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H.E. Archbishop Santo Gangemi, Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See

Striving To Clarify Misunderstandings Together

“There is an element that I consider important in relations between the Church and states – that of never allowing oneself to be overwhelmed by pessimism or to think that one is always right. Rather, it is a relation of together trying to clarify misunderstandings. I think this is the work of diplomacy” ~ Archbishop Santo Gangemi

It was just a few months ago that Archbishop Santo Gangemi arrived in Serbia to take on his new post as Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See to Serbia. Originally from Messina, Italy, Archbishop Santo Gangemi has previously served in various countries, including the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Mali and El Salvador. Currently resident in Belgrade, his wealth of knowledge and experience provides more than enough reason for an in-depth interview.

The numerous topics we discussed include the position of the Catholic Church in Serbia, diplomatic relations between Serbia and the Vatican, as well as the potential role of churches and religious communities in achieving peace in Ukraine. We additionally touched upon the call for reforms within the Catholic Church.

What initially crossed your mind when you first found out that you would be coming to Serbia, and what have your impressions been since arriving? 

First, a warm greeting to all CorD readers. The appointment in Serbia was a surprise! I didn’t expect to be changed from El Salvador, nor to come to a part of Europe that is unknown to me, though at the same time I had no valid reasons to refuse such an assignment, so I accepted.

There is no doubt that it is always pleasant for a European to return to Europe after an absence of many years. Therefore, discovering Belgrade is like rediscovering this historic part of the old European continent; it is rediscovering, in a certain sense through a fraternal embrace, this crossroads of peoples and cultures, thinking of the junction of its history, through which the East has approached the West since ancient times. This is a country with lights and shadows, like all human realities, but, above all, with its desire to live, grow and keep up with the times.

What is your opinion regarding the position of the Catholic Church in Serbia and its relations with the majority Serbian Orthodox Church? 

I am gradually getting to know the reality of the Catholic Church in Serbia. A first meeting took place on 11th December, on the occasion of the beginning of the pastoral ministry of His Grace Archbishop László Nemet as Metropolitan Archbishop of Belgrade, and then, last 25th January, I went to Subotica for the feast of the Patron of the Diocese. Again, I spent the days of the Easter Triduum in Subotica and touched with my own hands the religious vitality of that city and that diocese. Brief and circumstantial contacts allowed me to experience the enthusiasm of a community that does not complain about being a minority, nor does it feel marginalised, even though it has to face many problems.

Discovering Belgrade is like rediscovering this historic part of the old European continent; it is rediscovering, in a certain sense through a fraternal embrace, this crossroads of peoples and cultures

I am pleased to see it solicitous in the pastoral, social and ecumenical fields and committed to the synodal path, thus giving priority to the request of Pope Francis. I also find the relationship with the Orthodox Church very constructive. For my part, the meeting with His Holiness Patriarch Porfirije was a moment of grace and emotion. After the initial pleasantries, and after bringing  the fraternal greetings of Pope Francis, an intense exchange of views followed, during which the will to continue on the path of dialogue and understanding was emphasised. I am personally convinced that, on the ecumenical level, due to its long history, the Serbian Orthodox Church can offer much.

What priorities have you set for yourself during your tenure in Serbia? What do you want to work on in particular? 

The Motu Proprio Sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum of 24th June 1969, and cannas 362 and 363 of the Code of Canon Law, illustrate and regulate the task of the Pope’s Legates (Nuncios), to whom “is entrusted the office of permanently representing the Roman Pontiff himself with particular Churches or even with States and Public Authorities to which they have been sent”.

These few lines contain the entire service of the Nuncio, who strives, in this way, to become, where he is, the face, the voice, the hand of the Holy Father; in short, he is a bridge between the Holy Father and the State, as well as a bridge between the Holy Father and the particular Church.

We’re fast approaching the 1700th anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council (2025), which has long been seen as an opportunity to bring together the various Christian churches. Given that this great celebration is now just two years away, and that a tragic war is still raging in Europe, do you think we will even be in a position to take advantage of this opportunity, and, if so, how? 

The anniversary of the first Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea in 325, is undoubtedly a milestone to look back on and from which to draw inspiration to continue to mend the rift that occurred in the Church in the centuries that followed that important event.

I am fully convinced that religious faiths can play an important role in bringing an end to this terrible conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Everyone is aware of Pope Francis’s calls for peace

There is no doubt that its preparation is clouded by the news of war. A conflict that confronts two Christian peoples, two Christian civilisations. Nicaea also offers today’s world a message that is not obsolete: ideas may oppose each other, but understanding deserves every effort and commitment.

