«... I had never heard such fine things»
On 5 September 1978, during a meeting with Pope Luciani, Nikodim, the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church died suddenly. Acting as Russian interpreter for the Pope was the Jesuit Miguel Arranz. Who remembers that tragic day in this interview
Interview with Miguel Arranz by Stefania Falasca
On the morning of 5 September 28 years ago the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church, Nikodim of Petersburg, died suddenly in the arms of Pope Albino Luciani. He was only 49 years old. In him died one of the most brilliant personalities in Orthodoxy but above all one of the most significant figures in the history of ecumenism. His was an ecumenic sensibility that had led him to intensify contacts with the Catholic Church and to cross the threshold of the Vatican several times to meet the Roman Pontiff in the post-Council period of the ’sixties and ’seventies, when the paths of ecumenism and politics often crossed. Accompanying Metropolitan Nikodim at those meetings and acting as Russian interpreter for the Pope was the Spanish Jesuit Miguel Arranz, then vice-rector of the Russicum whom Nikodim had not been slow to call to Russia to give courses in theology at the Theological Academy of Saint Petersburg. It is precisely that post-Council period that, in the memories of the now retired veteran of ecumenism, appears to Father Arranz today as an unkept promise: «Without proclamations, the role of the successor of Peter was then recognized in fact by the bishops of the East. Their trips to Rome were real visits ad limina Petri. The regimes were urging them and they came to the Pope with the faith of sons, sons of a sister Church. Perhaps the bond of the successor of Peter with the Christians of those lands would have found a way of asserting itself. It may all have been a delusion, but the return to unity seemed so easy at certain moments...».
John Paul I with Nikodim and Cardinal Willebrands, 5 September 1978
In his personal gallery of lost chances, of omens, of what might have been and was not, Arranz also puts the words that Nikodim spoke to John Paul I, and that he himself translated for the Pope, on that dramatic morning of 5 September 1978. Luciani himself mentioned that conversation in public. «Two days ago,» the Pope said, «Metropolitan Nikodim of Petersburg died in my arms. I was answering his address. I assure you that in my life I have never heard such fine words for the Church as those spoken by him. I cannot repeat them, it remains a secret». A secret that Arranz as interpreter knows. With him, for the first time, we plunge back into the chronicle of those days and of that tragic morning.
Father Arranz, did you have a chance to meet Metropolitan Nikodim in Rome immediately after the death of Paul VI?
MIGUEL ARRANZ: Yes. Nikodim had come to Rome for the funeral of Paul VI. And afterwards he celebrated in St Peter’s Basilica a funeral office attended by many representatives of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. I told him that the Father General of the Jesuits, Father Arrupe, would like to offer him hospitality at Villa Cavalletti in Frascati, where he would be his personal guest. So Nikodim stayed at Villa Cavalletti for the whole month of August up to the election of the new pontiff.
So the Metropolitan was present at the moment of Luciani’s election…
ARRANZ: No. He was not present at that moment. He came to Rome the day following, 27 August, and I accompanied him to the first Sunday address, preceding the Angelus, by the new Pope.
What do you remember of the event?
ARRANZ: I remember a small episode. We were moving toward St Peter’s Square at the moment when the cars of the Conclave cardinals who had spent the night in the Vatican were coming down Via della Conciliazione, and at a certain point one of the cars stopped right in front of us. It was the car of Cardinal Willebrands, then president of the Secretariat for Christian Unity. Willebrands got out of the car and began exclaiming to Metropolitan Nikodim: «It was the Holy Spirit! The Holy Spirit!…». Just imagine… a rational man, ice-cool as Cardinal Willebrands, gets out of a car exclaiming in that way! Nikodim was stunned… He looked at me with questioning air as if to say: “Well!…”. We went on and arrived in St Peter’s Square and pushed our way through almost under the balcony. When Pope Luciani appeared at the window, I began to translate what he was saying to Nikodim.
And what were the Metropolitan’s first comments?
Nikodim with Father Miguel Arranz in Leningrad in 1971
ARRANZ: When Pope Luciani began to say: «Yesterday morning I went to vote… I never would have imagined… never», I saw Nikodim was surprised, very surprised by an idiom decidedly unusual for a pope. I also had some difficulty in translating, in rendering those expressions into Russian, and Nikodim was all ears and went on repeating and asking: «What, what?», and at each phrase again: «What, what?».
In the two days that followed he decided to go to Turin to venerate the Holy Shroud. When he returned he asked me to accompany him to visit Casaroli.
Why did he want to meet him?
ARRANZ: To ask for an audience with the new Pontiff. Monsignor Agostino Casaroli, at that time, was president of the Commission for Russia.
But an audience for the Eastern delegations was already planned for 5 September…
ARRANZ: Yes. But according to protocol that was one of the ordinary visits to pay respects and take farewell that each delegation must offer to the new Pontiff after his taking of the throne. Private conversations with the delegations were not planned for that occasion. Metropolitan Nikodim wanted instead to speak with the Pope in confidential fashion. He was asking for an audience outside of protocol, taking advantage of the meeting with the delegations. And he insisted a lot with Casaroli to get the chance.
