Why Pope Francis Could Make His First Papal Visit To Serbia

By Jovan Tripkovic

July 8, 2022

Pope Francis big image
Photo Credit: Pope Francis. Creative Commons photo.

BELGRADE, Serbia — In late November 2021, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the secretary of the Holy See for relations with states, visited Serbia. During his visit, he met with the country’s president and prime minister as well as recently-elected Patriarch Porfirije of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

After meeting with the Serbian press, Gallagher said, “Pope Francis is open for all invitations,” adding that the “pope can’t accept all invitations immediately. However, he can accept an important invitation either next year or the year after that.”

Besides discussing the relations among Belgrade, the Holy See and Kosovo, Gallagher declared a support for the country’s reforms as part of the process of the European Union integration.

The archbishop visit to Belgrade was the latest in a series of important meetings. Over the last 20 years, Serbia has been slowly improving its relationship with the Holy See. There have been four presidential visits to the Vatican in 2005, 2009, 2015 and 2019. Additionally, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, visited Serbia in 2018; Gallagher paid an official visit to the country in 2015 and 2019; and Cardinal Dominique Mamberti visited in 2014.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, visited Serbia in 2015 as well. During his visit, Koch met with officials of Subotica, a city in the northern part of Serbia with a significant Catholic population. While addressing Subotica’s Catholic congregation, Koch said, “Catholics in Serbia can hope and want a papal visit. However, this can’t be decided by the Catholic church since there are other sides that need to accept that visit.” Koch was referring here to the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Recent developments in relations between Belgrade and the Holy See give hope that the invitation by the Serbian Orthodox Church and a papal visit to the country might occur in the near future. Pope Francis’ recent visits to Greece and Cyprus — as well as willingness to travel to Russia — clearly show to his commitment to closer relations between the Catholic West and Orthodox East. Earlier last year, Patriarch Porfirije was elected by the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church. For years, Porfirije served as the metropolitan of Zagreb and Ljubljana.

During his time in Croatia and Slovenia, two Catholic countries, Patriarch Porfirije has been closely working and communicating with Catholic Church officials, making him more likely to be an initiator of a papal visit to Serbia in the future.

Dual nature of a papal visit

Inviting the pope to Serbia does not require any formal procedure that would be different from inviting any other statesman or foreign dignitary. The diplomatic protocol requires an official invitation from the appropriate level of government, the acceptance of invitation from the other side and harmonization of all specific details regarding the visit through diplomatic channels.

However, a papal visit has a dual nature: political and religious. Therefore, in addition to secular authorities, the pope needs to receive an invitation from the highest level of a country’s spiritual leadership.

According to the former ambassador of Serbia to the Holy See, Darko Tanaskovic: “The uniqueness imposed by the dual, church-state nature of the Holy See consists in the fact that the head of the Roman Catholic Church is expected to be invited by the largest church in Serbia, which is the Serbian Orthodox Church. The invitation of the Serbian Orthodox Church is not formally necessary for the pope, as head of state, to pay an official visit to Serbia, but it is essentially even more important than the state invitation because the papal visits are always political and pastoral.”

Tanaskovic added, “The state invitation, which has been repeatedly hinted at, as an expression of the political mood of the authorities in Belgrade, has not been made official and concretized so far, because the Serbian Orthodox Church believes that the conditions for the visit have not yet been met.”

In an interview for Beta News Agency, his colleague and the country’s former ambassador to the Holy See, Vladeta Jankovic, shared Tanaskovic’s opinion, saying that a “papal visit to Serbia is not very realistic and it will not happen any time soon.”

The pope has been invited to Serbia by all presidents since 2004: Boris Tadic, Tomislav Nikolic and Aleksandar Vucic. Additionally, the pope was publicly invited to Serbia multiple times by Ivica Dacic during his tenure as Serbia’s minister for foreign affairs (2014-2020).

Despite the openness of the Serbian government to invite the pope to visit the country, the Serbian Orthodox church is still a strong opponent of the idea. Government officials have little to say on this matter.

