If, on the one hand, we all remember the historic meeting of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow with Pope Francis in February 2016 in Cuba, then, on the other hand, we have yet to see the meeting of Patriarch Irinej and Pope Francis – Archbishop Luciano Suriani
Bilateral relations between the Vatican and Serbia are good, and relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church are cordial and constructive, says Archbishop Luciano Suriani, summarising his four-year experience of Serbia in this interview for CorD Magazine. Next February’s celebration of the hundredth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Serbia and the Vatican could provide an opportunity for the Pope to make a historic visit to Serbia, hopes Archbishop Suriani, while he also states openly that the main obstacle hindering the arrival of the Pope in our country are relations between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Croatia. He recounts that Pope Francis expressed his “full willingness to search for historical truth” in the case of the proposed canonisation of Croatian Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac so that it would no longer be a cause for discord between Orthodox believers and Catholics, or between Serbs and Croats.
This year marks the centenary of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Serbia. How would you describe that century, which is considered publicly as having found the Holy See and Serbia on completely opposite sides of history?
– It is not easy to encapsulate a century of history in just a few lines. Over this long period of time, not only Serbia, but the whole of Europe and, I would say, the whole world has undergone experiences that will mark our history forever. While the Holy See has remained the same, the interlocutor has not always simply been Serbia.
The first diplomatic relations, a hundred years ago, were established with the then Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Frankly, it does not seem to me that Serbia and the Holy See have found themselves on opposing sides, even if – during the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – there was a break in diplomatic relations, from December 1952 to June 1966, in response to the appointment as cardinal of Aloysius Viktor Stepinac, Archbishop of Zagreb, who was prevented from travelling to the Vatican to participate in the Consistory.
The Holy See’s activities, promoted by the Roman Pontiff, have always been to promote the good of the human person and the protection of fundamental rights, including freedom of religion and worship, which are unfortunately not always respected by State authorities. I also witnessed, in the sad events of the ’90s, how Pope John Paul II repeatedly sent his Foreign Minister – the late Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, whose personal secretary I was for about nine years – to Belgrade to offer the Holy See’s contribution to a peaceful, just and lasting solution to the disputes, in order to avoid the suffering and grief of the populations involved.
In the case of Kosovo, the Holy See, from the very beginning, has tried to encourage and help the parties involved, so that through open, sincere and constructive dialogue they can reach an equitable solution, which will be for the good of all as much as possible
Given that you’ve been in Serbia for four years already, how would you characterise relations between the Holy See and Serbia today?
– I would say that they are good and cooperative. They have certainly improved over the past few years, as can be seen in the official visits of the last two presidents of Serbia to the Holy Father, and the visit in June two years ago of the Secretary of State, who was received by the main offices of the State. Furthermore, a cooperation agreement has been reached at the cultural level and collaboration has been established between the Serbian National Library and the Vatican Apostolic Library.
Despite numerous calls to recognise the independence of Kosovo, the Vatican has declined to do so. Is the Holy See sticking to that decision and to what extent does it influence relations with Serbia at the political level?
– In order to understand the activity of the Holy See, I think it is important to bear in mind that, although it is a subject of international law, it cannot easily be compared to a state in all respects. This is also why it is part of the United Nations, and other international organisations, almost always as an Observer. This means that the interests and objectives pursued by the Holy See in its diplomatic activity are very often different from those of a state. In the case of Kosovo, the Holy See, from the very beginning, has tried to encourage and help the parties involved, so that through open, sincere and constructive dialogue they can reach an equitable solution, which will be for the good of all as much as possible.
You stated in one interview that Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej “accepted you as a brother” from your very first meeting. How would you describe your relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church?
– The first task of an Apostolic Nuncio is to foster relations with the Catholic Church and with the Government of the country to which he is appointed. It is also important, however, to promote and nurture good relations in other realities of a country, especially religion. Upon arriving in Serbia, therefore, I felt it my duty to include in my mission’s priorities a commitment to establishing good relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, beginning with Patriarch Irinej. I repeat here that I immediately felt welcomed very fraternally. My participation in the liturgies presided over by His Holiness Irinej, is intended to express this communion and the common path, which I believe is irreversible, towards a fuller communion that will finally lead to the unity desired. I cannot fail, then, to refer to these good, cordial and constructive relations.
