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FEATURE: Giuseppe Conte to ZENIT: Cardinal Silvestrini, a Witness of Diplomacy, Pastoral Care & Education

‘I Had Opportunity to Know Him Personally’ and Can Attest, Shares Italian Prime Minister at Italian Embassy to Holy See’s Private Event to Recall the 1975 Helsinki Accords

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Cardinal Achille Silvestrini left an indellible mark on history as skilled diplomat, pastor, and educator.

Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, told this to ZENIT when its Senior Vatican Correspondent asked him about his personal memories with the cardinal.

Conte was speaking at the private event, titled «Forty-five years after the Helsinki Accords; Cardinal Silvestrini and the Vatican Östpolitik,» yesterday, Sept. 14, 2020 at 9:30 am. Organized by Italian Ambassador to the Holy See, Ambassador Pietro Sebastiani, the event took place outdoors, in the cloister of Palazzo Borromeo, in full compliance with anti-Covid 19 rules and provisions.

The Italian Prime Minister and Cardinal Parolin (whose interview with ZENIT English and comments to Italian press were published yesterday), gave the two keynote speeches, and were introduced by a reflection of Ambassador Sebastiani, which can be read below.

Cardinal Achille Silvestrini was close collaborator of Vatican Secretaries of State, Cardinals Domenico Tardini and Amleto Giovanni Cicognani. The great Vatican diplomat and Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches passed away at the age of 95 on Aug. 29, 2020.

Pope Francis, having mourned him as «an able diplomat» and «faithful pastor,» wrote: «I recall with a grateful spirit the collaboration he gave for so many decades to the Holy See, at the service of a good seven Pontiffs.»

Along with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Silvestrini marked the season of Ostpolitik for dialogue with the Communist Bloc, so much so that he became Pope St. John Paul II’s Foreign Minister until the culmination of a journey that found its fulfillment in the dissolution of eastern regimes.

It was, in fact, Cardinal Silvestrini, who managed to include, in the 1975 Helsinki Accords, the point which called for religious freedom.

With the aim to reduce tension between the East and West, thirty-five European countries, along with the United States and Canada, participated in the monumental Helsinki Accords, referring to the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe held in Helsinki, Finland, between July 30 and August 1, 1975, which sources call, a significant step toward reducing Cold War tensions.

Silvestrini also had an extraordinary attention to young people with the instrument of the foundation of Villa Nazareth, conceived in 1945 by Cardinal Tardini, for welcoming poor and deserving students to continue their studies, some of whom would rise to very prominent positions, which has welcomed some very well known individuals, who still pay the institute homage.

ZENIT asked the Prime Minister, who volunteered in his youth at the institute, about his memories of the late Cardinal being remembered yesterday.

«Cardinal Silvestrini managed to combine great and rare gifts,» Giuseppe Conte said.

Not only «was he a diplomatic expert, who carried out a great diplomatic activity,» but he «carried out a great pastoral commitment.»

«A great educator of young people,» he underscored, «Cardinal Silvestrini was also an intellectual, who was able to interpret, by participating, in the greatest political, social and cultural events of the Italy of its time.»

«I had the opportunity to meet him personally and I can say that I personally witnessed these qualities,» he told ZENIT.

Conte, from his time at «Villa Nazareth,» recalled the late cardinal’s «encouraging smile, his ‘blessing’ gaze, and the profound respect that he has always had for the person, even the humblest, even the most modest and small.»

«Cardinal Achille Silvestrini with his exceptional figure as a religious and diplomat, in over seventy years of tireless and unfailing collaboration with the great Popes of this long span of history,» he told those present «has indelibly marked the most important events in the socio-political history of recent times, leaving its unmistakable mark of profound humanity, of extraordinary culture, of peculiar diplomatic ability, of unshakable religious faith.»

Noting the cardinal was an «advocate of dialogue with the regimes of the East,» and «was also criticized for this,» Conte remembered how his efforts and journey helped achieve an important milestone in affirming religious freedom.

