ROME—One of the Vatican’s most legendary and accomplished diplomats, as well as the cardinal who announced the name of the Catholic Church’s new chief shepherd to the world on March 13, 2013, believes Pope Francis could become the first pontiff to visit Russia and China.
“Yes … perhaps, but there are many nuances to consider,” said French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran during an encounter with Spanish journalists in Madrid on Wednesday.
Before being immortalized as the man who intoned “Habemus Papam” three years ago, Tauran was the Vatican’s voice of moral opposition to the Iraq war in 2003. He worked as the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States for over a decade, under St. Pope John Paul II, and today is the head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious dialogue.
Famously, it was Tauran who told ambassadors to the Vatican in February 2003, who were summoned for an emergency briefing in an effort to head off the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, that any military action needed an international legal warrant.
Tauran’s sound-bite in that session still echoes: The world must uphold “the force of law,” he said, otherwise it will be condemned to suffer “the law of force.”
(For the record, Tauran’s gift for memorable phrases remains undimmed, despite being 73 and in delicate health. In Madrid, on the subject of the three popes he’s served, here’s what he delivered: “People travelled to the Vatican to see John Paul II, to hear Benedict XVI and to touch Francis.”)
He’s still active in moving the ball on the Vatican’s global agenda. Among other things, his office recently made a meeting between Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar possible.
Although Tauran on Wednesday, refrained from saying more on the topic of a possible papal trip to Russia and China, countries no pope in the modern era has visited, Francis has repeatedly expressed his desire to visit both places.
On China, for instance, he said it’d be “his dream.”
Widely considered as longshots, trips to Moscow and Peking no longer seem quite so unthinkable, given that Francis has been dubbed a pope of firsts – his unprecedented encounter with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in February being only one in a long list.
Yet, as Tauran recalled, Francis is far from being the first pope interested in these visits.
According to the French prelate, if the Argentine pontiff manages to set foot in either, he’d be “fulfilling” a dream of St. John Paul II, the first Slavic pope who dreamed of reuniting Eastern and Western Christianity.
Failure to pull off a meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church was in fact the “great suffering of John Paul II,” according to Tauran.
“I met with him every Wednesday for 13 years, and there wasn’t one occasion in which he didn’t speak to me about the Russian Church, it was an obsession,” the French cardinal said.
Tauran also said that amidst the growth of fundamentalist terrorism around the world, religion has to be considered as “part of the solution” because the world is “incomprehensible” without faith.
Talking about Francis’ recent visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, where he encountered thousands of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East, the cardinal said the pope had been “deeply moved” by the story of a Muslim man whose wife was beheaded in front of their children because she wouldn’t renounce her Christian faith.
“This is not Islam,” he said.
“Religions are not the danger, the danger are the followers who don’t behave well,” Tauran said. He also made an appeal for religious leaders to “take responsibility” in stopping Islamic fundamentalism, stressing he’s asked Muslim leaders to condemn forcefully the terrorist group ISIS.
The key, he added, is in education, because most of those who join the ranks of this organization “have never even opened the Quran.”
Tauran also denied the existence of a “war of religions,” while admitting to the negative impact terrorism has in interreligious dialogue, “undermining” it and making it “fragile.”
“But we have to persevere [in this dialogue] because there’s no other solution.,” he said, using Monday’s meeting between Francis and imam Ahmed el-Tayeb in the Vatican as an example.
Tauran also spoke about emeritus Pope Benedict, saying that even if the German pontiff is physically deteriorated, to the point that he can no longer play the piano, his mind “is brilliant.”
“It’s moving to see the two popes together in the Vatican,” he said.
The cardinal was visiting Spain to participate in a seminar for priestly formation.