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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The Day’s Klara Gudzyk interviews Papal Nuncio Archbishop Nikola ETEROVIC

14 November, 2000 - 00:00


On November 6 it became known that Pope John Pole II will visit Ukraine, where he is eagerly awaited by almost six million Catholics. Most other people representing different confessions view this with good will. Ukrainian politicians believe that a visit by a person of such caliber will be additional evidence that Ukraine has become a member of the international community of nations as well as that this country is truly transparent and tolerant in the religious sphere. However, the details of the visit are still to be made public. In fact, there could be complications, particularly in view of the rift in Ukraine’s Orthodoxy. Many are concerned about whether the Pontiff will agree to meet with clergymen representing the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, contrary to diplomatic canons, considering that both confessions are not yet recognized by world Orthodoxy. One can only hope that the papal visit will serve Ukraine’s spiritual unity. This time The Day hosts the new Apostolic Nunkio to Ukraine Archbishop Nikola ETEROVIC.

Q: We heard recently about Pope John Pole II’s decision to step down. Would Your Eminence comment?

A : The Catholic Church marked the 22nd anniversary of the Holy Father’s election on October 16 with great and sincere gratitude to the Lord. A reception was staged to commemorate the event, attended by public, cultural, political, and religious figures. Pope John Paul II is placed sixth in terms of the length of his apostolate. The longest reign was that of St. Peter, the first Pope: almost 37 years.

Rumors about the Holy Father’s stepping down are completely without foundation. His Holiness has repeated on more than one occasion that his mission will be over only when our Lord so decides.

Q: His Holiness’ visit to Ukraine has been discussed for quite some time. What are the current prospects?

A : Ukrainian Catholics and, I think, all people of goodwill eagerly await his visit. This is completely natural. His Holiness has visited 123 countries, among them ones with considerably smaller Catholic communities than Ukraine’s. Roman and Greek Catholic bishops have sent repeated invitations to the Holy Father. The Catholics in Ukraine look forward to the glorious day when they will hail the Pontiff in their native land. People of goodwill expect to hear from him hope-inspiring words about mutual respect, understanding, cooperation, and love.

Religious functionaries and competent government agencies are working out the details of President Kuchma’s invitation to the Holy Father. The date is still to be determined, but the summer of 2001 looks like the best time.

Q: How do you view the development of the Catholic Church in Ukraine? What problems demand the most attention and require changes?

A : The Catholic Church has deep roots in Ukraine; it is present in the life of your country. Ukraine is the fatherland of Catholics also. While remaining mostly Orthodox, this country should not disregard Catholicism as a major part of its national heritage — I mean all the Catholic churches, chapels, monuments, museums, libraries, archives, artworks, musical compositions, and so on. The Catholic Church not only has a long tradition in Ukraine, but also embraces people adhering to three confessions. Most of them are Greek Catholics, followed by Roman Catholics, and a small Armenian community. All told, there are some 6,000,000 adherents, including 5,000,000 Greek Catholics and 1,000,000 Roman Catholics.

The Catholic Church has good prospects in Ukraine. Thank God, after all those trying years of persecution by the Soviet regime primarily against the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, we now live in a free and democratic Ukraine which respects the freedom of conscience. This means that all citizens, including Catholics, are free to profess their faith. This, in turn, made it possible to structurally rebuild the Catholic Church. As a result, we have ten Greek Catholic eparchies and five dioceses. The Latin rite bishops are members of the Ukrainian Episcopal Conference, and those of the Greek rite are members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Synod of Bishops.

As to problems, I would like to single out two. The first is organizational. I think that we must complete the process of the Catholic Church’s reorganization in Ukraine. Among other things, I have in mind the restoration of the premises already returned to the Church and those to be returned shortly along with the construction of new religious and auxiliary structures in places where local Catholic communities need them most. This also involves diocesan, eparchial, and parish Charity. We must further work to strengthen Catholic schools, particularly institutions of higher education; we plan to have several theological departments and at least one Catholic university. The second problem is more spiritual in nature. We must enhance the role of the catechism with the faithful at all levels, placing major emphasis on the youngest, for they are the future of our Church and the Ukrainian nation. Currently in Ukraine and in other countries we are faced with the inadequacy of traditional ways of passing on the faith, such as parental cultivation of the faith or participation in religious services. As previously, this remains the key element of the catechism; we must evangelize the entire Catholic community. The Good News will always remain the same but has to be brought to the individual in all times using a language and in a way which addresses the contemporary person, corresponding to his needs and expectations, to his mentality and culture. I think that in the sphere of its pastoral work our Church has to be innovative, consistent with the teachings of the Universal Church, beginning with the Second Vatican Council. The Holy Year gave us reason to take important steps in this direction.