Silvestrini’s diplomacy, he said, «not only proved useful in protecting forms of dissent» referring to Eastern Europe, but also, he continued, «laid the foundations for the ‘disruptive’ diplomatic activity of Wojtyla’s pontificate.»

ZENIT has obtained the full remarks of Prime Minister Conte, and has provided a working unofficial translation below. We also are delighted to share our working translation of the introduction of Italian Ambassador to the Holy See, Pietro Sebastiani:


Giuseppe Conte’s Intervention at the Conference

“45 Years after the Helsinki Accords: Cardinal Silvestrini and the Vatican’s Ostpolitik”

September 14, 2020


Most Reverend Eminences,

Mister Ambassador,

Distinguished Representatives of the Diplomatic Corps,

Distinguished Speakers,

All Authorities,

Kind Guests,

I am particularly happy for this invitation, which also constitutes for me the way to pay tribute to the figure of Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, in whom rare gifts merged, of great diplomat, of passionate educator, of man of the Church, of crystalline faith, of scholar of outstanding intellectual gifts, which contributed to make him a fine interpreter of his time, rather, I say it between quotation marks, of the “new times.”

His “talents” were truly many, which combined together placed him at the center of many events of the life of the Church, of international geopolitics, <and> of political, social and cultural events of our country.

In the various political and social events encountered by him in his life span, in particular in the second half of the Twentieth Century, he left the recognizable imprint of a personality of international stature, after having experienced also, as thoughtful and sensitive student and seminarian, the tragedy of the War and the hope of the Liberation.

In the wake of the illustrious tradition of apostolic diplomacy, <and> increasingly prestigious assignments and investitures, Cardinal Silvestrini lavished admirable moral and intellectual energies in the elaboration of projects and proposals that moved from a profound knowledge of the reasons for the international political crises of the last century, in order to propose, then, a peaceful overcoming, not with abstract formulas, but on the basis of solutions seen and articulated, taking ample recourse to the virtue of discernment.

Under this aspect, I will push myself to attribute to Cardinal Silvestrini the merit of having contributed to offer, in our contemporary age, a solid basis of legitimation to the diplomatic service, otherwise perceived as residual inheritance of the temporal magisterium of the Church — in reality, an essential instrument at the service of peace, of universal rights, <and> of the pursuit of the common good.

Enlightened guide of the Holy See’s diplomatic delegations, he took part every now and then in congresses, conventions, <and> consultations, promoted by the major world powers, for the examination and comparison ordered to the burning problems of our time, such as the control of the proliferation of nuclear arms.

Certainly the negotiations that led to the subscription at Helsinki of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe — which were punctually reconstructed by His Eminence Parolin –, represented a particularly fruitful moment, in which the role of Cardinal Silvestrini was certainly significant, with particular reference to the terms of peace and of human rights, and I also recall Principle 7 of the Helsinki Final Act, absolutely of key importance: The participant States recognize the universal meaning of the rights of man  and of the fundamental liberties, whose respect is an essential factor of peace, of justice and of the wellbeing necessary to ensure the development of friendly relations and cooperation between them, as between all the States.

It is necessary to contextualize all this in times of rigid oppositions, daughters of the Cold War, and it was not at all obvious. For his intense commitment in favour of dialogue with Communist governments and the protection of the Catholic presence in the countries of the East — and this was also recalled –, Silvestrini was criticized and even badly understood, sometimes also by exponents of the ecclesiastical hierarchies themselves of Eastern Europe. I do not exclude that in regard to these diffident positions we weighed ancient doctrinal legacies, considering also the long, tormented doctrinal development that the principle of religious liberty had.

I recall here the suffered elaboration of the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae, which was approved after long gestation just before the closing of Vatican Council II, the day before the closing.

