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from issue no. 05 - 2008

Russia and its Church seen from close up

Giulio Andreotti interviews Antonio Mennini, Apostolic Nuncio to the Russian Federation

Interview with Antonio Mennini by Giulio Andreotti

The Apostolic Nuncio Antonio Mennini with President Putin, in Moscow 30 June 2003. Mennini was nominated Representative of the Holy See to the Russian Federation on 6 November 2002

The Apostolic Nuncio Antonio Mennini with President Putin, in Moscow 30 June 2003. Mennini was nominated Representative of the Holy See to the Russian Federation on 6 November 2002

Excellence, how do you judge the climate that surrounds the diplomatic relations between the Russian Federation and the Holy See today?
ANTONIO MENNINI: It seems to me that substantially in recent years the relations with the State authorities have been marked by a mutual understanding and respect for fundamental human and Christian values. For the rest, also at an international level the Holy See and the Russian Federation find themselves frequently supporting the same humanitarian and ethical positions unanimously within important international organizations.
Apart from the non-absolute rigidity of the positions, what was the effective social reality with regard to religion (“opium of the people”)?
MENNINI: I think that it is useful, indeed indispensable to adopt a distinction – that unfortunately is systematically ignored – when the subject of religion in the Soviet Union is confronted. If one refers to the State, I would not speak about the “non-absolute rigidity of the positions”: for the Soviet State it has always been very clear that faith should be suppressed, and the Church used from time to time in order to derive the greatest possible profit from it (put against the wall exemplarily as class enemy, or flaunted at international conferences for peace, according to the contingencies). The other was the society, that did not have any possibility of expressing itself at the level of public opinion, but that even in a tragic moment like ‘37, in a census then rigorously shelved and kept under secret, expressed itself in the majority (56.7%) as Orthodox believers, thereby demonstrating with evidence that the antireligious politics of the Bolshevik government had been a failure. Another not negligible factor that characterizes the “social truth” regarding religion, is summed up in the famous expression of the writer Nikolaj Leskov, according to whom “Russia was yes ‘baptized’ but not ‘educated’ to Christianity”. From here the phenomenon of an inner, intuitive, sometimes visceral, belonging that rightly identifies in Orthodoxy, the foundation of its own identity, national and cultural also, but does not become a principle of discernment in the cultural, social and political choices. This made it so that in the Soviet epoch the same people sometimes participated in the destruction of churches and the killings of priests. Not even today has this basic dualism been completely overcome, and it is precisely one of the missionary aspects on which the more enlightened pastors of the Orthodox Church principally insist.
Did the underground Church have any relationship with the so called official one?
MENNINI: Deep relationships certainly continued to exist between these two realities, in spite of the official tensions and the true and proper schism created as a result of the pressures of the State on the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, when, in the attempt to save a minimal presence of the Church, in 1927 the Metropolitan Sergij resolved to sign the “Declaration” of loyalty to the State. Proof of this is that from 1943, from when that is the Orthodox Church had the possibility of restoring its own hierarchy canonically, a large part of the catacomb communities returned to the Patriarchy of Moscow recomposing the division. Moreover, recently the Russian Orthodox Church has decreed that as many as underwent death for the faith should be canonized as martyrs, both those who belonged to the official Church, and also those who belonged to the community of the underground Church. To these catacomb communities is also due, in many ways, the continuation of the ecclesial experience in the dark years (one thinks for example of Father Aleksandr Men’, born and educated in one of them). Also the regime, for that matter, was convinced of the ultimate unity of the Church and of the danger that it represented for the ideology, whether it had to do with “hardcore” believers, or whether it was faced with ministers of the cult disposed to come down to compromises: and in 1937-38 it did not make exceptions of the kind, shooting systematically, without distinction, exponents of the official and underground Church.