Could churches and religious communities contribute to the achieving of peace in Ukraine, and, if so, in which way? How do you see the role of the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis in this regard?

I am fully convinced that religious faiths can play an important role in bringing an end to this terrible conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Everyone is aware of Pope Francis’s calls for peace, and also of his full willingness to create a roundtable for dialogue. Of course, the role of the Catholic Church is limited by the acceptance of mediation by the conflicting parties and, above all, by the full willingness to follow up on the agreements reached.

What role do Christian have to play during times of war? 

It is not easy to answer this question, or rather the answer is so easy in the light of Gospel teaching, but so difficult when it comes to putting it into practice. Christians cannot deviate from the teaching that comes to them from the Gospel: to be peaceful and peacemakers.

It is more difficult to understand how. I do not believe that there is a pre-established formula, but certainly a commitment to let oneself be guided by the Spirit who, in unexpected ways, makes one find suitable words and gestures. In any case, it is clear that, for the Christian, war is always a failure and never a conquest.

You were born and raised in Italy, while you’ve lived in countries with completely different traditions. What’s your view regarding good and healthy relations between the Church and the State? In which fields should they act together and what boundaries should never be crossed? Where do you see the greatest temptations?

The years of my diplomatic service have taken me to work in different countries with different sensitivities in Church-State relations. In all of them, however, I seemed to perceive a common denominator: the State looks at the Church with attention and interest. Why is this so? Perhaps because the Church has always shown itself to be more inclined to what unites than to what divides; using an evangelical image, I would say that the Church is always careful not to let the flickering flame die out.

There is an element that I then consider important in relations between the Church and states – that of never allowing oneself to be overwhelmed by pessimism or to think that one is always right. Rather, it is a relation of together trying to clarify misunderstandings. I think this is the work of diplomacy.

Diplomatic relations between Serbia and the Vatican were established more than a century ago. How do you see the current juncture and the future of those relations?

Diplomatic relations between Serbia and the Holy See date back to 1920; they were interrupted in 1952 and normalisation returned only 18 years later, on 13th August 1970, with the appointment of two respective Diplomatic Representatives – Ambassador and Nuncio. The history of this century of relations is undoubtedly an interesting story with many facets, and a few lines are not enough to summarise it.

The anniversary of the first Ecumenical Council is undoubtedly a milestone to look back on and from which to draw inspiration to continue to mend the rift that occurred in the Church in the centuries that followed that important event

The presentation of the Letters of Credence, on 12th December 2022, gave me the opportunity to have a brief meeting with the President of the Republic and the political and military figures accompanying him. Beyond the purely ceremonial aspect, it was an opportunity to take stock, albeit briefly, of the good bilateral relations between the Holy See and Serbia, which have been established in past years and which I will be committed to continuing and, as far as possible, consolidating.

There are vocal calls for the reform of the Roman Catholic Church in certain countries, for example in Germany, while Rome generally responds to such calls with restraint, to put it mildly. What is the higher view on that, does the Roman Catholic Church need to be reformed and, if so, how?

Instances of reform in the Church are nothing new; I have no doubt that the verb ‘to reform’ has been the most overused of all time. What does a reform consist of and how can it be realised? The answer to this question can only be given if one has a clear idea of what the Church is: a human and divine reality! It is founded by Christ, who entrusted men (apostles and their successors) with the task of carrying it forward, to the ends of the earth. It is clear, in this sense, that there is a foundation that cannot be changed and elements that instead need to be ‘modernised’ for a greater understanding of its being, bearing in mind that such modernisation in no way means distancing or misrepresenting the Gospel doctrine or the perennial tradition of the Church.

Now, in my humble opinion, we seem to be witnessing a distorted understanding of this reality, applying exclusively human categories to it. Hence the misunderstanding of reform at any cost, thus aligning it with purely earthly realities. One question remains open, and it is always difficult to answer: are these calls for reform made in good faith? The truthful answer to this question can certainly pave the way for a reform that helps us to understand the mystery of the Church more fully, but without distancing her from the will of her Founder and enabling her, as the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, reminds us, to “…overcome with patience and love her internal and external afflictions and difficulties and to reveal to the world, faithfully, even if under shadows, the mystery of the Lord” (8:307).

By Jelena Jorgačević

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