The New Pope and Eastern Europe

For a certain amount of time, a new Pope becomes a kind of white screen on which we project our hopes and anxieties with great abundance. This phenomenon seems more vivid now, not the least because our newly elected Pope Francis’ personal track record is fairly unknown and limited to a specific geographical area. Moreover, a new Pope will be confronted with all kinds of wish lists, e.g. of a more political nature. What is being said in the Eastern parts of Europe?
To the Pope nicely applies this classical definition of man: “homo quodammodo omnia” – in a peculiar way man is everything. Indeed, the Pope needs to be many things in the same time. And if we are to believe Metropolitan Hilarion, the second in command at the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, Pope Francis seems the right man for the job: he could be anything. Just the other day, on Russian state television, Hilarion commented on the Jesuit upbringing of Jorge Mario Bergoglio: “a Jesuit is someone who on the outside is one person, but inside someone else, says one thing, but means something else”. In the same time, he reckoned that Pope Francis would take into account the well-being of all of the Roman Catholic Church. Metropolitan Hilarion referred to “the expansion of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church”, which is a Byzantine Church united with Rome. “If the Pope were to support” it, “this would lead to no good”.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholics, however, are rather happy with their new Pope. On the RISU news website, the present church leader Great-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk remembered how he was part of the Argentine bishop’s conference (2009-2011) and came to know Pope Francis quite well. But there is a more intriguing connection between the new Pope and Ukraine, Shevchuk added. At secondary school, Jorge Mario Bergoglio had the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Salesian Father Stepan Chmil as one of his teachers. The young Jorge would attend early morning liturgy of Father Chmil and thus got acquainted with the Byzantine traditions of the Greek Catholic Church.

Hopes and Fears
While during the last few years, in Poland, anxiety is rising about the Church’s future, hopes are high. Burdened by declining church attendance, secularisation and alienation among the younger generations, leading Catholics and commentators are hoping for a breath of fresh air from the Vatican. In the words of Zbigniew Nosowski, editor-in-chief of the Catholic monthly Wiez: “Benedict XVI’s thinking was shaped by the problems of the 20th century. But now we need a pope who will help us face the rapidly emerging problems of the 21st century.”
Many invitations were extended to the new Pope. Latvian President Andris Berzins, who participated in the inauguration of Pope Francis on 19 March, invited him for a visit during the 2015 World Youth Days, which Latvia hopes to organise. Neighbouring President Alexander Lukashenka, who could not come to Rome, because he is on a European Union blacklist, invited the Pontiff to come and visit the “friendly Belarusian land”. In Lukashenka’s case, this seems an empty gesture. After all, Pope John Paul II was very welcome, but never got invited; Pope Benedict’s invitation never materialised. Though unpredictable the Belarusian leader remains in line with Kremlin politics. In the words of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia, in September 2009: “Belorussia is not a bridge, nor a gateway, but a Western part of the Holy Rus, historical Russia”.
In the Czech Republic, Catholics were overjoyed with the election of the Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The Catholic priest, well-known public figure and intellectual Tomas Halik was extremely happy. “I have to say, I am very excited”, he commented. “Most of all, I am thrilled because he is a Jesuit. Jesuits are the intellectual elite among Catholics, and are among the most intelligent and educated people in the world. They are also very open, which is why they are often criticized. I am also happy that this is a man with a substantial academic background.” The Archbishop of Olomouc, Jan Graubner, is expecting that the Latin American Pope Francis will help a too Euro-centric Church to have a more open eye for global issues. “Today, Europe is a bit tired and weary”, Graubner stated.

A Roman Pontiff should speak more than one language and, undoubtedly, Pope Francis will be tested. However, when he was greeted by the Hungarian President Janos Ader, who wished the newly elected Pope good health and strength for his service, Ader received a kind “Isten ltesse” as an answer – God bless You in Hungarian. Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rode was very glad with the new Pope, who knows Slovenia and the Slovenians well. One of Pope Francis’s auxiliary bishops in Buenos Aires was Vicente Bokalic Iglic, whose parents came from Slovenia and entered Argentina in 1949. Jorge Mario Bergoglio also visited Slovenia in 1970.
Finally, Patriarch Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church congratulated Pope Francis, hoping that he would “remain on the path of brotherly and unwavering support to the Orthodox Serb people in its extraordinary efforts to preserve the territorial integrity of Serbia in the issue of unilaterally declared independence of the so-called Republic of Kosovo.” Patriarch Irinej also warned the Roman Pontiff that his service will be “a great burden of tribulations of this world”.