When 58-year-old Archbishop Pietro Parolin, then apostolic nuncio to Venezuela, was summoned to Rome by Pope Francis to become the new Vatican Secretary of State in 2013, he became the youngest person to hold that position and first to come directly from a diplomatic mission since Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII.
Parolin, now a cardinal, is a man of large experience and accomplishments. During his service in Mexico, he helped re-establish diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Mexico’s then-secularist government after 130 years. Parolin has for years been working to restore Vatican-China relations, campaigned for the rights of Catholics in Vietnam, and peace in drug-war-torn Mexico.
Last year, Venezuela’s government appointed him to be the mediator between itself and the opposition. His résumé also includes work in Nigeria’s nunciature and as country director for four European nations in the Secretariat of State. People who know Parolin personally also say that he is a holy priest devoted to his flock, regardless of its location.
This seasoned Church diplomat will be visiting Belarus over the next few days (March 12-15). Parolin will meet with both the government and the Catholic and Orthodox hierarchies.
Belarus became an independent state for the first time after the 1991 collapse of the USSR. The Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Orthodox Russian Empire fought over it. During World War II, Red Army tanks overran Polish Belarus and incorporated into the USSR, thus subjugating all of Belarus to Moscow. Afterwards, Belarusian society was subject to brutal forced atheism. Parishes were closed, and Belarusian priests were sent to gulags.
Only now are Belarusian Christians leaving the catacombs. Currently, about 15 percent of the population is Catholic (a quarter of whom are ethnic Poles) and half is Orthodox. Apart from small Jewish and Muslim populations, the rest of Belarus is atheist.
Belarusian Catholics, however, are facing new struggles. Since 1994, Alexander Lukashenka, re-elected in rigged elections, has ruled the country autocratically. Lukashenka looks towards Russia rather than the West. He and Putin are working to build a monetary union. Lukashenka’s Belarus is a living museum of Soviet communism; it is the last European country with capital punishment, while dissident intellectuals, journalists and the leaders of the country’s Polish minority are jailed.
Nonetheless, there has been a revival of Belarusian Catholicism. Since 1991, the number of parishes has climbed from 250 to over 450. Among European countries, in recent years only Ukraine and Romania have seen a larger growth in the number of Catholic ordinations. Since 1989, the number of priests there has grown six-fold. Last fall, Belarus’ first Catholic university, the St. John Paul II Theological Academy, opened.
This rebirth is fragile, however. While vocations are growing, they are insufficient to meet the needs of Belarus’ Catholics. With historical and cultural ties to Belarus, neighboring Poland continues to export priests to Belarus as Polish ordinations continue to outpace priest deaths. More than a quarter of priests in Belarus are foreign; almost all are Poles.
In recent months, Lukashenka has publicly lambasted Polish priests, accusing them of meddling in politics. Their only “crime” was protesting against human rights abuses. In 2006-2007, there was a wave of expulsions of Polish priests. It’s not unreasonable to fear something similar now. If Polish priests are expelled from Belarus, it will greatly harm the country’s Church.
What should Cardinal Parolin do? During the pontificate of Benedict XVI, there has been a thaw in Belarus-Vatican relations. Benedict received Lukashenka in 2009. Since then, Lukashenka has invited both Benedict and Francis to Belarus. Despite his anti-Polish rhetoric, in recent speeches he has praised Catholicism’s role in nurturing Belarusian identity.
The Vatican may be tempted to tell Belarusian prelates to keep mum while working behind the scenes to try to increase their liberties, as Rome did in the 1960s and 1970s (i.e., prior to John Paul II) with its disastrous Ostpolitik.
Instead, Parolin should make a point of meeting with dissidents from organizations like Viasna or representatives of the Polish minority. Lukashenka realizes the importance of the visit of the Vatican’s number two to Belarus, which is an international pariah. Meeting with both Lukashenka and the opposition could help the latter, while preventing a conflict between Minsk and Rome, much as John Paul II did when he met with both Pinochet and Chilean dissidents in 1987.
Parolin should also make clear to Lukashenka that, since he has noted the ties between Belarusian identity and Catholicism, Belarusian Catholicism grew thanks to Polish influence. And so Polish priests and Catholicism are inextricably linked.
Next, Parolin should take advantage of Lukashenka’s desire for a papal visit. He should encourage Francis to visit, if some preconditions are met. Before John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, he persuaded Fidel Castro first to free Cuban political prisoners as a conditio sine qua non of the visit (unfortunately, many were imprisoned again shortly after). Both Lukashenka and Castro are pragmatic atheists who know that papal visits can strengthen their countries’ international reputations.
Parolin could also ask Francis to name Minsk’s Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz a cardinal. John Paul II, the first Eastern Europe pope, made Kondrusiewicz’s predecessor Kazimierz Świątek the first Belarusian cardinal. Kondrusiewicz would be a voice of Catholics harassed by authoritarian regimes in the College of Cardinals.
Pope Francis has named several cardinals “from the peripheries,” but not, so far, from conflict zones – rather from countries with microscopic Catholic populations like Myanmar or Tonga. From Belarus to Nigeria and Ukraine to Syria, the Church today faces persecution. Such nations need Church leaders with a greater visibility.
Belarus is a suffering country forgotten by time. In the visit of Cardinal Parolin, the closest collaborator of the “pope of the peripheries,” there is an opportunity to bolster the weak yet growing Belarusian Church. Will boldness triumph over political correctness?