On July 6, 2018, in an interview for Serbian TV Pink, Ivica Dacic talked about the canceled papal visit in 2016. In January 2016, the Vatican’s chargé d’affaires addressed then–President Nikolic. The document stated that the pope had accepted Nikolic’s invitation come to Serbia, proposing May 21-22, 2016, as the date of the visit. During the interview, Dacic said that “Nikolic consulted with the Serbian Orthodox church after which the pope’s visit was canceled. That was very bad and harmful, because we are playing with our national interests. I respect all the reasons of our church, but the arrival of the pope is in our interest.”

Historical factors

A majority of Serbia’s population perceives a papal visit as the Vatican’s effort to convert Serbs to Catholicism. Relations between the Catholic church and the Serbian Orthodox church have been shaped by Serbia’s turbulent and violent past with Croats. This dates from the genocide committed by the fascist authorities of the Independent State of Croatia and to more recent conflicts during the last decade of the 20th century and an exodus of approximately 200,000 Serbs from Croatia’s territory.

Tanaskovic provided insight into the Croatian factor in relations between the Catholic and Serbian churches.

“Since Serbs, as a nation, experienced Catholicism historically and most intensively through social communication and interaction with Croats, it is logical that they formed their ideas about the Roman Catholic Church through the prism of that experience,” Tanaskovic said . “Of course, this is not a holistic view, but it is only relevant in the realms of social reality and must be taken into account.”

Tanaskovic added that there is “a deep-rooted and widespread discontent with the Vatican in Serbia, due to the role of the papal state and the Catholic Church, especially in Croatia in some of the periods of the greatest suffering of the Serbian people during the 20th century. Many believe that the Roman Curia consistently and systematically supported all political projects on a wider international and regional level that were directed against the Serbian nation and the affirmation of the Serbian statehood. It is a very popular belief that the Roman Curia was involved in the genocide of the Serbs in the Independent State of Croatia during World War II as well as in the process of disintegration of the Yugoslav federation in the 1990s, during which the Vatican resolutely supported the unilateral secession of Slovenia and Croatia.”

Ivica Dacic, a former minister of foreign affairs, during his interview for TV Pink, said that he believes that Serbia’s relations with the Vatican are burdened by the country’s relations with Croatia, stating that “we should rise above that.”

However, Patriarch Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church — who died in late 2020 after contracting coronavirus — did not share that view.

In 2018, he stated that “it is not the time for Pope Francis’ visit because of everything that happened in the past and a huge number of Serbian refugees from Croatia.” Irinej also added that the “pope can visit Serbia as a statesman and the Serbian Orthodox Church will not interfere with it.”

Many officials within the Serbian Orthodox church and theologians believe the pope’s road to Belgrade leads through Croatia. It has been often mentioned by numerous conservatives in Serbia that the pope should apologize for the involvement of the Catholic church in genocide against Orthodox Serbs during World War II on the territory of the Independent State of Croatia, a puppet state of Nazi Germany.

Leaders of the Serbian church and the country’s historians believe that Jasenovac — the largest concentration camp for Serbs, Jews, and Roma in the Independent State of Croatia — would be an appropriate venue for that apology.

A great obstacle in the relations between Belgrade and the Holy See is present in the potential future canonization of Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, the head of Catholic church in Croatia during World War II.

After the war, Stepinac was sentenced to 16 years — five years served in prison before being transferred to house arrest until his death in 1960 — due to his active support for the Independent State of Croatia. During his papacy, on Oct. 3, 1998, St. Pope John Paul II declared Stepinac a martyr and beatified him before hundreds of thousand of Croatians. The beatification remains controversial, especially among the leadership and believers of the Serbian Orthodox church.

Pope Francis has expressed understanding of the concerns of the Serbian side, inviting Serbian prelates’ participation in the Joint Serbo-Croatian Commission on Cardinal Stepinac, which had a goal to investigate Stepinac’s canonization. However, the two sides only agreed that “in the case of Cardinal Stepinac, the interpretations that were predominantly given by Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs remain divergent.”