No Christian, then, should feel “foreign” in Serbia, nor in any of the world’s countries. The Church herself is universal, not national. The task of national governments is precisely to promote the settling of differences, protecting and fostering the rights of individuals and communities, especially those of minorities
You assessed that a lot still remains to be done to improve relations with Serbia, noting that Serbia should stop seeing the Catholic community in the country as a “foreign body” and to accept it as an “integral part of the social community”.
– I confess that when I first celebrated the Eucharist in a parish community, at Easter 2016 in Pančevo, not even two months after my arrival in Serbia, I was deeply surprised by the fact that we used five different languages! Behind every language lies a culture, a tradition, history and also geography. But since then I have come to understand that these multiple differences can have a positive or negative effect on the ecclesial and social fabric.
I believe that diversity should be a mutual gift, enriching interpersonal and social relationships, opening minds and hearts to those who are different. Yet if we place too much emphasis on what distinguishes us, then peculiarities and nationalisms inevitably resurface, with the consequence that differences become obstacles or, even worse, walls. A Christian, the word itself indicates, even before belonging to a nation, belongs to Christ, who gave his life for us. No Christian, then, should feel “foreign” in Serbia, nor in any of the world’s countries. The Church herself is universal, not national.
The task of national governments is precisely to promote the settling of differences, protecting and fostering the rights of individuals and communities, especially those of minorities. Effective cooperation between civil and religious authorities is clearly advantageous to all.
In your opinion, how much are relations between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Vatican dependent on the quality of bilateral relations and how much do they depend on the course and tone of ecumenical dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox Churches in general? Specifically, can there be reconciliation and harmonisation between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church without progress in the dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church?
– In ecumenical and, I would add, interreligious dialogue, audacity and courage are needed. Pope Francis has demonstrated this since the beginning of his pontificate, taking every opportunity, especially during his travels, to meet the religious leaders of the countries he visits. You know that the Patriarchates are autocephalous, therefore there is no single dialogue-partner with the Orthodox world. This aspect makes the ecumenical journey longer and more complex because the sensitivities of individual patriarchates differ.
Regarding the influence of the dialogue between the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow, I am unable to assess its impact on relations between the Holy See and the Serbian Orthodox Church, but allow me to state that if, on the one hand, we all remember the historic meeting of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow with Pope Francis in February 2016 in Cuba, then, on the other hand, we have yet to see the meeting of Patriarch Irinej and Pope Francis!
I personally hope this will take place as soon as possible, considering that we are celebrating 100 years of diplomatic relations between Serbia and the Holy See, whereas relations with the Russian Federation were established just ten years ago. It could be that there are some, unthinkably closed to ecumenical dialogue, but if we know how to read the signs of the times, history insistently calls on us to heal rifts and overcome divisions with reconciliation and forgiveness, in order to work harmoniously together for the Kingdom of God.
An objective reading of history, free from feelings and passions, is no easy task. Looking from the outside, I sometimes have the impression that we run the risk of “mythologising” the figure of the Blessed Aloysius Stepinac, ascribing to him actions that were not his
Pope Francis visited Bulgaria and North Macedonia last year, and you’ve said that he would also gladly visit Serbia. You’ve also said that you got the impression from talking to people that a large number of Serbian citizens would be happy to see the Pope make a visit. What do you consider as the biggest obstacle preventing such a visit?
– Yes, it is true that Pope Francis has travelled close to Serbia, expressing the desire to visit, and many Serbs are wondering and asking me why this does not happen. You ask what the biggest obstacle preventing that is. I have no difficulty in defining that, although – as a Christian and as a Bishop – I do so with sadness and suffering. The obstacle that continues to be felt, particularly in ecclesiastical circles, is the troubled relationship that unfortunately exists between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Croatia. I say this with sorrow because today, more than ever, individual believers and religious communities are called on to bear witness to their faith, working together for harmony and peace among peoples.
