From Moscow to Baghdad

Former Vatican cardinal, is now doing special missions in Moscow – setting up an important meeting with the Pope and a Patriarch – and Baghdad – reporting on the Christian community.

CARDINAL ROGER ETCHEGARAY has brought the Church’s message to places as diverse as China, Russia, Iraq and Assisi, Italy.

Since he was invited to Rome to head the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace in 1984, Cardinal Etchegaray became one of Pope John Paul II’s closest and most trusted cardinals of the Roman Curia. The French cardinal undertook many missions on behalf of John Paul, including organizing the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 1986, and the Jubilee Year celebrations. But his special missions didn’t end when he retired in 1998.

Five years later, he was sent to Baghdad as John Paul’s peace envoy in a bid to prevent the Iraq War. And in August, at age 82, he called on Patriarch Alexy II in Moscow and visited a Catholic diocese in Siberia.

He spoke Sept. 12 with Register correspondent Edward Pentin at his apartment in Rome.

What was the purpose of your recent visit to Moscow?

I spent 10 days in Russia during the month of August. This wasn’t the first time I’d been there. Since the fall of communism, I’ve been to Moscow more than 10 times. And I know Patriarch Alexy II well.

This trip that I have just undertaken was on the invitation of the Catholic bishops. There are four Catholic bishops in this immense country that is Russia, because there are Catholics there after all, of various different origins. These four dioceses are the largest in the world. Irkutsk, for example, crosses four time zones. Patriarch Alexy II and I have known each other for more than 30 years and, dare I say it, would vouch that we are old friends. During this visit, I brought him a message from the Pope, a message of fraternity, because relations between Moscow and Rome have had their ups and downs, though they never froze over, as some have said.

You said on your return that everyone wants Pope Benedict and Patriarch Alexy to meet. But if that’s the case, what is stopping the visit? If the will is so great, cannot these obstacles be easily overcome?

We know from others, and from what both the Patriarch and the Pope have said, that for a long time there has been a desire to meet. We know there was a project begun 10 years ago for them to meet in Austria.

That meeting will take place. The climate is better now. Benedict XVI wants this meeting as much as John Paul II did, although there’s no specific date or venue yet. But everyone hopes this meeting will take place without having to wait much longer, because it would be a good thing.

This encounter with the East is most necessary as a witness to these two great Churches who, of course, worship the same Christ, and also have in common the great tradition of the Early Church Fathers. The Russian Church, as with all the Orthodox Churches, is the carrier of the rich tradition of the teaching of the Early Church Fathers of the first centuries, of a monastic life that is also very, very large. So, this meeting, nothing is fixed, but it will be.

Certainly, it’s reasonable to ask why it has not taken place when this meeting has been talked about for so many years and there is this very strong desire for it on both sides. The Patriarch explained the reasons why to me several times the other day. He doesn’t want this to be, dare I say it, a “spectacular” meeting, to seem as though it was done for the press, for public relations and public opinion. The Patriarch, and the Pope as well, want it to be an encounter in truth.

In recent times, officials from the two Churches have been able to work effectively together more and more on common problems, social problems, that confront them and which in Russia run very deep. Then there are also the problems of education, culture — so there are these frequent contacts between the two countries. And consequently, the climate is now suitable for a day when, if it pleases God and it’s not too late, to have this meeting. God alone can say.

The simple fact that such a meeting can take place in spirit and in truth will be a sign for Catholic and Orthodox that they really are closer to one another and want to witness together the same Gospel.

In March 2003, Pope John Paul II sent two peace envoys to try to avert the war with Iraq. He sent Cardinal Pio Laghi to President Bush in Washington, and he sent you to meet Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Can you share with us what happened at that meeting?

First of all, [Saddam Hussein’s] hanging was an occasion for deep reflection for humanity on the role of the death penalty, on capital punishment. But it is true, I was sent to Saddam Hussein scarcely a few weeks before the outbreak of the war.

It is difficult for me to talk about the content of this discussion. He received me for about an hour and a half at a very critical moment as the war was imminent. And I was, as someone said, a “last chance” envoy.

It is true, and I believe I told journalists this, that I felt then almost the extremities of hope. But it was necessary to the end that the Pope gave a sign to say that it was still possible to believe in peace, that all could be resolved without a war which, as he often said, was the absurd solution.

The contact that I had with Saddam, who was no angel as we know, was an encounter that perhaps allowed me to discover the mystery of the man, a man who, whatever he’d done in the past, had a conscience.

I tried to present myself not as a politician, which I wasn’t, and even less as a military man. I don’t have any major knowledge of the military, but I tried to engage him a little — which took time — to engage the conscience of the man sitting opposite me, because everyone has a conscience that always needs to be clear, to aim towards the good.

I believe I can say that in the dialogue I had with him there was a man who, though very different, not only allowed me to engage him, but who also had a conscience. I am, above all, a man of God, also a man of prayer, and I told him that.

During this long discussion, I squeezed a rosary in my hand and my thoughts carried themselves towards God. So I was a small, humble person, a minor representative with another man who had responsibilities vis-à-vis his people.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.