Q: The Holy Year is drawing to a close. How is it going in Ukraine?

A : I think it is safe to assume that the Holy Year has proven to be a blessed time, allowing many faithful the chance to find their way to Jesus Christ. The festivities included various events, like pilgrimages to Rome or the Holy Land. Some of the events took place in Ukraine and I took part in some, joyful to feel again the greatness of His Gift and the gratitude with which the faithful received them. All those actions, prayer meetings, study groups, and conferences played a great role in the spiritual rejuvenation of Catholics.

Q: Do you consider it abnormal that most Roman Catholic clergy in Ukraine come from abroad? Could this provoke a negative attitude to the Church, considering the history of Ukrainian-Polish relations?

A : We have our Catholic Church which is ecumenical. There are relations to draw together its center in Rome and local churches scattered throughout the world. As for Ukraine, we now have many Ukrainian priests, monks, nuns, and adherents even now; they are carrying out their blessed missions in a number countries of Europe and the Americas. Of course, there are foreign clergymen serving in Ukraine. In churches of the Latin rite, although most priests are of Polish origin, there are also Slovaks, Hungarians, Italians, French, Irish, Croats, Spaniards, and others.

We have to keep in mind that in conformity with generally accepted international norms every ethnic community in a democratic state has its rights and obligations. One such right relates to use of the mother tongue, including its usage in the mass. Thus Catholics who speak Polish, Hungarian, Slovak, or Russian should conduct masses in their native language.

During communist persecution, the Catholic Church in Ukraine could not have its seminaries and train priests. At present, praise the Lord, we have five Greek Catholic seminaries, Lviv’s Theological Academy, and three Roman Catholic seminaries. However, properly training a Catholic priest takes ten years. This means that it will be some time before the Catholic Church will have a sufficient number of pastors in Ukraine. Under the circumstances, the Catholic Church of Poland made a very generous gesture, and we are very grateful. Polish priests celebrate liturgies in Polish as well as in languages understandable to local parishes, meaning that divine services are often celebrated in Ukrainian. The generally accepted rule is to maintain tolerance and give each what is his. For this reason, the Catholic Church in Ukraine conducts divine services in Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Slovak, and other languages, depending on the locality — and every believer is free to choose. Personally, I usually celebrate the Liturgy in Ukrainian, but I can use other languages to make His message understandable to the faithful

Q: You mentioned that most Ukrainians are Orthodox. What is the attitude of the Catholic Church toward the Orthodox Churches?

A : Our Church treats Orthodoxy with great respect. Before 1054, there was a certain degree of uniformity among the Christian churches, later to be distinguished as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. In other words, the Catholics and Orthodox adherents have much in common, formed during the first millennium of Christianity, in conditions of complete unity. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), among other things, considered relations with the Eastern Orthodox Church. The result was the Decree on Ecumenism “Unitatus Reintegratio”. In 1965, in a historic meeting, Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras I, Greek Orthodox ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), reached an agreement to nullify the mutual excommunications of the Eastern and Western churches in 1054, launching a dialogue that has continued despite many obstacles. The Catholic Church’s positive attitude toward Orthodoxy is manifest, for example, in many of its publications. Not long ago, the Church once again expressed its great respect for the Eastern Orthodox community at large in its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Dominus Jesus Declaration. The document stresses the characteristic closeness between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches preserving faith of the Apostolic age and Sacraments, primarily in terms of Communion. It further points out that both churches could be referred to as sister churches.

Q: Are there prospects and positive proof indicating that the ecumenical idea will be promoted in Catholic-Orthodox relations in Ukraine?