Did he give reasons for that?
ARRANZ: He told Casaroli that the need was urgent.
And was the possibility immediately granted him?
ARRANZ: Nikodim received confirmation that he would be allowed to speak with the Pope the day after Luciani took the throne, Monday 4 September.
So on 4 September Nikodim moved to the Russicum College and stayed the night there, since the following morning he was to see the Pope...
ARRANZ: Exactly. I remember that in the afternoon he went to see Cardinal Slipyi. He then retired early to his room knowing that an intense and important day was awaiting him.
Did you see him on the day of the audience…
ARRANZ: He planned to leave the Russicum for the papal audience at 8.20. However, when I arrived at the College in the early morning, I found Nikodim very upset. He told me he hadn’t slept. It had been hot and stuffy in the house… he’d felt himself drowning. His secretary, Archimandrite Lev, had measured his blood pressure at seven o’clock. He had immediately taken nitro-glycerine since he had problems with his heart. Furthermore the car that had been lent him to go to the Vatican had been stolen during the night. That fact had shaken him. I tried to relax him a little. Leaving the Russicum he said: «Father Miguel, when a day begins very badly it finishes well…». In fact… at 11 o’clock he was no longer with us.
So from the Russicum you went straight to the Vatican…
ARRANZ: Not straight. From the Russicum we went to the House of the Clergy, where the ecclesiastical delegations going to the papal audience were to gather. Nikodim had difficulty getting out of the car. When the Jesuit priest John Long wondered whether he needed help, he only asked for less hurry. But there again there was another moment that caused upset and worry. At nine Father Long gave out to the delegations the numbers of the cars in the order they were to enter the Vatican. Nikodim, Archimandrite Lev and myself headed for the car detailed to us. It was pouring down. There was some mix-up and the result was that all three found ourselves in different cars. Nikodim finished up in the one taking the Bulgarian delegation. Imagine his worry… Would he find us again in time? Knowing that he had the privilege of being first to meet the Pope …
«Two days ago,» the Pope said, «Metropolitan Nikodim of Petersburg died in my arms. I was answering his address. I assure you that in my life I have never heard such fine words for the Church as those spoken by him. I cannot repeat them, it remains a secret»Did you manage to find each other?
ARRANZ: Yes, luckily. There was still time before the audience and so they led us to a waiting-room. I remember saying something to him about the room we were in and the paintings hanging there, but clearly his mind was busy in that moment on other thoughts. Archbishop Martin, Prefect of the Pontifical Household, came in to accompany us to the Library Room, where the audience was to take place. Before entering Nikodim passed me the phial with nitro-glycerine and told me: «Keep it open, it may be useful».
Who was present at the meeting?
ARRANZ: Cardinal Willebrands and myself.
Tell us how it went…
ARRANZ: On entering John Paul I smiled immediately and approached the Metropolitan. He greeted him with great cordiality. Nikodim offered the head of the Roman Catholic Church the best wishes of the Patriarch of Moscow, Pimen, of the Synod and of all the Russian Orthodox Church, wishing the new Pope many years of pontificate. He expressed the great hope that the fraternal relations between the two Churches, begun so well in the time of the pontificate of John XXIII and continued with Paul I, might go on to ever deeper mutual understanding, in the common efforts of the two Churches to encourage peace. The Pope thanked him for the greetings and the wishes and asked the Metropolitan to pass on to Patriarch Pimen his hope for fruitful work for the good of the Russian Orthodox Church. He told him that he had always followed his ecumenic work with great interest and also expressed the wish that the work be continued. After those exchanges they sat down for a confidential discussion.
Was the private conversation brief?
ARRANZ: It lasted about a quarter of an hour.
What did Metropolitan Nikodim say to Pope Luciani?
ARRANZ: That can’t be spoken of, it’s secret. But his words came from a feeling of total trust. As one goes to one’s father.
As you had seen him be with Paul VI?
John Paul I
ARRANZ: Yes. I also remember that he spoke in a low voice to Pope Luciani; indeed, at certain moments, he lowered the tone even more, as if to evade indiscreet ears. He didn’t want anybody overhearing.
And then what happened?
ARRANZ: When the conversation finished Archimandrite Lev was invited in. Nikodim introduced him to the Pope. I told the Holy Father that Lev was studying in Rome, at the Gregorian, and that he spoke Italian. The Pope then, standing, began a conversation with the Archimandrite about his studies. Nikodim was also standing close to him. At a certain point, when the conversation with Lev was coming to an end, Nikodim sat down without saying a word and, as he sat down, he bent forward, in a composed, elegant fashion, as if bowing, a deep bow… so much so that there and then I was astonished; knowing how much he held to protocol, I thought it a gesture of respect… He collapsed at the feet of the Pope. We tried to lift him up. Even the Pope bent over him trying to prop him up. In that frantic moment Pope Luciani did not immediately realize what was happening. I told him of the heart trouble, while Archimandrite Lev, running back in with the briefcase with the medicines, tried to give him an injection of heart stimulant, without success. Nikodim’s eyes were still slightly open. So I murmured to the Holy Father: «Give him absolution…». The Pope knelt and, in Latin, gave him absolution. The doctor who came in shortly after could do nothing other than declare Nikodim dead.