Many prelates of the Serbian church deem that Pope Francis understands the impact of Stepinac’s canonization on the relations between Belgrade and the Holy See, which will probably not happen during his tenure as a head of the Catholic church.

Tanaskovic, who was a member of the Joint Serbo-Croatian Commission on Cardinal Stepinac, said: “The pastoral attitude of Pope Francis contributes to the formation of the awareness that Croatian Catholicism, strongly characterized by pronounced clero-nationalist inclinations, is not the only possible face of the Catholic Church. The pope does not make, and should not make any ‘concessions’, but only to act like a true Christian, which he does. That is why there are many problems with Croatian Catholics, including parts of the clergy, who expect that everything that seems right to them is unconditionally approved and supported by the Vatican, especially in relation to Orthodox Serbs.”

Pope Francis’ Orthodox Tour

The pope’s ecumenical efforts reached their highest point from Dec. 2-6, 2021, during his trip to Cyprus and Greece. These two trips have been characterized by the media as the pope’s “Orthodox Tour.” At his Dec. 4 meeting with the head of the Greek Orthodox church, Francis apologized to the Orthodox “for the ways Catholics have contributed to the division with Orthodox Christians.”

This gesture represented a significant breakthrough in Catholic-Orthodox relations. During his trip, Francis even expressed his willingness to travel to Moscow with the hope of meeting his “brother,” Patriarch Kirill.

“We are brothers and we talk straight to each other,” Francis told reporters aboard his return flight to Rome. “We do not dance the minuet.”

Recently, Pope Francis has been accused of not having a strong stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mixed messages sent by the pope toward Russia might signal his willingness to keep the door of the Moscow Patriarchate open.

Trips to Cyprus and Greece were two stops on Pope Francis’ bigger Orthodox Tour. During his tour, he visited several Orthodox countries: Greece and Georgia in 2016, as well as Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Romania in 2019. Francis also visited Albania in 2014 and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2015, countries with a Muslim majority.

Besides Russia, Serbia is one of the rare Orthodox countries never to be visited by a pope. In the Western Balkans, Pope Francis visited all states except Serbia and Montenegro. In both countries, the Serbian Orthodox church represents the largest religious community.

The Vatican, Latin America and the Balkan quagmire

On Feb. 17, 2008, Kosovo, an autonomous province of Serbia, with the support of the United States and a majority of the European Union member states, unilaterally declared independence. Since then, Kosovo’s independence has been recognized by approximately 100 countries: three out of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, 22 out of 27 countries of the European Union and 26 out of 30 NATO member states.

China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico and Spain are countries that have not recognized the unilateral declaration of Kosovo independence. Despite the Serbian public perception that the Vatican actively works against the country’s national interests, the Holy See is among countries who do not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Since the end of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in the summer of 1999, Serbia and secessionist authorities of Kosovo have maintained the frozen conflict. With the unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008, that situation has been disrupted by Kosovo’s diplomatic campaign for international recognition. At its peak, Kosovo’s authorities claimed that they received 115 diplomatic recognitions.

As a response, Serbia’s government started a successful Kosovo derecognition campaign, which led to Kosovo’s failure to join UNESCO and Interpol. Additionally, Serbian officials claim that as a result of the campaign, 22 countries have withdrawn Kosovo’s recognition, though this claim has been contested by Kosovo’s officials.

Among states that have recognized Kosovo’s independence are countries in the region of Latin America: Costa Rica, Columbia, Peru, El Salvador and Honduras. In October 2017, Suriname withdrew its recognition of Kosovo. This event was perceived as a historic turning point by Serbia’s public and political elite because it showed a possibility of reversing the process of Kosovo’s international recognition. Some government officials in Belgrade believed that this might be a new diplomatic opportunity for the derecognition campaign among Latin American countries. One of them was Ivica Dacic, the minister of foreign affairs in 2014-2020.

Considering his political career, Dacic might seem to be an unlikely supporter of a papal visit. Since 2003, he has been an undisputed leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia, the legal and an ideological successor of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia and the party of Slobodan Milosevic.

In addition to the government’s position on Kosovo in diplomatic relations with the Vatican, the Serbian Orthodox church plays a crucial role in the process.

