"You will always be in my prayers."
The mission of the former apostolic nuncio in Ukraine, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, who was appointed secretary general of Papal Synods in the Vatican by Pope John Paul II, has come to an end. On 22 March 2004, the archbishop left Kyiv.
Right before his departure, Archbishop Eterovic gave an interview to journalists of The Parish Newspaper and the Catholic Media-Center. The text is here translated into English.
The Holy See and Ukraine
Your Excellency, you have been the representative of the Pope and the Holy See in our country for five years now. How do you think relations between Ukraine and the Holy See have changed throughout this period of time? How have both countries benefited?
Relations between Ukraine and the Holy See had been positive even before I took this post; but now, I think, they have improved even more. The main reason for that was the visit of Pope John Paul II. Before that, there was little known about Ukraine in Western Europe, America and other parts of the world. The visit of the Pope gave them a chance to know more about its religious, social, political and cultural reality. The Holy See shows great interest in religious freedom in every country, in Ukraine in particular. There is religious freedom in Ukraine, and it is very important for the country itself because all churches and religious communities can normally function and develop here. And we witness that on different international levels.
In my opinion, the state of the Catholic Church has improved during these five years. Today, there are 12 Greek Catholic eparchies and 7 Roman Catholic dioceses; the number of parishes, priests, monks and nuns has also increased. Thank God, this is a blessed time for the Catholic Church. I would like to point out another positive thing: Ukrainians have become more cognizant of the Catholic Church of the Eastern and Latin rites; they perceive it as a part of Ukrainian society, its culture and spiritual life. This is very important, as it makes the reality and the spiritual life of Ukraine itself much richer. And the fact that the Eastern tradition, the Greek Catholics, are in full communion with the Pope of Rome singles out Ukraine as a very original and interesting country, when we take into consideration such a presence of the Catholic Church in it.
No doubt, the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ukraine has become the greatest success of your diplomatic mission. What is the potential of this visit for Ukraine's internal development and its authority on the world scene?
I am sure this visit has yielded positive results, and there are still plenty of them ahead. It was a very important event in the history of the country, and it was not only religious but also a political and social event… It was really important for Ukrainians, non-Catholics included, to see the Pope, to hear his words, and to confirm that he treats all religions and confessions, especially the Orthodox Church, with respect. I remember how attentively people listened to the Pope, how sincerely they greeted him, and also wanted to take pictures with him. People saw in him a holy person who preaches the Word of God and lives by what he says. The fact that the Pope is an authentic witness of Jesus Christ impressed Ukrainian society, which listened to the Christian teachings brought by the Pope to the land of Ukraine. I know that from my own experience of communicating with many people. It stimulated the spiritual revival of Ukraine; it added confidence and strength not only to Catholics but also to other churches and people of good will. It is truly difficult to estimate the results of the visit, since we have in mind the spiritual reality, in the first place. According to statistics, the moral authority of the Pope is very high in Ukraine. Not only Catholics but also other citizens of Ukraine believe that the Pope has the highest moral authority in the world. I would also like to point out that the cooperation of the church and the state in preparation of the visit was very good, and it also gave positive results.
What were your feelings when you were greeting the Pope on the platform in Boryspil Airport?
I was happy, though I didn't have time to think about it at that moment. I remember when I first began to speak seriously about the Pope's visit: none of the Latin or Greek Catholic hierarchs believed it was possible. Moreover, John Paul II, who knows the realities of Ukraine and its dramatic history very well, expressed his strong desire to come here to see Kyiv, the Christian capital of Eastern Europe, as well as Lviv, the city of three Catholic rites.
How much do you think the issue of concluding a concordat is relevant for relations between Ukraine and the Holy See? Does the Holy See have any plans concerning negotiations on this issue?
As far as concordats are concerned, i.e., agreements between the Holy See and separate states, the Catholic Church has a diverse experience here. For instance, the United States does not have any concordat with the Holy See; the Catholic Church is ruled by the national laws there, before which all confessions and religions are equal. In Europe, where the tradition is somewhat different,
many countries have concordats with the Holy See; and the majority of them are not made up of Catholics. For example, the Holy See has a very interesting agreement with Kazakhstan, where most citizens are Muslims, or with Estonia, which is mostly represented by Protestants. In order to prepare a concordat, there should be an agreement of the two parties, the Holy See and a state. Such proposals were voiced in Ukraine, but they have not been seriously discussed as yet. The concordat with Ukraine can be concluded, but only when there are favorable conditions both in the state and in the church.