And what did Luciani say, what did he do after that dramatic moment?
ARRANZ: He was stunned… «My God, my God, even this has to happen to me», he repeated, and he was so lost at that moment that as the doctor arrived, with Nikodim stretched on the floor, he picked up the grains of nitro-glycerine that I had dropped in the confusion. He set them on the palm of my hand… I said: «Your Holiness, they’re of no further use now...».
Did you see the Pope again later?
ARRANZ: The Pope left the library to go and receive the other delegations that were waiting in line. But after Nikodim’s body was moved to another room, I was again called to act as interpreter for the Bulgarian delegation. So I found myself once again close to Pope Luciani. The Bulgarian bishop should have immediately presented his best wishes, but the elderly orthodox prelate and the Pope were unable to say anything. So I then started to read the text of the speech that I had been given the task of translating into Italian. And I went on reading. While they wept, in silence. Both of them. Without saying a word.
The Metropolitan’s remains were moved that same morning to the Vatican parish church of Sant’Anna, which was temporarily put at the disposition of the Russian Orthodox Church…
ARRANZ: Yes. I remember that there was a large crowd pressing to enter. Nikodim was very popular in Rome.
«We were moving toward St Peter’s Square at the moment when the cars of the Conclave cardinals who had spent the night in the Vatican were coming down Via della Conciliazione, and at a certain point one of the cars stopped right in front of us. It was the car of Cardinal Willebrands, then president of the Secretariat for Christian Unity…Did you happen to meet John Paul I in the following days?
ARRANZ: Two days later, 7 September, when I accompanied the papal audience of the Russian delegation come to Rome to take home the body of the Metropolitan. The Russian delegation was received in the same room where Nikodim had died two days earlier. Before the audience I exchanged some words with Monsignor Magee. He told me that the Holy Father hadn’t slept for two nights, that he had been deeply stricken by the death. The Pope told the members of the delegation of Nikodim’s last minutes alive, and also referred to the words spoken. At a certain point Metropolitan Juvenalij bent down and found the cap of the phial of nitro-glycerine that must have slipped from my hands onto the carpet in those moments… It made a certain impression on those present. Metropolitan Juvenalij, after the audience, declared on Vatican Radio: «We come now from the audience with Pope John Paul I. We have expressed our cordial feelings to the new Pope of the Roman Catholic Church… In particular we expressed our gratitude to His Holiness for all the love he showed towards Metropolitan Nikodim, on his own part and on the part of the whole Catholic Church».
Immediately after the death, however, suspicions began to spread. Various Russians said that Nikodim was not dead but had chosen of disappear into the Vatican to conceal from the world his conversion to the Catholic faith. Others later suggested that the Metropolitan had by mistake drunk a poisoned coffee meant for John Paul I... Were you aware of those rumors?
ARRANZ: There were so many rumors going round.
According to others again, the Orthodox bishop is alleged to have said things that he ought not to have said to this new pope and a Curia prelate even said that from Villa Abamelek, the residence of the Russian embassy from which the windows of the pontifical apartment are visible, KGB agents had struck him down from a distance…
ARRANZ: Villa Abamelek! All fantasy! Nikodim’s health was seriously undermined, from well before.
It is, however, known that Nikodim never wanted to be treated in hospital, he did so only before his visit to Rome, in Czechoslovakia, and after the treatment his condition worsened…
ARRANZ: He’d already had five heart attacks. What killed him that day was his sixth heart attack.
So many years later, what impression remains with you of that encounter? Might it really have marked out the route to full communion?
ARRANZ: Nikodim had not come to give advice to the Pope. He had a strong sense of each person’s place in the Church. Nikodim spoke of the Church, as a whole, with great intensity… a new vision, Pope Luciani did not draw back. Even more, his was a gesture of lack of fear and at the same time of openness and simplicity… that a Pope acknowledges that a non Catholic might teach him something and that he affirm so in that moment, with that disarming spontaneity, even publicly: «I assure you that I had never heard such fine things in my life...».
That is what he said in the audience to the Roman clergy on 7 September…
ARRANZ: Yes. And reiterated that he had been really struck: «An Orthodox,» he said, «but how he loved the Church! And I believe he suffered much for the Church, doing a great deal for unity».
What struck you most in those words?
ARRANZ: I was struck that he repeated the word Orthodox twice… and that stress in repeating it… It was a moment of grace that passed. That the Church missed.