This Document, which benefitted from the theoretic contribution, we must recall it here, of John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit who taught at Woodstock College in Maryland, contributed to the reformulation of the State-Church relationship, to the affirmation of a new concept of secularism open to the principle of religious liberty, founded on the primacy of the dignity of the human person.

In his action as diplomat, Silvestrini developed this teaching coherently, abandoning the pretext of affirming the primacy of the ultimate truth, to be entrusted to the humble but fundamental virtue of dialogue.

With the look of hindsight, which history alone can offer, we can acknowledge today that this intense and convinced diplomatic activity not only revealed itself useful to protect the forms of dissent in countries of the “Soviet Bloc,” but also laid the basis for that disruptive action, which would then be realized in Wojtyla’s pontificate.

In the human, and I would also say metaphysic, horizon, so to speak, of Cardinal Silvestrini, the North Star of universal peace always shone, fixed.

He was a man of peace, for whom the inestimable value of the Pax Christi could not remain in the empyrean of theoretical aspirations, but could – rather, must — by translated and updated in rules of conduct and guidelines for all men, in the awareness of the profound existing historical, political <and> anthropological bond between peace and justice.

A peace that is not ephemeral, fragile, but which can be explained in its most authentic and lasting dimension, must find its foundation in justice. In this perspective, his personality as pastor and attentive diplomat to the signs of the times was much influenced by the teaching of John XXIII and Paul VI, enclosed in extraordinary and very current documents. I think in particular of two great encyclicals, Pacem in Terris and Populorum Progressio in which a declention is revived made up of principles that must regulate international relations.

One reads in a point of the encyclical Pacem in Terris: “Political communities have the right to existence, to their development, to ideal means to implement it: to be the first architects in the implementation of the same, as a consequence and, simultaneously, the political communities themselves also have the duty to respect each one of those rights and, hence, to avoid actions that constitute violence.”

In the encyclical Populorum Progressio those principles of justice, in harmony with the events of the time, are discussed and deepened further: economic, social and cultural inequalities especially endanger peace, they are so evident and odious as to cause tensions and disorders. I also quote here a passage that I consider particularly significant: “”Peace is not reduced to the absence of war, fruit of the ever precarious balance of forces. It is built day by day, in the pursuit of order willed by God, which implies a more perfect justice among men.” And, for Populorum Progression, development is the new name of peace.

And behold, how the strength of a shared and assimilated pontifical magisterium, the exemplary and fruitful commitment of Cardinal Silvestrini in all the international occasions in which this peace, founded on justice, should be affirmed in the confrontations of all the parties and cast the fecund seed for the future generations.

He worked with these sentiments and this impetus in all the occasions of crises, <such as> the Malvinas-Falklands, in the Conference on Disarmament in Europe (Stockholm 1984), in meetings and conferences in Lebanon and Syria (1986), for the solution of the persistent Middle East crisis.

Worthy of being reported here at least  — this is certainly not the venue for further reflection — is also his contribution, in the years in which he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, to the knowledge, assessment and preservation of the rich tradition, of the presence and role of the Churches of the East linked to Rome.

In regard specifically to Ostpolitik, H.E. Parolin has already reflected. His profound bond with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli had a great role; <Silvestrini> was one of his closest collaborators. He shared with him the fruitful but also difficult stage of dialogue with the countries of Eastern Europe, in order to ensure, in the difficult context in which the protagonists acted, areas and margins of liberty to the “Silent Church.”

I recall Silvestrini’s very beautiful Preface to “The Martyrdom of Patience,” the splendid book of Casaroli’s Memoirs, who, in recalling, with the force of witness, the action of Vatican diplomacy in confrontations with the Communist regimes of the Soviet Bloc, offers us the extraordinary fresco of one of the most dramatic pages of the Twentieth Century.

And I believe that one can calmly preach of Silvestrini what he preaches in this Preface of Casaroli: his – their – diplomatic activity was nourished by the theological awareness that the mysterious light that illumines men’s conscience cannot be extinguished, not even by the most merciless institutions. This theology of grace led him to see men around him, not enemies.”