Did the invitation of two Moscow delegates to the Second Vatican Council have an important significance and repercussion?
MENNINI: In this episode vested interests and factors of diverse nature were interlaced: for the State the international political factor was certainly predominant, as can be established in the light of the secret documents that were made public with the perestrojka, but it is unquestionable that important objects of an ecclesial nature were involved. This last aspect is bound up with the extraordinary and complex personality of the Metropolitan, Nikodim, a man of great diplomatic gifts as well as eminent pastor and man of faith, undoubtedly the organizer of this operation, that opened a season of ecumenical contacts (dictated by a real ecclesial preoccupation rather than the necessity of responding to a State mandate) until then never established between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church and which created prospects of greater breathing space for the life of the Church within the country.
At Yeltsin’s funeral, which I attended, I was struck by the length of the ceremony (approximately three hours) and in particular by the funeral eulogy. In any case it was a novelty. At other State funerals there was no religious moment, but only interminable military and professional parades.
MENNINI: Leaving a definitive historical judgment to posterity, it seems to me that I can say that Eltsin was in many senses “the first”: the first democratic head of the renewed Russia, a man who knew how to liquidate the regime without civil wars and the shedding of blood, who revived the economy, a country in a most serious crisis... and he was also the first Russian leader of the 20th century who had a religious funeral. Indeed, we say that with him the problem of a reformulation of the funeral ritual was posed, given that precedents for religious funerals of heads of State did not exist; the formulation that was used for the Czars was returned to, addressed by name and patronymic, while ordinary citizens were commemorated simply by name, accompanied by the epithet “the servant of God”. The solemnity of the funeral service, and also of the religious ritual, recalled by you, as well as the emotional atmosphere that reigned in the country in those days, were undoubtedly an acknowledgment of his human stature and the role carried out in the life of Russia.
One day Gromyko said to me, joking, that in the countryside the peasants didn’t know that the czars didn’t exist anymore; because formerly they had had the foot of the czars themselves on them and now that of the “party”.
MENNINI: It seems to me that, in the mouth of Gromyko, this phrase – that is a commonplace of Marxist historiography and not only Marxist – has really a sinister sound, cynical and politically indifferent: the Soviet nomenclature could not but perfectly know the tragedy of the Russian and Ukrainian countryside submitted on several occasions, (the civil war, induced scarcities, the dekulakization) to such repression as to justify the discussion that currently engages international historiography, whether that is one cannot and must not indeed speak about “genocide”, at least cultural, in the face of repressions that devastated an entire civilization, with its culture and its way of life (among other things, the crisis of the countryside today and the depopulation of entire Russian regions are fresh evidence). e Risen Christ is close to them and has a face – the face of the Church and the Pope. A witness that embraces all cultures, nationalities and traditions.
As far as Russia is concerned, then, the magisterium of the last two Pontiffs, who I found myself representing in the course of my mission, is particularly meaningful and I believe that for the Catholic Church in Russia it is of vital importance to understand and deepen it more and more. I refer, for example, to the resolute emphasizing by John Paul II of Christ as Lord of the cosmos and of history, Redeemer of man and insistent Implorer of his love, a living Presence that transfigures all reality and penetrates all the meanderings of history. As regards the figure of Benedict XVI, it must be observed that Cardinal Ratzinger was himself already esteemed and regarded by the Orthodox long before being elected Pope, for his profound “catholicity” and for his attachment to tradition, and has maintained their sympathy as Pontiff, also because of his willingness “to take risks” in the relationship with the Orthodox Church, for the delicacy and esteem with which he has related to it.
Benedict XVI with the Metropolitan Kirill on 25 April 2005, during the meeting with the representatives of the  Christian Churches and communities  and of other non-Christian religions, gathered in Rome for the last conclave

