“Even if somewhat wearied, perhaps secretly disappointed, Europe must never give up, it must rediscover the enthusiasm of its origins, certainly not the past perception of being the centre of the world, but having something beautiful and unique to offer to humanity.” With this message of “hope” addressed to all European peoples, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, President of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, opened today the CCEE Plenary Assembly in Minsk, capital of Belarus, ongoing until October 1st. The meeting is attended by 29 Presidents of European Bishops’ Conferences (including 7 cardinals), 9 delegated bishops and representatives of Holy See delegations: a total of 79 people representing 45 European Countries. The bishops will be discussing the theme of young people, (ahead of the upcoming Bishops’ Synod scheduled to take place in the fall of 2018), and the theme of Europe, notably Church mission and the contribution to the building of the European Common home.
“To all the citizens of this great land – whatever might be the role of each – we address ourselves with conviction and respect. The dream of this union as ‘family of peoples’ and ‘house of nations’ is always topical”, the Cardinal said. “It is not up to us to make calculations of an economic and commercial nature, but it is our duty to remind everyone that Europe is not a purely geographic complex, nor just a group of peoples, but it is a spiritual and ethical work; it is not an organogram, but a living body, a community of life and destiny.”
The highest political and religious authorities in the country gathered to listen to the words of the President of European bishops in the city’s ancient town hall: the Chief rabbi and the Grand Mufti of the city, and especially the Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus, Metropolitan Pavel of Minsk and Zaslavl, reflecting the importance that Belarus is giving to the meeting and the good ecumenical relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in the Country, linked to Moscow’s Patriarchate.
European bishops were welcomed by Metropolita Pavel, whom he invited for lunch in his home and then accompanied to visit the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Minsk. “It had never happened before”, Msgr. Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, Catholic archbishop of Minsk, told journalists during the press conference. “We are turning a new page in the history of the Church in Belarus”, he added. “It is a history of dialogue and of closer cooperation, especially between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, which is certainly the fruit of the historical meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Cuba”, he said. “Moreover, we are confronted with many challenges today, and we can only face the problems together”, added Kondrusiewicz.
Metropolitan Pavel addressed the theme of young people in Europe, which is one of the central themes of the Assembly. Young people – said the Orthodox Metropolitan – “live in a virtual reality that keeps them out of reality”, they are increasingly struggling to participate in the life of the Church and society. “We also feel a responsibility towards young people and their future. We would be grateful if you shared with us the results of your experience and your thoughts.”
The Plenary Assembly is being held in Belarus for the first time in CCEE’s history; in this land that in the course of history experienced war, concentration camps and persecution. Today the Catholic Church in the Country has returned to live the faith with renewed vitality, despite various problems. In the morning, the President of the Republic of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, received the presidents of Bishops’ Conferences in a private meeting. Cardinal Bagnasco addressed him with the following words: “In this atmosphere of good collaboration, we are sure that issues about residency permits for foreign priests, and about the Church’s assets, both vital for the evangelical mission, can be resolved through the hard-working and timely dialogue of everyone.”
But Minsk today looks at the future, and there is great anticipation for a visit of Pope Francis in this land. “No Pope has ever been here”, said Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, and “Belarus is the second country in the former Soviet Union with the highest number of Roman Catholics after Lithuania. We look forward to the Pope’s visit. Our people are dreaming of it.” President Lukashenko invited Pope Francis. John Paul II could not come and even Pope Benedict XVI did not have this possibility. Many people wish that the city of Minsk may be the venue of a second meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill after the one in Cuba. President Lukashenko, speaking to the bishops, remarked: “I think their meeting here in Minsk should be taken into consideration. In fact this is an ideal place, where the problems of the West and of the East, of the North and the South can be jointly discussed.” Answering a question of local journalists regarding this possibility, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, CCEE President, replied: “A new meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill is certainly hoped for and desired by all. We hope it will take place here in Minsk. It is a great desire of this Country and of its President.”