Thursday, February 4, 2010

People of the Year - #10

From Inside the Vatican

Each year for the past 10 years, Inside the Vatican has chosen 10 "People of the Year" -- men and women of courage, vision, learning and faith.

I find myself unable to write currently, and so in my desire to bring Freedom Through Truth, will be bringing to you things that I have seen and admire for their veracity.

Here is the tenth member of that illustrious group.

Archbishop Antonio Mennini
A special character is needed to be a peacemaker – a special gift which enables a man to calm tensions and build trust.
The higher the stakes, the deeper and more ancient the distrust, the greater the need for a cool head and a steady pulse. One word out of place can ruin a negotiation, unravel a carefully thought out strategy to build consensus.

The Church has a global diplomatic service, and the Church’s diplomats are trained to be precisely the peacemakers that the Church, and the world, sorely needs.

And among these calm and careful peacemakers, whose work often goes un-noticed in remote places like Sudan or Sri Lanka, we would like this year to honor especially one man who has made extraordinary breakthroughs in a situation of rare stress and challenge.

The man is Archbishop Antonio Mennini, a 62-year-old Italian, who for the last seven years has been the Pope’s man in Moscow, the “Apostolic Delegate” from the Vatican to the Kremlin.

Mennini’s composure is legendary. Even in the most delicate moments, after long hours of travel and in the most difficult weather conditions – think of Moscow in January, or of St. Petersburg or places in Siberia in winter – Mennini has always kept his calm and carried out his mission in an exemplary way.

Navigating the corridors of the Kremlin, where once the Communist leadership laid their plans for world domination, Mennini, one of 14 children, has never forgotten the ultimate goal of his mission: to allow the Gospel to be preached again in Russia, after decades of state atheism and religious persecution.

The essential complication of Mennini’s task is that it cuts across two fault lines: the fault line between Russia and the West, and the fault line between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, divided since 1054 A.D.

If Mennini’s primary task is to represent the Pope, and therefore, to be a support for the local Catholic Church in all of its many problems and needs in modern Russia, this task is only part of his brief.
He must also follow all of the twists and turns of Russian politics as this may affect the lives of believers in Russia, and develop working relations with the Russian Orthodox, who have expressed a desire to work together with Catholics, but who have also often accused Catholics of “poaching” on the Russian Orthodox “canonical territory” which they believe the Catholics should respect.

This brief essay cannot do justice to the complex and sometimes exhausting diplomatic activity Mennini has engaged in over the past year or so. But we can hope to catch a glimpse of some of the highlights, for even a glimpse will be enough to reveal the magnitude of this task.

The year 2009 drew to a close with a dramatic announcement in December: that Russia and the Holy See would “upgrade” their diplomatic relations to the highest level there is in international diplomacy, full diplomatic relations. Since 1990, the two sides have maintained representation below the rank of ambassador.

The new status means full-fledged embassies will be established in Moscow and Rome.

The announcement came after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met Pope Benedict XVI on December 3 in the Vatican while on a visit to Italy.

This meeting was the capstone of Mennini’s work through the past seven years, making clear that relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican, after decades of distrust, have improved enormously.

The Orthodox Church has long accused the Catholic Church of seeking to convert Russians to Catholicism.

The Vatican says its activities in the country cater largely for traditional Catholic minorities like Poles, Germans and Lithuanians, who have faced discrimination and persecution in the past.
Property disputes between the churches have also put them at odds.

Relations have improved since Metropolitan Kirill took over early this year as the leader of the Orthodox Church after the death of Patriarch Alexi II in December 2008, culminating in the establishment of full diplomatic relations.

But Mennini has done much more than simply prepare full diplomatic relations. He has been almost everywhere in Russia.

A year and a half ago, he was in Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tartarstan, about 600 miles east of Moscow, to consecrate a new Catholic church in that city, where the icon of Our Lady of Kazan is now kept after Pope John Paul returned it to Russia in 2004.

The consecration of the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross took place on August 9, 2008. Along with many government officials from the city and the region, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the former Vatican Secretary of State and present Dean of the College of Cardinals, also participated, showing the high level of importance the Vatican gave to this ceremony.

The chairman of the Tatarstan State Council, Farid Moukhametshin, a Muslim, was also present, along with the mayors of three other cities where there have been appearances of Mary: Czestohova in Poland, Fatima in Portugal and Mariazell in Austria.