From the 2020 Observatory of “Europe of 27,” it is interesting to highlight how in these forty years these countries, which were then the object of specific attention at the Vatican Secretariat of State, have had very different destinies.

Many of these countries (a good eight) in 2004 entered to form part with full rights, of the European Union.  Two others (Bulgaria and Rumania) entered in 2007 and one (Croatia) in 2013. Then there are some (I think of Byelorussia, Ukraine and Moldova) that form part of the so-called “Eastern Partnership” in the framework of the European policy of neighbourhood. Finally there are five other countries of former Yugoslavia (Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo), to which Albania is added, which also aspire to   be part of the “European Family.”

It is a very complex and delicate process. I believe that this course of European integration will be absolutely completed because, if this objective fails, not only will we risk seeing these partners turn their gaze from Europe to “old allies,” such as the Russian Federation, historical “player” in the area, as Turkey, or other important international actors interested in reinforcing their own presence in the Balkan Peninsula, such as China and the Gulf countries.

I believe that at stake here is the credibility of European foreign policy. And that which sometimes is also raised cannot constitute an obstacle, namely, the evident complexity and at times even muddle of the decisional processes of European Institutions: we are experiencing that unanimity is often very difficult in a Europe of 27, but it is clear that we must intervene to simplify and make these decisional processes speedier and more efficient. And we can certainly take advantage of the already programmed “Conference on the Future of Europe” without, however, the problems becoming a justification to slow down the process of complete integration.

I believe that to understand and know in depth the activity of diplomat Silvestrini, another aspect must be illuminated, also for certain more preeminent aspects of his personality, which it is not out of place to describe as exceptional: that of educator.

What strikes one about Achille Silvestrini is his capacity to decline his vocation not only in the dress of expert diplomat but also in that of humble and silent servant, devoted to the spiritual care and the education of the youngest.

He lived an intense love for the Church, nourished by a solid and sure faith, which he radiated in his every activity. At the center of his attention and indispensable reference of his work was always, constantly, the evangelical dictate and the love of neighbour, united to the centrality of the person, created in the image and likeness of God.

The person is seen in his dignity always as end, but never as means, and to him inalienable rights correspond, inscribed ab origine in his nature.

Behold, he surely nourished himself from the fruitful sources of personalism; he was a great divulger, especially among young people, of the social thought of the Church: the vision of society and of the State, the relation between politics and economics, that particular way of understanding and seeing the common good, which so influenced the construction of the grandiose constitutional edifice of the Republic, were <all> at the heart of his reflection, innervated his preaching, nourished the dialogue that he cultivated constantly with all, especially with the youngest.

Young people were, in fact, the object of his most attentive and passionate pastoral care; precisely in virtue of his paternal dedication to the formation and to the future of youth, he lavished a good part of his energies in the authoritative leadership of “Villa Nazareth,” which — as recalled — was founded by Cardinal Domenico Tardini, in which he was a beacon of Christian learning and ethics for the very numerous young people that frequented that place and who thus had the unrepeatable opportunity to live in an environment to have their talents flower in an atmosphere of serene fraternal commitment and of youthful and illuminated sharing.

I myself am a personal witness — having engaged in volunteer activities immediately after graduating from “Villa Nazareth” — of his encouraging smile, his beneficent gaze, of the profound respect he always had for the person, also the humblest, the most modest and little.

In sum, one can certainly affirm in this connection that Cardinal Achille Silvestrini was an exceptional figure as religious and diplomat. In addition to some seventy years of tireless and indefatigable collaboration with the great Popes of this long span of history, he marked indelibly the most important events of the socio-political history of recent times, leaving his unmistakable imprint of profound humanity, of extraordinary culture, of peculiar diplomatic ability, <and> of unwavering religious faith.

Thank you.