A : In the guidelines of the Ecumenical Church concerning the Orthodox Churches one of the key ideas is dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox clergy of Ukraine. Dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is a requirement of the Christian faith. Jesus Christ, before giving his life to save us all, addressed His Father: I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word. Now they have known that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of thee. Despite all hardships, past and present, this dialogue must be continued; there is no alternative and the need is becoming increasingly evident. We often hear about problems, lack of understanding, even animosity between the churches. I think that we should concentrate on what is positive in these relationships. This ongoing dialogue is showing excellent results, in terms of mutual cognition and understanding of our respective doctrinal concepts adding up to a single religious tradition. This dialogue, among other things, makes it possible to identify an individual as a true Christian, a believer who says what he or she really feels and whose words do not contradict his or her deeds. There are other positive aspects to the dialogue: friendly meetings, formal and private, between clerics belonging to different confessions, cooperation in certain charitable projects to help the needy, without regard to their creed. A very important project underway is an ecumenical translation of The Bible into the Ukrainian language, resulting from numerous meetings between experts belonging to different churches and religious communities. Also, we have an agreement on teaching Christian ethics in the schools. In a word, the Catholic Church has always acted so as to foster processes of unity, not discord.

Q: How would Your Eminence comment on the forthcoming Catholic Ecumenical Church Council? What problems are to be discussed?

A : The convocation of an Ecumenical Council is an extraordinary event in the life of the Church. We know this from history. Such a Council is called when the situation shows that such an assembly will serve to benefit the whole Church. Today we have numerous means of communication between the Catholic bishops serving under the Holy Father, within the framework of the Sacred College of Cardinals, presided over by the Vicar of Christ. There is also the Episcopal Synod which is convened once every three years to resolve a number of issues being of vital importance to the life of Our Church.

I think that, before convening the next Ecumenical Council, we should make good use of the existing church structures to delve into the pressing religious issues. In addition, it would seem worthwhile to study the documents of the Second Vatican Council and bring to life their complete potential. Questions of a religious character that are most pressing and must be solved on a world level are the problems of the world’s secularization, the globalization of all spheres of life, religious indifference of the faithful, sectarianism, relationships with other religions, particularly non-Christian ones, and so on.

Q: Has Your Eminence visited Ukraine on previous occasions? If this is your first visit, how would you describe your first impressions? I mean the Ukrainian people, this country, and the general situation? Please answer undiplomatically.

A : I first came to Ukraine on August 25, 1999, acting as Apostolic Nuncio or, as it is often called, Papal Legate However, I had known a lot about Ukraine many years ago, when studying in Rome, particularly when working for the Secretariat of State (one might call it the Vatican’s Foreign Ministry).

My impressions of Ukraine are markedly positive. I have met with a great many people, visited various episcopal sees and eparchies, mostly in the western territories most Catholics live. I am very much impressed by the profound dedication of your faithful. I was aware of it when meeting people, but especially when attending mass. On most such occasions the Churches were packed with believers. At times we had to conduct religious services outdoors, in public places and city squares, because the number of believers was simply overwhelming. I had expected something like that, knowing that many people had refused to renounce their faith even when persecuted. Now I could meet with living martyrs, all those who survived and never betrayed their faith. This was a learning experience, which was enriching from both a human and Christian perspective. I can only thank the Lord for it.

I come from a Slavic family. I was born in Croatia, so the Ukrainian mentality is quite close to mine. I know Ukrainian and this knowledge helps me establish contact with your authorities and people representing different strata comparatively easily. Ukrainians are a great nation, so I feel privileged to carry out my religious mission in Ukraine.

Among the less positive aspects I have to point out is the slow progress in your country. Of course, I can personally corroborate that you are making headway, but we all would dearly wish it to be faster and more harmonious, so that your living standards could rise steadily and the number of the poor would as steadily diminish. I think your people are rather passive, at times willing to put up with their lot, but there are examples that inspire hope, especially among the younger generation; young people in Ukraine are dynamic and enterprising and they are the best hope for your future. The same is true of all the other postcommunist countries. Ukraine faces problems stemming from the transition period from the command economy to a market one and private ownership. In addition, you are faced with corruption, bureaucracy, the need to strengthen the norms and structures characteristic of true democracies, and so on. However, tracing back your historical road over the past decade, I feel optimism about the harmonious evolution of your country.

The Catholic Church, for its part, will continue to make every effort, including cooperation with your government agencies. This concerns above all bringing up Ukraine’s Catholics also as citizens of Ukraine. A cultivated Christian is a carrier of lasting values that are simultaneously Christian and truly human. A Christian, for example, must try to live according to the Ten Commandments, meaning that he or she must be a good Christian and a worthy citizen, doing unto others that which he or she would wish them do unto him/herself. Besides this, the Catholic Church will continue its social and charitable activities for the sake of the poor, on the largest possible scope and to the best of its ability.

