What do we know about the new papal nuncio to the United Kingdom, Archbishop Antonio Mennini? We know that most of his experience has been with the Orthodox: he has been nuncio in Bulgaria, the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan. He is a Roman: the question for us is, does he have true romanitas? Or will he simply go native, falling in with the culture of the English and Welsh and Scottish bishops’ conferences, as so many nuncios have done before him? In other words, will he send in ternas made up of, on the one hand, the names of the kind of orthodox priests the Pope wants to appoint or, on the other, the kind of priests who will get on well with the rest of the existing episcopal establishment?
It’s difficult to find out anything about his personal inclinations: he is, after all, a professional diplomat. But that doesn’t mean that he has none. So, after all, was one of his predecessors as nuncio to Bulgaria, Blessed John XXIII. I wonder, though, if I’m guilty of wishful thinking in interpreting an interview he gave in Russia as indicating that he is firmly behind the Pope’s agenda on the fight against secularisation, and might, therefore, be onside when it comes to the appointment of bishops here who would similarly be of the papal mind on this and other key elements in the Ratzingerian analysis of where the Church needs to go?
There has been in Russia, it seems, a secularist backlash against the renewal of the participation of the Orthodox Church in the Russian education system, and the reintroduction of theology as a recognised academic discipline in its universities. Members of the Russian Academy of Sciences some time ago sent an open letter to the then Russian president, Vladimir Putin, urging him to stop what they called “clericalisation” in Russia. They are obviously pretty rattled by the fact that the Orthodox are now making their presence felt, with the co-operation of the authorities: “The Church,” complains the open letter “has already infiltrated the army and now the media broadcast the blessings of new military equipment (battleships and submarines are now required to be blessed – which, alas! does not always help). Religious ceremonies attended by high government officials are also widely covered. These are all examples of the clericalisation of this country.”
In his interview, our new nuncio firmly defended this process: “The Russian Orthodox Church,” he said, “as well as other religions in Russia, [is regaining] her place in the Russian society. This [is happening] after decades of atheism and repression when believers in their millions were denied much opportunity to come to the spiritual fountains of the Gospel and the moral values the Good News brings…. [Just as] it was the Roman Catholic Church that represented Christianity [in Italy] throughout history”, so “The same may and should be applied to the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in relation to this great country’s history and culture as well as to the faith of most Russian people.”
It’s all fairly good and hopeful stuff, which encourages one to hope that he will be using his obvious capacity to work out what’s going on in a particular secularised culture to help the Church here to begin the fightback in the most effective way open to him – that is, by helping the Pope to appoint bishops who will do everything they can to implement rather than to undermine the Holy Father’s agenda.
All this may be wishful thinking. But maybe not. It could be that Rome has worked out, at last, what kind of nuncio we need, and is duly sending him. Fingers crossed. And keep Archbishop Antonio Mennini in your prayers. He has important work ahead.
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