On Thursday, September 15, 2022, during his apostolic journey to Kazakhstan, Pope Francis met with 19 Jesuits working in the Russian Region of the Society of Jesus. The appointment was set for 9 a.m. at the apostolic nunciature, but the pope showed up early at 8.45 a.m. In the hall, where chairs were placed in a circle, the regional superior, Fr. Bogusław Steczek, presented the activities of the Jesuits in these words:
“Holy Father, we are your confreres of the Russian Region of the Society of Jesus. We work in three countries: Russia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. There are about 30 of us from 11 countries. In Belarus we live where the Society survived its suppression in the 18th century. These Jesuits made a great contribution to the revival of the Society in 1814. We work in the city of Vitebsk, where we have a parish. The bishop recently consecrated a church dedicated to Saint Ignatius. In Russia we are in Moscow, where we have an Institute of Higher Formation named after St. Thomas. We also publish a Russian edition of La Civiltà Cattolica. The superior and director of the Institute is also the secretary general of the Catholic Bishops Conference in Russia.
We are engaged in pastoral work in Moscow, but also outside the city, even in a parish that is 1,500 km away. We also work in Kirov, which is 1,000 km away, toward the Urals. Recently, two Jesuits, one from Chile and one from Poland, reached the major seminary in St. Petersburg. In Siberia we are in Novosibirsk, where the bishop is our confrere, Joseph Wert, appointed 31 years ago by John Paul II as bishop of all Siberia. We also have a cultural and spiritual center there, which we have baptized “Inigo.” Since 1993 we have been responsible for a special pre-seminary program to prepare candidates for the major seminary in Saint Petersburg.
We are also in Tomsk, a university city, where we have a very dynamic and lively parish and a Catholic school, the only one in all of Russia. We have also accepted a parish in Novokuznietsk, where we work both with Latin Catholics and Greek Catholics.
We also work in Kyrgyzstan. The apostolic administrator is Fr. Anthony Corcoran. He would like to build a new cathedral close to the center of the city, and that is why he has brought the first stone – which weighs 30 kg – here for you to bless. In the capital, Bishkek, we are responsible for pastoral work, and also for Caritas. We help, in particular, the poor and children, without distinction of religion. We also work in the south of the country, in Djalal-Abad and in Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan.
I think I have enumerated all our activities. In short, we are working on geographical, cultural and religious frontiers. Now, in order to go forward with courage, we ask your apostolic blessing.”
The pope then introduces the conversation.
Thank you very much for visiting me. By now these meetings with the Jesuits are a habit during my travels. Ask questions and even make comments as you wish. Let us make the most of our time together!
Holy Father, how are you? How do you feel? How is your health?
My health is fine. I have the leg problem that slows me down, but my health in general is fine: physical health, and… mental health too!
How do you see the geopolitical situation we are experiencing?
There is a war going on and I think it is a mistake to think that this is a cowboy movie where there are good guys and bad guys. It is also a mistake to think that this is a war between Russia and Ukraine and no more. No, this is a world war.
But, in your opinion, what are the causes of what we are experiencing?
The victim of this conflict is Ukraine. I intend to reflect on why this war was not avoided. War is like a marriage, in a way. To understand it, one has to investigate the dynamics that developed the conflict. There are international factors that contributed to provoking the war. I have already mentioned that a head of state, in December last year, came to tell me that he was very concerned because NATO had gone barking at the gates of Russia without understanding that the Russians are imperial and fear border insecurity. He expressed fear that this would provoke a war, and this broke out two months later.
So, one cannot be simplistic in reasoning about the causes of the conflict. I see imperialisms in conflict. And, when they feel threatened and in decline, the imperialisms react, thinking that the solution is to unleash a war to make up for it, and also to sell and test weapons. Some say, for example, that the Spanish Civil War was started to prepare for World War II. I do not know if that was really the case, but it could have been. I do not doubt, however, that we are already living through World War III. We have seen three in a century: one between 1914 and 1918, one between 1939 and 1945, and now we are living through this one.