“I am very glad that we witness the historical event – the return of a Catholic church to the faithful of our city and republic,” the mayor of Kazan, Ilsur Metshin, said.  “In 2004, John Paul II gave back one of the most venerated objects in Orthodoxy – the icon of the Mather of God of Kazan. She is venerated not only by Christians. A whole chapter in Koran dedicated to Virgin Mary, that is why all the faithful in Kazan venerate the holy image. We will do everything in order for Kazan and Tatarstan to be always a home for all of our citizens.”

For his part, Cardinal Sodano said: “Tatarstan has already become an example – and not only in the Russian Federation – of tolerance and friendship between various religions and cultures.”

A year ago, Mennini was instrumental is helping to publich in Russian the Pope’s book, Jesus of Nazareth. On December 2, 2008, in Mos­cow, the cultural center Library of the Spirit hosted the presentation of the Russian edition of Benedict XVI’s book. Speaking at the event were Fr. Igor Vyzhanov, secretary of the department for external relations at the patriarchate of Moscow, Archbishop Paolo Pezzi, Archbishop Mennini, and the director of the Azbuka publishing house, Denis Veselov.
The initial printing of the book, 20,000 copies, showed the publisher’s high expectations for the Pope’s book.
“We published it,”?Veselov said, “because it seemed to us an important book for everyone, which takes us back 1,000 years ago, when divisions were outweighed by a common Christian identity, when we were all Christians.”

The work of Cardinal Ratzinger is not unknown to the Russian public. In 2006, his Introduction to Christianity was published by the Library of the Spirit in Moscow, with a preface by Metropolitan Kirill, then president of the department for external relations at the patriarchate of Moscow.

Fr. Vyzhanov hailed the decision of the Azbuka publishing house, saying it shows the way authentic ecumenism can grow. “I often participate in international forums with other Christians, but too often they talk about the consequences of Christianity — protection of the environment, the cultural problems (which are certainly important) — but they forget that the foundation of everything is Christ,” Vyzhanov said. “This book brings us back to the center of our faith.”

Archbishop Mennini emphasized the centrality of the relationship between faith and reason in the book, and more generally in the teaching of Benedict XVI. The nuncio called attention to the common thread that connects, in this sense, the addresses of the Pope in Regensburg, at the La Sapienza University of Rome, and at the Coll├Ęge des Bernardins in Paris.

Placing Jesus of Nazareth beside a classic like The Lord by Guardini, Archbishop Mennini then emphasized some points of harmony between Ratzinger’s thought and the Eastern Christian tradition: these include love of monasticism and insistence on the truth as an integral experience.

A few days later, Mennini was in Siberia. He was transporting relics of St. Nicholas, brought from Bari in Italy, to a Russian Orthodox bishop in Kemerowo, not far from Novosibirsk.

On December 19, during a solemn Orthodox liturgy, Catholic Bishop Josef Werth of the diocese of the Transfiguration of the Lord in Novosibirsk formally presented Russian Orthodox Bishop Aristarch of Kemerovo and Nowokuznesk (Siberia) with a relic of St. Nich­olas.

The Orthodox cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Kemerovo, despite the fact that it was a weekday, was filled to overflowing.

In his address at the solemn ceremony, Bishop Aristarch described the gift as “a true sign of love and esteem between the Russian Orthodox and the Catholic Church.” And he underlined the joy of the faithful over this relic, emphasizing that both Eastern and Western Christianity share a common veneration for numerous saints.

Bishop Werth, who described Bishop Aristarch as his “brother in the episcopate,” for his part emphasized that this day was an example of how relations between the Catholic and the Orthodox Church could be. He stated: “Orthodox and Catholic bishops, priests and faithful are meeting with one another and praying to the same Lord. I am certain that in future the same kind of cordial relationships will also develop in other cities and towns of Siberia.”

Mennini explained that the presentation of this relic was intended as a “gesture of fraternal love” on the part of the Holy Father Benedict XVI, who had personally expressed the wish that it should be handed to the Orthodox bishop and faithful of Kemerovo.

The city of Kemerovo is situated some 2,100 miles (3,400 km) east of Moscow in the Kusbas region.
Early in 2009, Mennini transmitted Pope Benedict’s good wishes to Metropolitan Kyrill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad as the new Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow.

“I warmly congratulate you and wish you every strength and joy in the fulfillment of the great task that lies before you,” Benedict said in a telegram to the new patriarch.