I would like to stress that the Catholic Church is not looking for any privileges in the concordat above other confessions, because it wishes for other confessions all that it seeks for its own faithful.
A Diplomat and a Pastor
During this period of time, you have traveled much around Ukraine, paying pastoral visits, visiting different regions, helping the local communities to solve their problems. For instance, you helped them to make contact with authorities and other confessions, with the Orthodox in particular. How did you benefit from those visits? What image of the Catholic Church of both
rites, both positive and negative, did you take from these experiences?
By the grace of God I have visited almost all the regions and all the large cities of Ukraine. These visits were very important, as they gave me a chance to know how Catholics and Catholic communities live, when they are in the majority or in the minority. I was deeply impressed when I saw how tenderly and devotedly the priests serve in the Church of Ukraine, where the conditions are much worse than in those countries they have come from. Especially, I think about the priests from Poland who serve in central and eastern Ukraine. I have always wanted to share my experience with our priests. Well, I have never wanted to stay in a hotel; I preferred to stay in the poor houses where the priests live. Thus, I had a clear idea of how the priests live. I often slept in the sacristy. I believe it helped them, and I had the possibility to see with my own eyes in what conditions they live and serve.
I can't forget the meetings with the faithful. I was really amazed by the great number of historic churches on the territory of Ukraine, and how many of them were ruined! I also visited new sanctuaries. I have always supported our communities in their desire to get permission for the allotment of land for the construction of churches, especially where they were destroyed in the
times of persecution. Thank God, much has been done in this respect, but still we were refused in Sevastopol and Dnipropetrovsk, and so on. I hope the time will come and we will settle this.
In general, my impressions of those visits are mostly positive. Formerly, I had the feeling that the communities distant from the diocesan centers were neglected. There was little contact with them. Therefore the Pope decided to form two new dioceses for the Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine, so that Kerch does not belong to Kamianets-Podilskyi, and Luhansk to Zhytomyr. The same was also done for the Greek Catholic Church: the Donetsk-Kharkiv and Odesa-Crimea archiepiscopal exarchates were set up.
It's no secret that in the past the Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic churches did not peacefully co-exist in Ukraine. What is the essence of the problem today? What can both churches do to improve their relations, and together serve for the good of the faithful and the Church?
You probably have some negative examples in mind. But there are plenty of positive instances, too. In central-eastern and southern Ukraine I was witness to full cooperation between Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic priests. The structures of the Roman Catholic Church are developed better here; there are more Roman Catholic churches left, where our brothers, the Greek Catholics, hold Liturgies. There are problems, as in any family. Problems are everywhere that people and communities are. But it is very important to find solutions by means of Christian dialogue. That is the reason why we have a mixed Greek and Roman Catholic Committee, which consists of two bishops from both churches. Their main task is to study the problems and to find ways to solve them. I stay in good relations with the hierarchs of both rites; and I think this may symbolize the relations between Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics. I think things have changed for the better during this period of time. I still have very strong impressions from the Liturgies celebrated by the Pope in Kyiv and Lviv when Latin and Greek Catholic priests were at the altar together. It means that there is full participation and understanding in the Catholic Church. And this is the most important thing.
One often hears that Ukraine is a country where the ecumenical dialogue may yield fruit. What is this idea based on? What can the Catholic Church do so that these expectations come true?
I think it is the destiny of Ukraine to serve as the place where Eastern and Western civilizations, as well as Catholicism and Orthodoxy, meet. I discovered that the ecumenical dialogue in Ukraine is natural. There are a great number of mixed families based on love and respect. This is a good reason why the relations between the hierarchs of different churches also have to be improved. Such relations do exist; I myself had numerous meetings with Orthodox, Protestants, and representatives of other religions, Jews and Muslims. In recent years, the relations of the Catholic Church with many Orthodox churches, e.g. the Greek, Romanian and Bulgarian, have become much better. There are still conflicts with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has particular relations with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [-Moscow Patriarchate]. Nevertheless, I am a great optimist. And when I met Orthodox hierarchs, I saw their desire to come to common ground. We are all Christians, and society demands our common positive contributions to its life, not hostility. The Catholic Church has gained remarkable achievements in this field. You remember, right before the Pope's visit some Orthodox protested against it, but nobody from the Catholic Church would get into an argument with them. It was not “Catholic tactics.” The Catholic Church, according to the ecumenical doctrine of the Second Vatican Council, is open to dialogue. It considers the Orthodox Church to be its sister. The dialogue is the future, not only for Ukraine but also for those countries where Catholics and Orthodox have lived together for centuries.
How can we fulfill the wish of the Greek Catholics to have a patriarchate without losing what we achieved in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, in which we have come a long way, full of difficulties?
