Top Vatican Diplomat Concludes Bridges-Building Trip to Russia

Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin met Aug. 23 with President Putin and Aug. 22 with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin meet Aug. 23 in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin meet Aug. 23 in Moscow. (photo: Sergey Guneev/Sputnik via AP)

MOSCOW —Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a positive and respectful meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, according to the Vatican.

In a statement issued after the Aug. 23 encounter with Putin, the Vatican said the meeting, which took place in the presidential residence, “lasted for about an hour and was held in a positive, friendly, respectful climate of reciprocal listening,” during which they discussed “various subjects related to international and bilateral relations.”

The meeting came at the end of a four-day visit to Russia by the Vatican’s top diplomat, the first by a Vatican secretary of state in 18 years and Cardinal Parolin’s first trip to the country.

Putin told Cardinal Parolin that he values the “trusting and constructive” dialogue between Russia and the Holy See and that Russia is consistently working to “implement the agreements” reached between the two parties.

Putin also said there was “no doubt” that the “common humanitarian values” held by the Holy See and the Russian Orthodox Church “form the foundation for relations between the two Churches and between Russia as a state and the Vatican.”

The day before, Cardinal Parolin met with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who praised relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican, insisting that the two have similar positions on a variety of international issues. Cardinal Parolin voiced hope that his visit would help strengthen ties, but stated that patience will be needed to achieve results.

Earlier that day, the Italian cardinal met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow and created headlines by telling reporters afterward that there was “positive momentum” behind the idea of Pope Francis making an historic visit to Russia, but suggested more work needed to be done to make it happen.

The cardinal did not give any possible date for a papal trip, although his high-profile diplomatic visit is seen as an important first step. Some inside sources say a papal visit could take place as soon as next year.

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

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

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the head of foreign relations for the Russian Orthodox Church, said after the talks between Cardinal Parolin and Patriarch Kirill that the possibility of a new meeting between the patriarch and Pope was not on the agenda.

During a 90-minute meeting in Moscow Aug. 22, Cardinal Parolin and Foreign Minister Lavrov discussed issues of international concern and, afterward, at the news conference, signed an agreement waiving visa requirements for holders of diplomatic passports.

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 fields 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 the cardinal acknowledged that 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.”

In a published report, Cardinal Parolin pointed out  in an interview with the Archdiocese of Moscow that the question of the Church’s historic buildings, never returned from the time of communism (1917-1991), “is a theme that has a long history.”

He noted that the same unresolved issue was on the agenda in 1999, when his predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, visited the Russian capital.

 “We hope that every visit, and especially this visit, can help solve this problem precisely in accordance with the principle of religious freedom,” Cardinal Parolin said, “so every religious community has the right to have the necessary space to profess, live and witness to their faith.” 

Turning to international affairs, Foreign Minister 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 did not explain further. 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 “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 voiced his 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.

Due to deep historical and continued differences and tensions with the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church, most recently exacerbated by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is always wary of Holy See relations with Russia. They are especially concerned that their interests are being overlooked in favor of closer Holy See-Russian ties. 

In comments to the Register Aug. 23, a spokesman for His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, stressed the visit concerned the “international relations of the Holy See.” On the question of Ukraine, he said the archbishop’s views were well-known from previous interviews, but that the Church is “very confident in the work of the Holy See in building peace in the world, and we hope Cardinal Parolin’s call for ‘legal’ and ‘right solutions’ will be listened to.”

During his visit to Moscow, Cardinal Parolin emphasized 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 of a healthy climate of mutual respect in international relations.”

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 news conference to a question about the situation in Venezuela, Cardinal Parolin said he believes Russia, which has close 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 President Putin has met with Pope Francis twice at the Vatican over the past few years.

Although the Middle East was mentioned in general terms, there was no specific reference to the war in Syria during the cardinal’s visit. Pope Francis has frequently condemned the internal conflict, but he has not signaled his support for either side, mainly due to concerns for the fate of Christians there if President Bashar al-Assad falls. Unlike many Western nations, including the United States, Russia has been a firm supporter of the Assad regime.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.