Q: Would you please tell our readers something about yourself?

A: I am always embarrassed by such personal questions. I dedicate my leisure time to music, reading, and art exhibits. I have long been fond of music, particularly classical works. Even as a seminarian, I learned to play several instruments and we had a small orchestra. I used to play the tamburica, a typical Croatian instrument. Later, I focused on the organ, especially when accompanying liturgies. I often listen to music, especially Gregorian pieces (characteristic of the Roman Catholic rite); this music is very helpful in creating the right atmosphere when praying and meditating. At present, I am discovering for myself the beauty of Orthodox liturgical music. I do not personally prefer any of the classical authors. Of course, the laurels belong to Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Palestrina, and others.

Regrettably, I do not always have enough time to read everything I wish I could. The greater part of my time I dedicate to theological and spiritual works. I am now reading Pope John XXIII’s Journal of a Soul (he was sanctified this September). I am also interested in other serious literature. Recently, I enjoyed reading Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar. Actually, I think that everyone living in Ukraine should read this book. I visited the poet’s grave in Kaniv and his Kyiv museum. This served as an additional stimulus in approaching this important work.

I have explored a number of museums in Kyiv and other cities. I was enchanted by the icons at Lviv’s National Museum. I am very interested in Ukrainian icons. They mirror the soul of the Ukrainian people; for centuries reflecting religious themes closely connected with that people’s daily life, worries, and expectations. If I have time to spare, I like going on sightseeing trips, visiting cities and villages. Ukraine is extremely rich in monuments telling about its often very tragic history. I am fond of sports. Now and then I play Ping-Pong and never miss an opportunity to watch a soccer match.

Q: One last question with your permission: Does your high Church post completely isolate you as an archbishop from the laity? Do you have any persons in your entourage that can talk to you on a first name basis?

A: I come from an ordinary large family. My parents had six children (three boys and three girls), so I have brothers and sisters. We treat each other not only as relatives but also as good friends. This family atmosphere also helped me realiz the need to keep myself open to other things and understand the importance of friendship with regard to every individual. Later, the number of my friends increased when I studied at various institutions. I still maintain friendly contacts with all of them (quite a few!). Many would ask me how they should address me after I was invested as a bishop. It would be ridiculous to expect them to change their usual way of speaking. Of course, there are official situations when one must adhere to protocol and use the appropriate form of address. Otherwise, it is good to retain friendly relations that have existed for so many years.

I think that dedicated cooperation is a very important aspect. It takes a truthful and affectionate attitude toward one’s associates, the whole staff, and whoever one has to deal with. In our work we have to know the truth, even if this truth is bitter sometimes. Any worker trying to conceal the truth is doing a disservice to his superior. I hope I will not have to experience this. Also, experience has taught me that people can become very good friends without being on a first name basis. It all depends on personal relationships that must always rely on sincere respect. And the way such feelings manifest themselves also depends on local customs and a person’s culture.

In any case, relations among human beings should be based on respect and love. For such is the requirement imposed on all of us children of the Lord who reigns in heaven. St. John Chrysostom taught that God is Love.

THE DAY ’S REFERENCE

Nikola Eterovic, Titular Archbishop of Sisak, Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine, born 1951 to a large family in Puciste, Brac, Croatia. After finishing the local school, he entered the Metropolitan Seminary in Split and later studied philosophy at the Higher Theological Seminary. He served the prescribed two years in the Yugoslav Navy, then continued his studies in Rome. In 1977, he was ordained a priest and then entered the Papal Church Academy training Vatican diplomats. He earned a master’s degree in canon law and joined the papal diplomatic corps on March 25, 1980.

He has worked as Secretary of the Apostolic Nunciature in many countries and was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine in 1999. In 1996, he was appointed Papal Prelate; in 1999, invested as Archbishop of Sisak. The Rt. Rev. Nikola Eterovic invariably combines diplomatic work with charitable activities.

Archbishop Eterovic is the author of a number of theological and legal papers, especially on so-called concordat law. Apart from his native Croatian, he knows Italian, French, Spanish, English, German, Ukrainian, and can understand Polish and Russian.

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