Since February we have been striving to free hearts from hatred. For us this is a priority pastoral commitment. We tell people that to hate anyone is not Christian. But division is a burden we carry. Every day we pray the rosary for peace.
That is what needs to be done: to free hearts from hatred. From the first day of the war until yesterday I spoke constantly about this conflict, referring to the suffering of Ukraine. On the day of the country’s independence, there was the flag in Saint Peter’s Square, and I myself spoke about it, obviously. After speaking about Ukraine, I thought of saying a word addressed to the suffering of the two peoples, the Ukrainian and the Russian. Because in wars it is the people who suffer. It is the poor people who pay, as always. And this generates hatred. Those who make war forget humanity and do not look at the real life of people, but put partisan interests and power ahead of everything. The ordinary people in every conflict are the real victims, the ones who pay for the follies of war with their own skin. I also referred to that girl who had been killed in an explosion. At this point people forgot everything I had said up to then and only paid attention to that reference. I understand people’s reactions, because they are suffering a lot.
I recall that the day after the start of the war I went to the Russian Embassy. It was an unusual gesture; the pope never goes to an embassy. He receives the ambassadors personally only when they present their credentials, and then at the end of their mission on a farewell visit. I told the ambassador that I would like to speak with President Putin, provided he left me a small window for dialogue.
I also received the Ukrainian ambassador and spoke twice with President Zelensky on the telephone. I sent Cardinals Czerny and Krajewski to Ukraine to affirm the solidarity of the pope. Archbishop Gallagher, the Secretary for Relations with States, also made an official visit. The Holy See’s presence in Ukraine has the value of bringing help and support. It is a way of expressing a presence. I too had in mind to go. It seems to me that God’s will is not for me to go at this precise moment; we will see later, however.
Some Ukrainian envoys have come to me. Among them the vice-rector of the Catholic University of Ukraine, accompanied by the adviser to the president for religious questions, an evangelical. We spoke, we discussed. A military chief in charge of the exchange of prisoners also came, again with President Zelensky’s religious adviser. This time they brought me a list of more than 300 prisoners. They asked me to do something to make an exchange. I immediately called the Russian ambassador to see if something could be done, if an exchange of prisoners could be speeded up.
When a Ukrainian Catholic bishop came to visit, I gave him a package with my statements on the subject. I called the invasion of Ukraine an unacceptable, repugnant, senseless, barbaric, sacrilegious aggression… Read all the statements! The Press Room has collected them. Now, I would like to tell you that I am not interested in your defending the pope, but that the people feel caressed by you, the pope’s brothers. The pope does not get angry if he is misunderstood, because I know well the suffering behind it.
Holy Father, I am convinced that you will play a role if and when there is peace. And it will be a strong contribution. Please listen. We are a group of Jesuits from different countries. What steps do you as a Jesuit advise us to take? What do you ask of us? What can we do?
For me the thing to do is to show closeness. This is the key word: be close, help people who suffer. People must feel the closeness of their bishop, their parish priest, the Church. This is God’s style. We read it in Deuteronomy: “What great nation has gods so close to it, as the Lord our God is close to us whenever we call upon him?” God’s style is closeness.
As provincial of Argentina you lived under a dictatorship. What was your experience there?
Dictatorial governments are cruel. There is always cruelty in dictatorship. In Argentina they took people, put them on a plane and then threw them into the sea. How many politicians have I known who have been in prison and tortured! In these situations one loses rights, but also human sensitivity. I felt it at the time. Many times I heard good Catholics say: “These communists deserve it! They asked for it!” It is terrible when political conviction trumps religious values. In Argentina it was the mothers who made a movement to fight against the dictatorship and look for their children. It was the mothers who were brave in Argentina.
A question and a request: What is in your heart? What is in your particular prayer? The request is for the young men in the seminary: a piece of advice, a message….