“The Serbian Orthodox Church has a political interest in the relationship with the Vatican. Same as the Republic of Serbia, the Serbian Orthodox Church is trying to influence the Holy See to maintain its position of nonrecognition of unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo,” Tanaskovic said.

Papal visit and Serbia’s national interest

The fact that Vatican hasn’t recognized the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo is a key factor in the relations between Belgrade and the Holy See. The Serbian government officials should recognize the potential of a broader impact of a papal visit on Serbia’s national interests. The pope’s first-ever visit to Serbia will represent the country’s opening to the West, while signaling Serbia’s commitment to peace, dialogue and reconciliation in the region.

There are approximately 350,000 Catholics in Serbia. By inviting the pope to visit the country, both the Serbian Orthodox church and the Serbian government would show a respect for religious liberty as a human right. At a time of growing antagonism between the East and West, a papal visit to Serbia would be perceived as a gesture of goodwill, improving the country’s reputation and position in the international community.

A papal visit to Serbia and the relations between Belgrade and the Holy See should include other areas of interest to both sides, such as education, cultural affairs and preservation of historic heritage.

On June 27, 2014, during his visit to Serbia, Cardinal Mamberti, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, signed a bilateral agreement in the area of higher education with Serbia’s minister of foreign affairs, Ivica Dacic. The agreement came into effect on Jan. 12, 2015, allowing the Catholic church to establish schools and institutions of higher education on the Serbian territory. This agreement could serve as a shining example for future cooperation between Belgrade and the Holy See.

Orthodox schism and ecumenical dialogue

Differences between the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople and Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Patriarchate have been growing for years. In 2018, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople’s decision to grant future “autocephaly” (self-governance) to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine marked the beginning of the schism in the Orthodox world.

On January 5, 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I formally granted the tomos of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This decision, coupled with the Russian invasion of Ukraine three years later, made the deepening Orthodox schism inevitable and potentially irreversible in the long run.

Many Orthodox theologians have been warning about a possible Orthodox divide into two blocs: Greek and Slavic. The Greek camp would consist of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, Church of Greece, Church of Cyprus and Patriarchate of Alexandria; the Serbian, Bulgarian and Russian Church would head the Slavic bloc.

The Moscow-Constantinople schism will not only affect inter-Orthodox relations, but likely jeopardize the progress made in the ecumenical Catholic Orthodox dialogue. One of the consequences of the Orthodox schism might be a possibility of a “multi-speed” ecumenical dialogue, which would lead to a deeper rift in the Orthodox world. The schism would encourage the Ecumenical Patriarchate to develop closer relations with Rome, while the Moscow Patriarchate would be isolated from this process.

This development puts the Serbian Orthodox Church in a very difficult position. The Serbian Church has been perceived in the West as a traditional friend and an ally of the Moscow Patriarchate. However, the Serbian Orthodox Church is an autocephalous church. It has its own relations with the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and an independent decision-making process. The best example of that is the Holy and Great Council of the worldwide Orthodox Church, held in Crete June 19-26, 2016.

The Moscow Patriarchate decided not to participate, while the Serbian Church sent its delegation to attend the Council. Moreover, the Serbian Orthodox Church would benefit from papal visit.

Tanaskovic said he believes that “if conceived and agreed in the right way, with appropriate and structured preparation, Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church would benefit from the Pope Francis visit in terms of open dialogue and mutual understanding, without any prior calculation about who has more to win and who has more to lose.  The absence or stagnation of dialogue certainly does not bring anything useful to anyone. The relations between the Holy See and the Serbian Orthodox Church has recently improved significantly thanks to the maintenance of a regular and meaningful dialogue on all issues of importance for the believers of both churches.”

The Orthodox world is heading towards turbulent times. The Serbian Orthodox Church should stay neutral in the Orthodox schism, staying neutral between Constantinople and Moscow, while actively working on building relations with Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

In the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the beginning of Orthodox schism, the pope’s visit to Serbia could mark the beginning of the new era in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, while sending a strong message of peace and reconciliation to the rest of the world.