Here is the transcript of Anna Arco's revealing interview with Archbishop Antonio Mennini
What is the role of the nuncio?
The nunciature is the embassy of the Holy Father or the Holy See. The nuncio has to work in order to strengthen the relations between the local Catholic Church and the Holy See–as well as between the Holy See and the singular state –in this case, with the United Kingdom by visiting the dioceses, parishes, Catholic institutions and not only Catholic institutions. Also among the tasks of the nuncio is to further the rapprochement, the ecumenical work, in order to make all disciples of Christ more united.
You came to Russia during a difficult period and oversaw a considerable rapprochement between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches as well as between the Holy See and the Kremlin. What were the greatest challenges you faced when you arrived in Russia?
When I arrived in Russia the relations between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church were very tense after the institution of the Catholic dioceses in Russia by the Holy Father John Paul II. My first big challenge was to work out how to reach the Orthodox world, not only in an official way but in an unofficial way, in order to show them that the Holy Father and the Holy See didn’t have secret plans to “conquer” – if we can use this word – Russia, as they sometimes believed or that we wanted to steal Orthodox faithful. We wanted to show them that the Holy Father not only had a great esteem for the Orthodox Church but he loved them.
How did you do that in an unofficial way?
After the meeting with his Holiness the Patriarch, Metropolitan Kirill (presently the new patriarch) I started to try to go around Russia to visit the different bishops with the blessing of the Patriarch and the patriarchate. I started with the bishops around Moscow and, of course, I availed myself of the opportunity to visit the Catholic community. During this time I also took the opportunity to pay a courtesy call to the local Orthodox bishops and then we started a new language. I thought that it was very important that we tried, in this tense moment, to listen to the Orthodox;to listen to why they are so disappointed with the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, we say in Italian, not only one party is wrong or right, but in any case, I wanted to let us try to listen to them, to learn what were their reasons and causes.
Were you able to address the major causes and problems?
Yes. One year and a half after I settled there, Cardinal Walter Kasper made his first visit. After some years Cardinal Kasper and Metropolitan Kirill agreed to institute a bilateral commission between Catholics and Orthodox to face and discuss the different problems and so on. Then we started, not only to speak but also to try to listen to one another, to try to understand one another better and to create friendly relations.
What do you feel were your greatest successes and why?
I wouldn’t speak about success, but I think the result was clear. For example, when we organised every year the reception in honour of the Holy Father, many members of the Orthodox Church attended the reception and they liked to come very often to the nunciature to stay, to talk and also to eat. You know how the Russian people are. They like very much to talk, to spend a lot of time in conversation. And then we organised trips to Rome for the bishops. Then they wanted to pay to courtesy calls to the Holy Father during the general audience. They were very happy and the Holy Father was always very welcoming to them and they felt that they were no longer being treated with indifference.
Have there been real advances between the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches?
First, we had been discussing the question of the education of Orthodox young people in the Catholic institutions, orphanages and schools for a long time. The Orthodox side was very deeply worried about the danger that these people might receive a Catholic education instead of an Orthodox one. We made it clear that for these pupils there was no doubt that they would receive an Orthodox education. We started to visit the different institutions and so they realised directly that not only were the attitudes of our system positive, but really they were working in order to keep and to save the Orthodox religion and Orthodox belief in these young people. This was the first achievement. The second really started before the bilateral commission was established. We offered the Patriarchate the opportunity, thanks to the generosity of the Holy Father and the Holy See, to send Russian seminarians to Rome to study and then to attend higher studies and formation. They accepted in a very grateful way and so they were happy. Since my arrival in Russia up to 60 Russians have been to study, and still are studying,in Rome. This is very important, not to change the mentality but to for them to see that the Catholic Church is preserving spiritual treasures.
So in a way it helped to illustrate to them or teach them what the Catholic Church was about as well?
Yes and because we always respected their identity. For example, at the nunciature there was also a young [Orthodox] seminarian who had stopped studying in order to make some money. I would tell him quite often: “You must not become a Catholic. You have to keep your faith in order to better serve your Church. Now you know us you can dream about going to Rome. You can go to Rome one day in order to study but you should remain a Russian Orthodox.”
Is the ecumenical project alive and well?
