Vatican City, Mar 16, 2022 / 12:55 pm (CNA).
Latvia’s Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs believes that as war rages in Europe, the Church has a fundamental task: “to keep the moral compass not to let the world lose humanity.”
Rinkēvičs, who has led Latvia’s foreign ministry since 2011, was speaking during a two-day visit to the Vatican. He met with Pope Francis on March 14 and the Vatican “foreign minister” Archbishop Paul Gallagher a day later.
His meeting with Pope Francis was notable because the pope usually only receives heads of state and prime ministers, along with ambassadors (when they present their letters of credence.) Holy See protocol does allow for the possibility of a papal audience for foreign ministers, but this is very rare and only for special occasions.
Latvia, however, had a special occasion: the centenary of the Baltic country’s concordat with the Holy See, which was signed on May 30, 1922. The Holy See was also one of the first countries to recognize the newly established Latvian state in 1918.
Diplomatic ties were interrupted in 1940 after the Soviet invasion of Latvia, but restored in 1991. The Holy See, however, always considered the break in diplomatic relations temporary as it did not recognize the Soviet occupation.
Latvia, a country of 1.9 million people, borders Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, and Estonia. It has received more than 4,000 refugees since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Rinkēvičs told CNA that his Vatican visit had been “planned for some time” before the war broke out.
“I know that a foreign minister’s audience with the pope is not usual, but we are not living in usual times,” he commented.
“We had a discussion with the Holy Father about the humanitarian disaster. As a result, Latvia is receiving refugees from Ukraine, though not as many as the countries bordering Ukraine.”
He said that his talks with Archbishop Gallagher focused on “cooperation in the international organization, and of course the current security situation in Europe.”
Rinkēvičs, who was born in 1973 and grew up in the Soviet era, agreed that what is happening in Ukraine has had an “emotional impact.”
“After what happened in 2014, with the Russian occupation and the annexation of Crimea, and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine last Feb. 24, the Central European nations started asking themselves if this was a sort of repetition of history,” he said.
But he added that “from the rational point of view, there are huge differences with what happened 80 years ago.”
“We are now members of NATO and, although we are a small country and not very rich, we are also trying to find a way to support Ukraine,” he said. “Even some Russians now understand that if we do not stop Russia in Ukraine, the problem is going to become tragic.”
Rinkēvičs expressed great appreciation for Pope Francis’ statements on the war. He stressed that “the Holy See could be an excellent mediator if Russia and Ukraine agree.” But he cautioned that “Russian leaders still think they can achieve the goals they set with force.” So Russia, in his view, may not “seek a diplomatic solution.”
The decision over whether the Vatican would act as a mediator “rests first of all with Russia,” he said.
“There will be a time to stop the war and to find a good way out of it, and maybe the Holy See at that point will be a good mediator.”
Rinkēvičs described Latvia-Holy See relations as “traditionally good,” pointing to the two papal visits to Latvia since the country gained independence: by John Paul II in 1993 and Pope Francis in 2018.
He said he discussed how to further strengthen relations during his Vatican meetings. One way, he said, was through the state’s support for religious buildings. Another was through cooperation via international organizations in matters such as stability and peace in Europe.
Rinkēvičs also mentioned the cooperation over the beatification process of Boļeslavs Sloskāns (1893-1981), who suffered persecution by communists in the 1920s.
Sloskāns was arrested in 1927 and only able to return to Latvia in 1934. Serving as coadjutor bishop of the Latvian capital Riga in World War II, he was arrested by the Gestapo, Nazi Germany’s political police force, and imprisoned. Released after the German bishops’ intervention, Sloskāns finally established himself in Belgium, where he stayed until his death.
Rinkēvičs also highlighted the importance of an exchange of information between the Holy See and Latvia, noting that “we had a very good cooperation during the Belarusian crisis.”
After a controversial presidential election in 2020, Belarus was engulfed by protests and the Catholic leader Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz was blocked from returning to the country, prompting a Vatican intervention.
Speaking about the particularity of Latvia within the Baltic States, Rinkēvičs said: “Estonia is mainly Protestant, Lithuania is mainly Catholic, while in Latvia we are almost equally divided between Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics, and there is strong collaboration among Christian confessions, which also struck Pope Francis when he came.”
Latvia, he added, offers proof that “different Christian confessions can work together and promote dialogue.”
“We are very proud of that,” he said.
Rinkēvičs sees a path of collaboration with the Holy See in “calming down some emotions as, with this war raging in the heart of Europe, the stability of Europe is in danger.”
“What we are seeing is a fundamental shift,” he said. “I was sitting at the EU Council when we decided on assistance to Ukraine and sanctions to Russia in a way we would have never imagined one month ago.”
“We see there is a stronger NATO than one year ago. But we also see that some things are back out of the sudden, such as the notion of strengthening nuclear weapons.”
Rinkēvičs continued: “We are currently in a world that is in a mess. What is important now, where the Church is well equipped, is to keep this moral compass not to lose humanity, talking to other Christian confessions and other religions. This is where we need to work.”
He said it was also vital to provide correct information to counter propaganda.
“We need to disseminate objective information. To some extent, we are now living through the history books. These are interesting and challenging times, and they require huge responsibility on our part,” he concluded.