Benedict XVI with the Metropolitan Kirill on 25 April 2005, during the meeting with the representatives of the Christian Churches and communities and of other non-Christian religions, gathered in Rome for the last conclave

Even if they are not yet full, the current diplomatic relations allow and facilitate most important and mutual exchanges of visits, on the part of diplomatic, political and cultural personnel, and initiatives aimed at strengthening mutual acquaintance, also at the social level. Can there still be further improvement, along this road?
MENNINI: Vatican diplomacy is simply an instrument of help so that the life of the local Catholic Church can develop organically, in all its components. In this sense, the Nunciature becomes purveyor of the initiatives of the Holy See aimed at soliciting dialogue with the Russian Church and society. I can cite some examples: the important Catholic-Orthodox conventions that took place in 2006 in Vienna and 2007 in Moscow thanks to the collaboration between the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Department for External Relations of the Patriarchy of Moscow, and that had the great merit of responding to the growing educational and social preoccupations that are noticed within both ecclesiastic and secular circles. We find great harmony in the Patriarchy of Moscow, on these questions, and this pushes us to continue and intensify our action, with the clear awareness that, the more the Christian Churches recover the priority of the announcement of Christ present, their fundamental mission, the more they will know how to find common instruments and languages in all spheres of life.
Another interesting positive example seems to me the work carried out beginning in 2004 by the Catholic-Orthodox Mixed Commission, that has met regularly in these years, seeking to discuss concrete situations, both in their difficulties and controversial points, and also highlighting existing positive testimonies of dialogue and collaboration. A first result – certainly not negligible – is that one learns to dialogue, to confront one another, that the local Catholic Church continues to feel itself “Russian”, participant in the destiny of the country in which it lives.
Can we indicate, in a computation of the mutual advantages, the acquisitions that the diplomatic relations have produced up to now?
MENNINI: I believe that the first advantage is the acquisition of an agile and friendly possibility of conversing, of posing the problems and seeking solutions. Dialogue does not seem to me only an instrument to obtain determined facilities and advantages, but also a value in itself, because it implies a relationship of mutual esteem and trust without which no acquisition could be considered stable and long-lasting. I have a way of verifying it in facing the innumerable problematics that the representative of a diplomatic mission is faced with, from the issues related to visas and residence permits (today problematic enough, as a result of the new norms recently introduced between the European Union and the Russian Federation), to the examination of the personal situations of Catholic priests and religious who operate in Russia, as well as the organization of conventions and cultural exchanges... An indirect but tangible result of the “dialogue” of which I spoke, for example, has been the initiative of Russian State television to transmit a documentary devoted to Pope Benedict XVI, produced by “Aid to the Church in need” and by Vatican Television, on the day of his birthday. An initiative that only some years ago would have been unthinkable.
You have also recently received official acknowledgments from the Patriarchate of Moscow and of all the Russias. What has your relation with Alexis II been up to now?
MENNINI: Coming to Russia to carry out the mission which the Holy Father had entrusted me with, I was very aware that I would find myself in a land of great and ancient Christian tradition, that already for a long time I had admired and tried to deepen. This seems to me the only possible foundation of an authentic ecumenic engagement, in which – for that matter – I have always been guided and comforted by the pontifical magisterium. I could quote for you in this regard some eloquent words recently pronounced by Benedict XVI during the ad limina visit of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic bishops. The Holy Father on that occasion exhorted the promotion of “the ecumenism of love, that comes down directly from the new commandment left by Jesus to his disciples. Love accompanied by coherent gestures creates confidence, opens hearts and eyes. The dialogue of charity by its nature promotes and illuminates the dialogue of truth: it is in fact in the full truth that the definitive encounter to which the Spirit of Christ leads will come about”. I must say personally that, in spite of the undeniable difficulties inherent in the dialogue between sister Churches, in the Russian Orthodox Church and in particular in the Patriarch Alexis I have always found an attitude of great respect and attention for the Catholic tradition and the papal magisterium, and also personally, from the first meeting I had with Patriarch Alexis, I was struck by the cordiality with which he received me, I would dare say the “friendship” which I felt and I feel myself honored on his part.
Your Russian sojourn allows you moreover the stupendous experience of celebrating, practically every year, twice, because of the different liturgical calendars, Holy Christmas and Holy Easter...
MENNINI: Undoubtedly, the Eastern liturgy has a great fascination and brings us back to the sources of prayer, of the communion between man and God, as John Paul II did not fail to point out, for example in Orientale lumen, in which he invited Westerners to discover again this part of the often sadly forgotten ecclesial tradition. In this sense, it is certainly an enrichment to be able to participate in both the liturgical celebrations. On the other hand, this joy is restrained by the fact that to celebrate separately the great solemnity of the Christian calendar is also sign of the wound of division between the two Churches, a wound lived also in daily life, for example within families whose members belong to both confessions... It is to be hoped that solutions will be reached, already practiced in other nations of the world, that favor the mutual liturgical enrichment between the two traditions, agreeing instead the dates of the great solemnities, so as to be able to live harmoniously the periods of preparation and exulting together for the salvific Mystery that is celebrated.
At what stage, from your point of view, is the path towards unity between the sister Churches, to which Pope Benedict already dedicated significant passages in his speech?
MENNINI: I would say that it is necessary to look with serenity, without prejudices and complexes on both sides, at the history of the relations between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church on Russian territory. Incomprehensions and former contrasts (and still today partially existing) are part of a natural process, that answer totally to the logic of the difficult, anguished situation, in which both ecclesial communities have lived for decades and still live. If the Russian Orthodox Church with perestrojka exited from a long period of persecutions and trials, lacking in means and human resources, we cannot forget that the Catholic Church itself in Russia, before perestrojka lived in fact for decades locked within itself, deprived of pastors in loco and isolated with respect to the central ecclesiastical authority, so much as to necessitate then, in 1991, a hierarchy and “missionaries” sent from abroad to be able to begin to restore its own essential structures. The existing Catholic communities in the territories of the Russian Federation had been able to know very little, for example, of the intense work of reform put into effect by Vatican Council II, and of the instruments made available by the Ecclesial Magisterium in the last decades in order to respond to the challenges of our time. Moreover the linguistic and cultural problems must be kept in mind, the inevitable difference of mentality and conception existing between the “missionaries” sent to Russia (priests and religious who worked and work, for that matter, with great dedication and spirit of sacrifice, for the growth of the Church), and the Russian population, that on the one hand suffers from the heavy Soviet ideological inheritance, but on the other possesses also a deep and noble culture, inevitably “other” than that of Western or Central-Eastern Europe.
It was unavoidable that the impact between these two ecclesial realities so greatly tried by historical vicissitudes and still uncertain of their own identity, provoked painful frictions, but I think I can discern, gradually as these two ecclesial realities grow and consolidate, a renewed capacity of dialogue and collaboration in several spheres. Certainly, the cultural, educational and social fields are privileged, also because the awareness grows that it is necessary to respond together to the increasing challenges launched by secularist society. It seems that I can see, currently, at different levels (from the official diplomatic one, to exchanges of a university and academic nature, or diocesan and parochial) a growing commitment on both sides. And a more in-depth awareness cannot but help the cause of unity.
Mennini greets the Patriarch Alexis II, in Moscow, 20 February 2003

