisive today to move forward. I thank God that we have been able to rediscover this approach of forgiveness thoroughly through this crisis.

In these days in Prague, we were able to talk about the ongoing conflict, but especially in private groups [linguistic working groups whose discussions were not accessible to press], precisely because for us concretely this is a situation that arouses an awareness towards the need for forgiveness, communion and synodality.

How did the first diocesan consultative phase of the Synod in Russia go? Many European countries have suffered from low participation of the faithful, especially young people...

In Russia, there was a large portion of young people who participated in the synod consultations, I was satisfied. At this meeting in Prague, the head of youth ministry in our diocese of Moscow also came with us.

What would be your suggestions for the course of discussions at this continental assembly?

I would say that we should try not to detach ourselves too much from the teachings of the Church on the basis of our own opinions. We should rather try to focus on the experience of synodality. That seems to me to be an important point. I'm seeing a bit of a danger of having like a big river that inevitably creates small rivers. If you follow these small rivers too much, then you find yourself very far from the main river. That’s the image that comes to mind as I listen to some of the speeches.

On my part I’m trying to remind people that one has to be serious and sincere with one’s faith, wherever one lives. What our societies need today is to be filled by people who live in a truly Christian and responsible way.