[Unofficial working translation by ZENIT translator Virginia Forrester]


Ambassador Sebastiani’s Address to the Conference Entitled

“At 45 Years from the Helsinki Accords,

Cardinal Silvestrini and the Vatican’s Ostpolitik”

Palazzo Borromeo, Monday, September 14, at 9:30 am


Most Reverend Eminences and Excellencies,

Mister President of the Council

Dear Speakers, Colleagues, Friends,

Welcome to Palazzo Borromeo that, after the summer break, takes up its events today with this remembrance of Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, who died on August 29 of last year.

I greet his relatives here present and I renew my gratitude to the Secretary of State and to the President of the Council for their presence, which honours us.

We wished to hold this event to remember an extraordinary man of the Church and, may the Secretary of State allow me to quote him, “a man that, with the word and with example, taught us how the talents received must be made to fructify, in the service of others, especially of the weakest and most disadvantaged.”

His were an example and a teaching that certainly matured and were reflected in his priestly ministry.

For example, in his profound commitment among young people in “Villa Nazareth,” institution thought out in 1946 by Cardinal Tardini and from 1969, when Silvestrini encouraged a “Community” of former alumni and friends of Villa Nazareth from which then sprang, in 1986, the “Domenico Tardini Community” Foundation of which he would also become President.

However, no less important was his work carried out away from media clamour of close relationships as reliable friend of politicians of various extractions, from Andreotti to Craxi, from Andreatta to Ingrao, just to mention a few.

Silvestrini was an attentive negotiator in the long years that preceded the revision of the 1984 Concordat, which involved him personally.

I quote the memories of my predecessor of those years, Ambassador Pompei, of innate political sense, with the vocation, almost the taste to see the political aspect.

He was a very fine, competent and passionate diplomat, an unavoidable reference for many years in the Secretariat of State at the side of extraordinary personalities such as Tardini, Cicognani and Casaroli.

Above all, he was a witness and interpreter of those pioneer years in which the dialogue between the Vatican and the countries of the East took shape, always with a spirit and mind committed to the development of the inter-religious dialogue and of socio-political relations free of prejudices.

In fact, in 1972 he was appointed deputy delegate to the consultations.

Behold the reason for the title of today’s meeting, in preparation of the Conference on security and cooperation in Europe, and he took part at Helsinki and Geneva in all the phases of the Conference, the longest negotiation that diplomatic history remembers.

I quote Silvestrini himself. “I remember the emotion with which on March 7, 1973, we presented — in the ambit of principles that should regulate relations between States –, a proposal on religious liberty, recalling that in Europe’s history there was a common Christian culture.”

The Pontiff, Casaroli and Silvestrini, understood fully the value of a session in which Europe, one and Christian, met.

I got a proposal which was then taken up in Article 7 of the Declaration and which contributed a lot to overturn the ill-concealed Soviet design to use Helsinki to divide the West.

Those Soviets, said Raymond Aron at the time, “that refuse our liberties in their house in the name of their principles, but that claim for themselves in our house those liberties in the name of our principles.”

In my opinion, Helsinki represented plastically the Holy See’s consecration as every important and indispensable actor on the international scene.

The definitive confirmation of the Lateran Treaties had far from limited the space of the Holy See’s universal action but, on the contrary, they constituted the premises for its ultimate impetus and affirmation.

Concluding, the most significant teaching for me, which Father Achille left (as he wished to be called), this extraordinary actor and witness, we have seen, of key events of the last glimpse of the 900s, is that of not being discouraged, of committing oneself strenuously and stubbornly to improve oneself, to use fully and finely the instrument of the lapse of time, precious in diplomacy and in all political negotiations.

Always convinced that it is possible with small steps to reach the most ambitious objectives.

Gutta cavat lapidem.

Thank you.



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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': http://www.gracewing.co.uk/page219.html or https://www.amazon.com/Other-Francis-Everything-They-about/dp/0852449348/

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