ROME – While President Donald Trump issues threats toward the East, promising “fire and fury” on North Korea and Congress increases economic sanctions on Russia, the Vatican prepares for an important step forward for its relations with the Kremlin.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, will be visiting Moscow at the end of August (21-24) to formalize the olive branch that Pope Francis has been extending toward President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.
The diplomatic visit is the latest episode in an ongoing effort on the part of the Vatican to initiate an ‘encounter’ – to use a term dear to the pope – with the Russians.
Already in late 2013, Putin credited Pope Francis with helping to head off an anti-Assad Western offensive in Syria and not long after, the Vatican was cautious in condemning Russia’s aggressive claim on the Ukrainian region of Crimea, in an effort not to burn the carefully built bridges.
For those hoping that Parolin’s trip constitutes a preview, of sorts, of an eventual papal visit, the Vatican’s #2 answers by saying no… but yes.
“Among the aims for my visit there isn’t that of preparing for a possible trip of the Holy Father in Russia,” Parolin told Italian daily Corriere della Sera. “I hope, nonetheless, with God’s help, that it may offer some contribution in this direction.”
In Moscow, Parolin is scheduled to meet with Putin as well as the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow “save for last minute unexpected events.” With Putin, the Vatican secretary of state said he would discuss various conflict situations in the world, including those in the Middle East, in Syria, and in Ukraine.
These conflicts, as well as others, “are the object of constant attention and concern for the Holy See,” Parolin told the newspaper’s Vatican correspondent Gian Guido Vecchi in the interview. “Therefore, the necessity and urgency of finding peace and the ways to obtain that will certainly be one of the main themes of the meetings.”
Rising tensions between Putin and Trump will also be on the agenda, but once again the experienced Vatican diplomat measured his words.
“I have faith that both parts will be able to act with the necessary responsibility in order to avoid further tensions,” Parolin said, adding optimistically that he hopes that both parties “will also be willing to recognize possible mistakes that may have been at the root of the situation.”
Unfortunately, neither Putin nor Trump have a great reputation when it comes to recognizing their own mistakes, but as always, Parolin continued his statement in a diplomatic manner.
“It would be dramatic if nothing were done” and “relations worsened further” the secretary of state continued, stressing that churches play a key role along with civil society in promoting and advocating initiatives that “allow to make the general climate more positive.”
Russia is the final piece of a puzzle that Parolin has been building for the past four years as head of the Vatican’s powerful Secretariat of State.
Since 2013 the diplomat, has visited Belarus, the Caucasus, the Baltic countries, and finally Ukraine. “I will have the opportunity, so to speak, to complete the picture with the visit to Russia,” Parolin said.
“The Holy See,” he continued, “has a special interest in the vast area of Eastern Europe,” which he specified “has a role to play in the search for more stability on the Continent and more unity, including the relations between East and West.”
Relations between Russia and the United States are confusing to say the least. On one side, Trump is battling the ‘Russiagate’ scandals, which surround accusations that Putin was responsible for aiding the victory of the former real-estate mogul during the presidential elections.
On the other, Trump signed off for more economic sanctions against Russia in early August, negatively affecting an economy struggling with previous sanctions and the collapse in the oil price. Putin retaliated by ordering that 755 U.S. diplomats leave the country.
Difficult waters, therefore, that Parolin will have to navigate to “encourage respect, dialogue and reciprocal collaboration.” But the Vatican has another partner in the conversation: The Russian Orthodox Church, which Pope Francis has been carefully courting for years.
The pope met with Patriarch Kirill in Havana, Cuba back in 2016, where he sowed the seed for ecumenical dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church, which notably has Putin’s ear and vice versa.
Parolin’s visit was preceded by a unique form of diplomacy: The visit of the relics of St. Nicholas – highly venerated in the Orthodox Church – to Russia from their usual resting place in the Italian city of Bari. The gift-giving saint’s relics were sent to Moscow and visited by more than 2 million faithful, including Putin.
The meeting with Kirill “will undoubtedly offer the occasion to discuss the interaction between the (two) Churches and between [the Churches] and society concerning the big spiritual, cultural and political themes,” Parolin said.
“It’s important to try and find positive and open ways to continue to weave inter-ecclesiastical relations and constructively contribute, on the part of the Churches, to the solution of the complex problems that anguish and challenge humanity.”
This time Parolin expressed a more realistic hope that “the meeting might be useful toward an increasingly better knowledge, mutual esteem and collaboration between Catholics and Orthodox.”
One clue emerges from the interview that may indicate that the chief Vatican diplomat might not be going to Russia just to ‘play nice,’ but might actually plan on being the bad cop to the pontiffs’ good cop on certain contentious issues.
“The Church does not cease to call all the political leaders of the planet to avoid placing national interests, or particular interests, before the common good” Parolin said. Through the instrument of dialogue, he continued, the Church also calls politicians to “respect international law” and to promote “harmony and collaboration among nations.”