Mennini also congratulated Kirill, 62, and wished him success in the cause of strengthening moral principles in Russian society.

“Together with Catholic communities living in Russia, at this solemn hour I am praying to the merciful God so that He helps you accept the legacy of the loving memory of Patriarch Alexi II Your predecessor,” the archbishop said in a congratulatory letter. “In these years I had a chance to get to know you as a profound theologian striving to revive the Russian Orthodox tradition after the hardships experienced by the Church in the 20th century, as well as a visionary pastor working zealously for the benefit of the God’s people and full of the desire to fulfill the Christ’s commandment, ‘That they all may be one,’” the letter says.

In part thanks to Mennini’s careful and persistent work, Kirill knows many Catholic prelates personally and this has led to more stable relations with the Vatican.

In Church circles in Russia and abroad, Kirill is known as a man of broad erudition, profound knowledge and intellectual prowess. He has published and presented over 600 papers and written several books. He remains the only senior clergyman to have hosted, for many years, the television programme entitled “The Word of the Shepherd.” Although he is rightly regarded as a powerful speaker, Kirill once confessed that he had been painfully self-conscious all his life until he was about 50, and only then did he learn to control this feeling.

Somewhat unexpectedly for a top cleric, His Eminence has a penchant for sports. After work, Kirill dons a tracksuit and walks his dogs. On vacation, he swims a couple of miles non-stop every day. In winter, he enjoys downhill skiing. The Patriarch says this has been his passion for the last 43 years.

In the past 20 years, the number of active Orthodox churches in Moscow has soared from 40 to 872. The number of parishes in the country has quadrupled globally, from 6,893 to 29,263.

On relations with the Vatican, Kirill has said: “The Russian Orthodox Church takes the same stand as before on the issue of a meeting between the Patriarch and the Pope. Our position ensues from the specific context of relations between the two Churches and that has nothing to do with the personalities of their respective leaders. The meeting between head of our Church and the Pope will only be possible when we see some real progress in resolving those issues that have upset our relations for a long time.”
Berl Lazar, Chief Rabbi of Russia, said of Kirill after his election: “We have very special feelings about Metropolitan Kirill being elected Patriarch. We have cooperated with him for many years and we can say with confidence that this is a man who listens — and make others listen when he speaks. As a Metropolitan, Kirill, together with the late Patriarch Alexiy II, was instrumental in reasserting moral values in Russian society, which we see as a paramount goal. We have felt his support on several occasions and have always found a common language to resolve any differences. It is clear to us that the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church has a broader concept of developing Russian fundamental traditions, beyond the limits of Orthodoxy.”

In February, Mennini was in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, to presented his credentials to Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov on February 10 (he had been appointed nuncio to the Central Asian country on July 26, 2008).

Mennini went on to have meetings with government and religious leaders to further interreligious dialogue in the country.

A law on religion in Uzbekistan bans any missionary activity and charitable work by religious communities. This restricts the mission of the Catholic Church to cultural events such as concerts, in addition to its religious ministry to Catholic Poles, Russians and expatriates in the country.

At present, the registration of two Catholic parishes is still pending, while registration of Caritas Uzbekistan, the local Church’s social-service wing, does not appear possible in the near future.
Mennini said he plans to visit Uzbekistan three to four times a year from Russia.

During a Mass at the Sacred Heart Church in Tashkent, the prelate also told Uzbek Catholics, “Let’s build bridges of friendship with other religions.”

Uzbekistan has about 500 practicing Catholics spread out among five parishes and two mission stations. Muslims form 88 percent of the 26.9 million people, while Russian Orthodox Church members form 9 percent.

In May, Mennini met with Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the newly-appointed head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of Foreign Relations (succeeding Kirill). Archbishop Mennini discussed Orthodox-Catholic relations with Hilarion on May 14.

The meeting took place at Archbishop Mennini’s request at the St. Daniel Monastery in Moscow and passed “in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and openness,” the Russian Orthodox Church reported on its official website. During the meeting, the parties emphasized the importance of combined efforts in protecting traditional Christian values. Mennini also handed Archbishop Hilarion letters from Secretary of the Holy See Secretariat of State Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, and Holy See Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.

Throughout the summer, Mennini continued his careful work to prepare for full diplomatic relations with Russia.

Foreign Catholic clergy were finding it “significantly easier” to obtain permits to minister in Russia during 2009.