After Cardinal Kasper's visit to Moscow, I read much strange information claiming that the Catholic Church and the Second Vatican Council seem to be against the proclamation of new patriarchates. On the contrary, the conciliar decree “Orientalium Ecclesiarum,” on Eastern Catholic churches, stipulates the possibility of creating patriarchates to the Eastern Catholic churches. I clearly remember this document since I was reading it not long ago; and it says that a patriarchate may be established either by an Ecumenical Council or the Roman Hierarch. The Pope is aware of both opinions. I am sure that his decision will be fair and will be made at a good time when all the prerequisites are ripe. For the time being, we are to negotiate and study the positions of the parties. For instance, we apply the term “sister” to the Orthodox Church, but the Orthodox lack this concept. Therefore, we need to communicate in order to make ourselves clear and to determine what we have in mind, so that we could use a single terminology at least.
It seems to me that the Orthodox churches have to take the existence of the Catholic Church of the Eastern rite as a given, since its spiritual and cultural contribution to the Universal Church is really great and distinguished. It is worth mentioning that the Pope beatified 27 Greek Catholic martyrs in Lviv, who have become a symbol of many witnesses of faith, hope and love, given to the Universal Church by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
“It is hard to leave Ukraine.”
What will be your responsibilities as the general secretary of Papal Synods? Will this post allow you to keep in touch with Ukraine?
It is hard to leave Ukraine, but I am happy that I will keep in touch with the faithful, through the bishops in particular. After all, this is the task of the general secretary, to help the Pope, who is the head of the Synod of Bishops, to establish ties with bishops around the world. Today the Church has almost 4,600 bishops; the general secretary has to be in touch with them all the time. A special mission of the general secretary is to organize general assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. The next assembly, the topic of which is “The Eucharist: Source and Culmination of the Church's Mission,” will take place in 2005. In addition, the continental synods of bishops gather. Thus, I will have much work to do.
I would like to emphasize that my post is important and delicate at the same time, as it has to do with collegiality among the bishops, especially in the light of the ecclesiology of communion which is particularly mentioned in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The Synod of Bishops, as an institution, was founded by Pope Paul VI after the council.
I think I won't exaggerate if I say that you really liked the Ukrainian language and culture. It did not take you long to learn the language. They say you play the bandura [a traditional Ukrainian stringed instrument]…
It is true. I play many instruments: the organ, the guitar, the pipe, and now the bandura, too. I like the bandura very much, since it symbolizes some part of the Ukrainian folk culture. I believe every ambassador has to get acquainted with the culture of the people where he serves. As far as the Ukrainian language is concerned, it has opened absolutely new horizons for me because it was indispensable while communicating with those people who speak only Ukrainian. I am very happy that I had the chance to master this language and also to learn more about the Ukrainian culture, especially the spiritual one.
I really love the Ukrainian icon, especially of the so-called golden period, 14th-17th centuries. I think this is a great contribution to the spiritual heritage of Christianity. We need to preserve the icon, this rich heritage. This is great that there are young artists who appreciate and continue to paint icons following the tradition. I am favorably impressed by the attitude of the believers towards icons, with faith and prayer.
What do you personally like about Ukrainians and their culture?
Their openness and tolerance. This is their dominant feature. And personally I am impressed with their ability to appreciate friendship. It is immensely difficult to find it, but when you have found it, be sure this is for good.
What would you like to wish the readers of The Parish Newspaper and all people of good will in Ukraine?
I would like to wish God's blessing to all Catholics. I am convinced they will be faithful to God, the Catholic Church and the Pope, like their parents and grandparents. Many Ukrainians suffered for this faithfulness, and they left a great heritage for the coming generations. I wish all Catholics to lead a Christian life, actively participate in the social life of the country, and
to be open to meeting and dialogue with the representatives of other confessions and religions. I think Ukraine's future is in this; its destiny is to become an ecumenical laboratory. I wish God's blessing to all the readers of the newspaper, to their families, and to all inhabitants of your country through the intercession of Holy Mary, who is often called “The Protectress” here. Let Holy Mary protect Ukraine and plead for God's grace for all people of good will.
Before my departure, I received numerous letters and greetings from the faithful, and not only. To my great regret, I physically cannot reply to everybody. Therefore, through your newspaper I would like to thank everybody for the sincere and warm-hearted words. I would like to reassure you that you will always be in my prayers.
Thank you for the discussion.
Interviewers Nadia POPACH and Iryna KUDRIAVTSEVA
Kyiv, March 2004