I’ll start with the second one. My request for seminarians: be normal, be normal guys. One of the problems in some seminaries is that you do not get normal people. I say to the seminarians: be normal also in prayer. Pray like a son to his father. It is normality that means seriousness. You ask me what I carry in my heart and prayer? The prayer that comes naturally to me is always the invocation: “Look at your people, Lord!” Nothing else comes to me. It really is a very simple thing. Intercession is knocking at the heart of the Lord. It is the prayer of intercession. And let us not forget that in prayer one needs parrhesia, clarity, courage. The model is that of Abraham, when he prays, “Let not my Lord be angry if…” and then he makes his request in an insistent way. One has to pray pulseando with God, as we say in Spanish. It is a courageous prayer, face to face, It is not so much seeking consolation, which must be sought, yes. But above all: ask, ask, ask… We think that parrhesia is only a virtue of action, but no, it is also a virtue of prayer.
If you look at the situation of the Society of Jesus, what gives you consolation, and what makes you feel disquiet?
Recently, I attended a meeting at the General Curia with Jesuit brothers from all over the world. There were about forty of them. Listening to them really gave me consolation. It gives me consolation when a Jesuit prays and trusts in the Lord. I believe that the level of prayer and trust in the Society is good in this regard. On the other hand it does not give me consolation when I see a Jesuit who is more “specialist” in this or that subject rather than being a Jesuit. There is one thing prior to specialization: it is the affective belonging to the Society.
I just want to add, Holy Father, among the consolations of this year, that a Russian was ordained a priest and we have a Russian novice, and two months ago two Jesuits arrived in Kyrgyzstan from Vietnam, a professor of sociology and a scholastic in formation. We have a Jesuit brother who lives there in Kyrgyzstan and works with the apostolic administrator, Fr. Corcoran. Kyrgyzstan is a very small Church. All the Catholics could fit inside this room! A father of a family advised me to tell you that there are Catholics also in Kyrgyzstan. For us the support of the Holy See is very important, and therefore the support of the nunciature is also important.
It is true: the nunciature is the longa manus of the Holy See to help the local Churches, and especially the smaller ones. But now it is my turn to ask you a question: How do you, from the periphery, see the Vatican?
Sometimes it is so far away that we forget! Instead, being such a small group, it is very important for us to belong to the universal Church. This way the people realize that we are not a very small sect, but part of the universal Church. Sometimes it hurts if one has the impression that the representatives of the Church are not very concerned about the life of the Church in a small country. At times even governments ask why the Church is not very concerned with our situation.
You’re right! So it is important in this situation to shout, to be heard! Make yourselves heard! The Church at the center is busy with so many daily things and may be tempted to forget or not pay adequate attention. But if the baby cries and cries and cries, eventually the mother gives the child milk! The Church needs all voices to be heard, to be expressed, and to do so even in dialect!
Our Orthodox brothers have asked me to tell the pope that they are very grateful to you because you are with the simple and needy people. We collaborate with our Orthodox brothers to help the disabled. They asked me to tell you that they are very grateful.
I am very grateful to them. I think there is a gradual movement of rapprochement between Catholics and Orthodox. And I think this is very important. We must work together, pray for each other, overcome suspicions. Just yesterday, at the Congress of Religious Leaders, I received four Russian Orthodox bishops. I see that there is still concern about Uniatism. But I replied that the word is already forgotten. They are afraid that we will become invasive like a mother-in-law, that Uniatism will return. They have this ghost. You have to reassure them, and that helps.
Father, what did you feel when they chose you as pope?
That by accepting, I have fulfilled my fourth vow of obedience.
The meeting draws to a close. The superior of the region asked the pope to bless the large stone that will be the first for the construction of the cathedral in Kyrgyzstan. It contains another stone which came from Capernaum. The church will be dedicated to the Good Shepherd. Francis touches it and blesses it. Then the superior presents some other small gifts, saying that they are small and poor. The pope comments:
Maintain poverty! When there is no poverty, all evil enters! Poverty must be safeguarded.
He was then given an album of photos of the works of the Society in the Region. Then a straw angel typical of Belarus, and finally a headdress from Kyrgyzstan. After a Hail Mary and the blessing, a group photo was taken. Before leaving, the pope greeted the Jesuits present one by one.
Antonio Spadaro SJ is the Editor-in-Chief, La Civiltà Cattolica.
Reproduced with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica.