ROME—Upon returning from his four-day trip to Russia, the pope’s right-hand man defined the outing as “useful, interesting and constructive,” and also said that during his meetings with civil and religious authorities, he brought up the restitution of Catholic churches expropriated during the Communist era.
Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, said Friday that because of “its geographic position, its history, its culture, its past and present,” Russia has a “great role to play” in the international community and the world.
“[Russia] has a particular responsibility in building peace … and must really strive to put the higher interests of peace above all other interests,” Parolin said, when asked by the Vatican’s communication apparatus about what he’d said during his meeting with President Vladimir Putin.
Most of the attention during Parolin’s visit to Russia was focused on his scheduled meetings with Putin and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Yet the encounters Parolin had with the local Catholic community gave him some of the talking points for those meetings. During the interview released by the Vatican’s press office on Friday, he said that after meeting with Catholics to hear about their “joys, hopes, but also challenges and difficulties,” he had taken some of this input to his meetings with the authorities.
“I mention only one: the issue of the restitution of some churches that had been confiscated during the Communist period,” Parolin said, adding that no plan for restoring those properties to the Catholic community, despite “their needs for adequate places of worship,” is currently in place.
Estimates on the number of Catholics in Russia vary, but they comprise less than one percent of the total population, and the majority belong to national groups such as Poles, Germans, Lithuanians and Ukrainians.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been two major bones of contention between Catholics and Orthodox in Russia, as well as the Holy See and the Kremlin: returning Catholic confiscated property, and Orthodox accusations of “proselytism” against Catholics, meaning forceful attempts to convert non-believers or members of other Christian denominations.
Parolin also said he’d spoken briefly with the pope to give him a summarized update of the trip and extend greetings from both Putin and Kirill.
In statements during or after meetings the cardinal had with the two leaders, each spoke of positive memories from their respective meetings with Francis. Putin met with the pope twice, in 2013 and 2015, in the Vatican. Kirill’s was the historic first meeting between a pope and a Russian patriarch in over 1,000 years and took place in Cuba in 2016.
Francis was “obviously” pleased by the impressions he’d made on Putin and Kirill, and about the positive results of the visit, Parolin said.
“The pope, as we know, is very, very attentive to all the possible occasion of dialogue,” and is very encouraged when steps are made in this direction.
On his meetings with representatives of the Orthodox Church, Parolin spoke positively of the “atmosphere” that surrounds the relations between Catholics and Russian Orthodox. Both sides, he said, are focused on what can be done to further improve the positive exchange of recent years, agreeing that joint humanitarian efforts are a must.
“[Both sides] insisted on this point, seeing the many situations of conflict in the world, the two churches can really exert an incisive and effective humanitarian work,” he said.
Asked about other memorable moments of his August 21-24 visit to Russia, Parolin highlighted the Mass held in Moscow’s cathedral, that was full.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” he said, acknowledging that they weren’t expecting many people.
“I was struck by the faith and devotion of this people: how they participated in the Mass, with so much attention, reverence, silently,” he said. “And I believe they came, above all, to express their closeness to the pope and the fact that they’re members of the universal church.”
Parolin also noted the impact from his visit to the Orthodox Cathedral of Moscow, which was blown up during the Communist regime. “It was a moment to remember this extremely painful period of history where they wanted to completely eradicate faith from the hearts of the believers and eliminate every sign of the presence of God and the Church.
“They didn’t succeed, because God is greater than man’s designs,” he said.