Mennini greets the Patriarch Alexis II, in Moscow, 20 February 2003

On your visits to the Catholic communities in Russia, in what way do you succeed, at the same time, to transmit also to our Orthodox brothers, the concrete message that the Catholic Church does not engage in proselytism?
MENNINI: A short time ago you quoted the message pronounced by Benedict XVI a little after his election, in which the Pope declared his firm intention to contribute to the establishing, developing and consolidating of fraternal relations, full of love and trust, with all the Orthodox Churches (and among them, not as last, with the Russian Orthodox Church). I believe that in order to overcome distrust and fears in the other, and to live one’s own witness to faith properly, it is not necessary to do other than follow this “heart” of the Holy Father, to return continuously to a phrase of Saint Benedict’s which he very much loves to quote, “nihil praeponere Christi amori”.
In other words, the instruments are not political, they are the Christian virtues, in the first place fraternal charity. This is the principle which I have always tried to follow in my work in Russia, the attempt to increase a mutual understanding and respect that are born from the common Christian vocation. In this spirit, every concrete step assumes importance, outside of this only pure formality remains that does not overcome suspicions and impediments.
Finally, what role can Russian Catholics aspire to, in their society?
MENNINI: For years the Church in the West has been nourished drawing on the riches of the tradition of the Christian East: I give only some examples, the importance that the theology of the icon, Russian religious philosophy (Chomjakov, Solov’ ëv and so on), have had, in allowing a greater knowledge of our own Christian identity and its universality. To this must be added the witness of the Russian martyrs of the 20th century, who have frequently instilled new vital sap to our western communities become subject to bourgeoisie values. Today the contribution of the Catholic Church could perhaps be that of offering to the Church and to Russian society their own witness and experience of Christian presence, above all in the areas of culture and social issues, that for historical circumstances in Russia have long remained the monopoly of the atheist regime. It seems to me that Russian Catholics will be able to find their own place and discover their own mission within the society, in the measure to which they deepen ever more the knowledge and experience of their own tradition, of their own “Catholicity”

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