The 52-year-old Italian archbishop leading the Catholic community of Moscow says that he does not feel like a stranger in Russia, because he has Christ. And without Christ, he would feel like a stranger even to himself.
During a brief stay in Rome to take part in the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of the Diocese of the Mother of God in Moscow, spoke with ZENIT about Christian unity.
Today begins the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
ZENIT: What does it mean for an Italian to lead the most important diocese of the largest Orthodox country?
Archbishop Pezzi: For me it was to accept humbly Pope Benedict XVI’s request. I have learned in my life that in answering yes to God, one never makes a mistake. In this connection, the circumstances of life change, but the important thing is to answer yes to Christ when he calls. Russia is truly a great country and Orthodox Christianity is in fact the most widespread religion. For me, Italian by origin, by history, it was first of all a humble openness to God’s Mystery. When I was appointed Catholic bishop of Moscow, a Catholic youth asked me if I didn’t feel foreign as an Italian and a Catholic in Moscow. And I answered him that with Jesus Christ I didn’t feel like a foreigner, and that without Christ I would be a stranger also to myself. Over these years I have tried not to forget this truth.
ZENIT: Post-Communist Russia is a receptacle of contradictions. Among the most desolating realities are corruption, alcoholism, and especially the demographic collapse. By way of contrast, we see a religious rebirth after years of Communist persecution. In your pastoral experience, do you see this too?
Archbishop Pezzi: The religious rebirth is undoubtedly a characteristic of post-Communist Russia. I would say that it is manifested above all as the ultimate question about the meaning of life and death. It is a question to give meaning to going to work, to be committed to studying. This profound question of meaning concerns relations that are created, making a family, generating children. In sum, it concerns the whole of his destiny, which a man cannot elude. I will permit myself to say that above all I am astounded — in the persons I meet, especially in young people — by the fact that no situation can eliminate the dimension of expectation, of promise that every human life is.
ZENIT: In your daily pastoral work, how do you handle the dialogue with the Orthodox?
Archbishop Pezzi: It’s not possible to be far from the dialogue with Orthodox Christianity. It is present in my prayer, in my daily offering, in my mission, in meetings with people. Of course, this doesn’t mean talking about this alone, acting for this alone, but it is always present in my heart. Then, of course, there are the beautiful opportunities of meetings with Orthodox bishops, priests and laity. I must say that witness, which dominates these meetings, is always in the background. Witnessing is the greatest strength of the faithful Christian: an enthusiastic, happy and grateful man for his faith becomes, God willing, a factor of conversion to Christ.
ZENIT: In the agenda of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI reserves a first place for ecumenism. In your opinion, what results have there been in the Orthodox realm?
Archbishop Pezzi: I think his passion for unity is one of the most moving traits of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate. It has touched me personally since the beginning. And I recall with particular emotion the celebration of Vespers during the 2008 Synod of Bishops, together with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, in which the Pope asked: “But if we have the same Father, why can’t we be brothers?” In the Russian Orthodox realm, this Pope’s passion for Christ is touching and particularly considered. Suffice it to recall some of the messages that the Pope and Patriarch Kyril have exchanged over these last years.
ZENIT: The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is opening. How will you live these days?
Archbishop Pezzi: I’m in Rome only for a few days because I was invited by Cardinal Robert Sarah to take part in the works of the plenary of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum. In Russia we have several initiatives during this week, precisely to stress the importance of the prayer for Christian unity. I think the fundamental idea of this year was singled out well recently by Cardinal Koch, when he spoke of ecumenism, the unity of Christians not as an illusion but as a promise, for which Christ prayed in the last moments of his earthly life, in his last meeting with his own, before he was seized and put on the Cross. Because of this, we should also ask for the gift of unity. I will participate personally in two moments of prayer, to which other Christian brothers will be united on Monday the 21st at Moscow and on Thursday the 24th at Saint Petersburg. As a friend of mine said to me in these days, quoting the words of a great spiritual Father: “great works are done on the knees.” Thanks to which you also can work and offer for Christian unity.[Translation by ZENIT]