Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Francis’ closest associate, visited the capital of Belarus from March 12 to 15. The Vatican Secretary of State met with the highest government officials in the country, and was received by the head of the Belarussian Orthodox Church, but above all he visited the local Catholic community. I spoke about this historic visit with the Archbishop of Minsk, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz.
Your Excellency, on March 15 Cardinal Parolin concluded his important visit to Minsk. But I would like to begin our conversation by calling to mind the visit that Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, former Secretary of State, made seven years ago during Benedict XVI’s papacy. What was achieved as a result of that first-ever visit of a papal envoy?
Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz: That visit was unique, because for the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, the Secretary of State came to Belarus. Cardinal Bertone’s visit contributed to a strengthening of relations between the Holy See and Belarus, and it bore numerous fruits: first of all, we were granted land for building an Apostolic Nunciature, and we were able to establish the Theological Academy of Minsk. That visit resonated greatly, also because the Secretary of State visited the entire country: he went to Minsk, Pinsk and Grodno, and he celebrated Holy Mass every place he went.
In these past years, what important events have taken place in the Catholic Church in Belarus?
As I already mentioned, we officially established the Theological Academy, along with a College of Theology. Church and State continue to cooperate well together in the field of charity work: we are often invited to take part in various social aid projects. We have been given a large building in downtown Minsk, and after we refurbish it we’ll be organizing a center for handicapped children there. It will also house a kindergarten and a school.
In Minsk we have been given 10 different lots of land for building churches. Building 10 churches will be hard, given our limited finances (for now we have begun construction on five of them), but these are our problems, not the government’s. There are also churches that belong to the State, such as the largest in Minsk, the Church of Saints Simon and Helen, that we can use free of charge.
Why do you need so many new churches? How many Catholics are there in Belarus, and in the capital itself?
In Belarus there are around 1.5 million Catholics (15% of the population). Of these, more than 300,000 live in Minsk. The problem is that the capital currently has four old churches in the downtown area, and five chapels. That’s why we need to build churches in the newer suburbs.
The media’s comments on the Vatican Secretary of State’s visit emphasized that Cardinal Parolin went to a country governed by a man seen by the European Union and the United States as “Europe’s last dictator.” Still, Alexander Lukashenko recently reacquired a certain standing on the world political scene, thanks to his initiatives in mediating the crisis in Ukraine: Minsk hosted negotiations between Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. How does the Church evaluate these initiatives?
We can only rejoice that, thanks to the Minsk accords, there is now an almost complete ceasefire, and life has started to get back to normal. It saddens us that this conflict is a fratricidal one. We are glad that the peace process started here in Belarus. The Church urged everyone to pray for peace, and people really did pray a lot.
Let’s talk now about Cardinal Parolin’s visit, his goals and program.
Cardinal Parolin was invited by our government to come to Belarus. He met with the President, the Prime Minister, the Head of Parliament and the Foreign Affairs Minister, and the day of the anniversary of Pope Francis’ election he had a meeting with the diplomatic corps. It is noteworthy that all the politicians repeated to the Secretary of State that they were awaiting a visit from the Pope.
Concerning the ecclesiastical aspect of his visit, Carinal Parolin met with Orthodox Metropolitan Pavel, the Patriarchical Exarch of Belarus. The Exarch revealed that their conversation was dedicated to the importance of spiritual and moral values in today’s world, but there was no talk of a papal visit.
Cardinal Parolin also met with Catholics…
There was also a pastoral dimension to the Secretary of State’s visit, and this was very important for us. The cardinal met with the bishops of Belarus: through him we sent an invitation to the Pope to visit our country. On March 14 in the evening he participated in a youth gathering in our largest church (I had never seen so many young people there: it was packed like sardines). During that event he answered their questions, celebrated Mass, and then remained with the faithful for Eucharistic Adoration until past midnight. The last day, he celebrated Mass for children in the cathedral: he was struck, or maybe a bit amused, because the children sang so well and so enthusiastically, and they gave him their best wishes in both Belarussian and Italian. Everywhere he went, the cardinal met with our faithful, and heard them when they said, “We are waiting for the Pope!” This is why, when we were saying goodbye, he told me that his task now is to convince Francis to visit Belarus.