Returning from his Balkan trip, Pope Francis allegedly confirmed that there would be no canonisation of Croatian Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac at this juncture. Media quoted Pope Francis’s reflections on the “vague points in history” and the question he posed himself “what would canonisation serve if the truth is not clear”. How do you see this process?
– If it were an easy question, it would already have been answered. I believe I can affirm that, for Pope Francis, there has been full willingness to search for historical truth. It was his idea to establish a mixed Commission, of Orthodox believers and Catholics, with the task of working together to dispel any shadow of a doubt. It is not always simple, and perhaps not even appropriate, to evaluate and judge events of the past with the elements and categories of the present. An objective reading of history, free from feelings and passions, is no easy task.
Looking from the outside, I sometimes have the impression that we run the risk of “mythologising” the figure of the Blessed Aloysius Stepinac, ascribing to him actions that were not his. It is not up to me to say whether or not to proceed with the canonisation. That will be a decision of the Pope, who, I repeat, has shown every concern that the Stepinac “case” no longer be a cause for discord.
Therefore, my sincere wish is that this difficulty will become an occasion for dialogue and reconciliation between Orthodox believers and Catholics, or between Serbs and Croats. It is only in this way, as Christians and as brothers and sisters, that we will be credible before the world because Jesus said: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have a love for one another.
Perhaps in some countries the limitations imposed on religious communities have sometimes been excessive, compared to those arranged for other group activities, underestimating the importance of freedom of religion and worship to believers
The entire world is confronting the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from health problems, this Coronavirus has highlighted many other problems afflicting the modern world. In his addresses, Pope Francis emphasises the need not to forget the poor, who are again the most imperilled. Will the “post-COVID” world be a world of reaffirmed values of cooperation and tolerance, or a world in which states and people are focused even more on themselves and their own survival?
– Pope Francis, like all of us, is living through what no one could have imagined. The Coronavirus has highlighted the globalisation of human frailty. During the prayer of 27th March, in an empty Saint Peter’s Square under the pouring rain, the Pope compared the pandemic to a storm that hit humanity suddenly and violently. Among other things, he said: “The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities…
Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick”. Pope Francis has reiterated several times: “We are in the same boat, so we cannot save only ourselves”.
From the beginning, and looking towards the post-pandemic period, he established a Commission within the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, to work in collaboration with other Departments of the Roman Curia and other Institutions, to express the Church’s concern and love for the entire human family in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially through the analysis of and reflection on the socio-economic and cultural challenges of the future, and by proposing guidelines for confronting them. He constantly promotes an “integral ecology” that respects and protects our “common home”, placing the dignity and well-being of the human person first. History teaches us about life, but we must have the courage and humility to learn from history!
Bans on large gatherings of people – as one of the measures in the fight against COVID-19 – prompted indignation among some believers in Serbia, who emphasised that physically attending church is a necessary part of practising their faith. Services held on the eve of Easter in Rome were attended only by the Pope, doctors and one prisoner. How will religious services look in the “new reality” imposed by the pandemic, which will seemingly last for at least another year?
– Unfortunately, the limitations imposed throughout the world for avoiding the spread of infection have affected the religious life of individuals and communities, causing further suffering. Not being able to take part in liturgical celebrations, precisely at a time when believers need the support of faith and the strength that comes from the Eucharist, the bread of eternal life and nourishment for those on their way to the Father’s House, has been and remains an extra burden.
Perhaps in some countries, the limitations imposed on religious communities have sometimes been excessive, compared to those arranged for other group activities, underestimating the importance of freedom of religion and worship to believers. Yet if they have helped as much as possible to avoid the virus’s spread, we are happy to have made our, even painful, contribution to the common good. As for the duration of the pandemic, I think only God knows! For our part, we will try to live with various limitations, trying to draw some teachings and encouragement from this experience for a more authentic Christian life and a deeper spirituality.
It does not seem to me that Serbia and the Holy See have found themselves on opposing sides, even if – during the SFRJ – there was a break in diplomatic relations
Upon arriving in Serbia, therefore, I felt it my duty to include in my mission’s priorities a commitment to establishing good relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, beginning with Patriarch Irinej
In ecumenical and, I would add, interreligious dialogue, audacity and courage are needed