In Russia? As the Holy Father said in his recent book when he gave the long interview to the German journalist that there are number of people in Russia who are frightened of the Catholic Church. Not only because of the many centuries of division, but because unfortunately the Orthodox know very little about the Catholic Church and the Catholic faithful in Russia they know little about the Orthodox Church. From the beginning of my mission in Russia I wanted to be present at the liturgy of His Holiness the Patriarch every year to give him a gesture of respect as he is the head of the most important Church in Russia and considering also the meaning, the importance of Orthodox spirituality and the suffering the Russian people have passed through many decades of atheism and persecution. They have had a sad fate, with a high toll of martyrs and people who lost their lives for Jesus.
Will one of your tasks be improving relations with the Church of England in the wake of Anglicanorum coetibus?
I have not yet met His Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but we have an appointment at the beginning of the next month. From what I know the official relations are very good and very friendly. On the other hand, we understand that this passage is a delicate matter, not only for the Catholic side but also the Anglican side, and so the Holy See wants to make clear that we are ready to accept them, but we don’t want to incite them to leave their identities as Anglican faithful.
During Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain last year he spoke of the importance of the role of religion in society and faith in the public sphere. Do you think you will have a role in pursuing this agenda and how do you think it will develop?
The United Kingdom as the Holy Father explained, paying homage to the history, to the role played by such important institutions like the British Parliament, has played a very important role for what concerns human values, values of democracy, not only in Great Britain but in many countries all over the world which form the Commonwealth. On the other side we can recognise that British society is very liberal, very open to the new requests, to the new desires or the tolls of the modern society and sometimes we can’t deny there is some modern streams that collide with the Christian tradition. I think we have to help by recognising the right of every person to express his mind, his religious mind or not, his religious faith, but also to make them understand that faith that is not something going against reason.
For example, sometimes I have the impression that we make the mistake when people who feel themselves marginalised think that they are discriminated against. We have to understand it is not a matter of discrimination but a matter of important distinctions. While we have to respect the others, we think that Christianity has already a role to play in British society in dialogue with all the sides, all the parties, with the believers and non-believers. For this I will try to reach out to British society, visiting for example – depending on the invitations – cultural institutions like university groups and so on in order to establish a friendly dialogue about many of the issues which represent crucial questions and problems for many people, including some believers, and address their concerns. Then I think that one of the tasks of the bishop, not withstanding of course that I am a diplomat but also a bishop, is to help these people on the one side to better understand the approach of the Catholic religion on these problems and on the other side to better understand them. What do they really do? What do they really want? I hope to do something similar to what I did in Russia, to better understand their reasons and their concerns.
What from your Russian experiences do you think will be most helpful here in Britain?
The desire not only to continue the sincere dialogue with the Anglican community, but also to establish dialogue with other religions and also non-believers in Great Britain, as I spoke of during my first official holy Mass at the Cathedral.
What do you hope to achieve when you are here?
Frankly speaking, at this stage of my service here, I don’t know exactly but I can imagine that, as Her Majesty the Queen told me, she underlined the fact that Christians should walk all together in order to help society and people find out a sense for their lives. I can imagine – as it happens everywhere – that many people are looking, in search of something, possibly they don’t know what they are searching for. They are looking for a truth, not a lie. Why not listen them, to help them, to verify whether we are able to help them, to work together in order to achieve more advances, more spiritual goals, which mean also better lives for everybody?
What do you see as your greatest challenges as you begin this new job?
The challenge first of all is the fact that I know my qualities but I also know my limits. I hope that as I try to understand, others will try to understand me and also pardon me if I make some mistakes.
There are a number of appointments to the episcopate to be made while a lot more sees are due to be vacated in the next five years. How do you go about making recommendations to the Congregation for Bishops?
I have already started to work on this very important matter and I think that the next two or three months will have some appointments by the Holy Father.
Do you have any pets?
I haven’t had one up to now, but I do want to have a little dog, a Coton de Tulear, which originates from Madagascar. I saw one some days ago belonging to a friend of mine who is the deputy head of mission of the Italian Embassy but who was working in Moscow. Before, I thought of getting a Cavalier King Charles spaniel.
What are your hobbies?
I like to read literature and listen to classical music, to walk and so on. But the space one can give to the hobbies depends also on the work.