The Vatican and Russia first exchanged diplomatic envoys in 1990 following a historic Rome visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Closer ties were believed impeded by repeated Orthodox complaints that Catholics were trying to recruit their believers, as well as by Orthodox objections to the February 2002 creation of four Catholic dioceses in Russia.

In September, Mennini attended the 17th annual International Ecumenical Conference on Orthodox Spirituality organized by Prior Enzo Bianchi of the Monastery of Bose in Italy. The Catholic Church was represented by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, vice dean of the College of Cardinals; Mennini; Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; and Jesuit Father Milan Zust, of that same dicastery.

Then, in December, came the announcement: full diplomatic relations would be established between Russia and the Vatican.

“For Rome and Moscow, It’s Spring Again,” the respected Italian Vatican observer Sandro Magister noted in a December 11 column. And this “springtime” has a goal, Magister argued: “the defense of the Christian tradition” in Europe and around the world.

What Mennini has been toiling quietly to accomplish is quite frankly one of the most exciting and important missions in the world today: friendship between two powers that have long distrusted each other, Rome and Russia.

Mennini brought his busy year to an end with a very special anniversary Mass on December 12. It was the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the reconsecration of the Catholic cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the cathedral church of the archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow.

The festival Mass was celebrated by the ordinary of the Moscow archdiocese, Archbishop Paolo Pezzi, but concelebrating with him were Mennini, and Bishop Kirill Klimovich, the ordinary of the diocese of St. Joseph in Irkutsk, and also about 50 Catholic priests. The festival liturgy was attended by a representative of the Russian Orthodox church, secretary for inter-Christian relations of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow patriarchate, Archpriest Vyzhanov. On this festival day a multitude of laity and monastics worshiped in the cathedral church.

In his homily at the liturgy, Archbishop Paolo Pezzi referred to the dramatic fate of the church, which was subjected to desecration and damage in the 20th century. He said:  “The cathedral church, built at the beginning of the last century, shared the fate of the majority of churches of Russia, falling under the yoke of militant atheism.”
Speaking of the repressions to which many clergy and laity were subjected, Pezzi recalled only three names which are inextricably associated with the church of the Immaculate Conception: these were its first rector, Fr Mikhail Tsakul (1885-1938), who was shot in the Butovo Polygon; Fr Leonid Fedorov, exarch of Catholics of the Eastern Rite, who “between a time of release and of imprisonment” served on Malyi Gruzinskii his last Easter service; and vice-exarch of Russian Catholics Fr Sergei Soloviev, grandson of the famous Russian historian S.M. Soloviev and nephew of the no less famous Russian religious philosopher Vladimir Soloviev.
The memorial of the thousands of martyrs of the past century is always present in the daily celebration of the bloodless sacrifice throughout the world, Archbishop Pezzi noted.
He proposed remembering in prayer all those who built the church and regenerated it after many years of neglect, including Archbishop Tade­usz Kondrusiewicz, during whose time in the Moscow see the return and restoration of the cathedral occurred.
Now the Metropolitan of Minsk and Mogilev, Kondrusiewicz sent his own congratulations, read by the general secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia, Fr Igor Kovalevskii. He recalled the celebration 10 years ago on the occasion of the reconsecration of the cathedral, which was performed by the papal legate, Vatican State Secretary Cardinal Angelo Sodano, with 35 bishops and 150 priests concelebrating and with an enormous crowd of people. According to Kondrusiewicz, this event marked a new stage in the life of the regenerated Catholic community of Russia.
“This decade has shown that the cathedral church has become not only the religious center of Catholic life in Russia, but also the center of a multiconfessional society and culture,” Kondrusiewicz wrote from Rome.
“This church has synthesized, in its history of the numerous sufferings which Christians of the Soviet Union experienced, the story of the martyrs and confessors of the 20th century,” Mennini said in his words of greeting.
“Although the Catholic community in Russia is small, it can have great significance for the entirety of Russian society to the degree that it will preach the good news of Christ and witness to the universality of the Gospel.”
Mennini then conveyed to the bishops, priests, and laity assembled for this festive day in the cathedral the greetings and blessings of Pope Benedict XVI.
Bishop Kirill Klimovich gave words of greeting to those assembled, devoting his speech to the special intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom the cathedral church is consecrated (it is the largest Catholic church in Russia).
It has been a very busy and productive year for Archbishop Meninni. He has accomplished much. But he is not slowing down. He still has more work to do in Russia. —Robert Moynihan

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