The nuncio to the United States, who will be made a cardinal in the next consistory, speaks to the Vatican media and points to the next synod: We must look together for solutions to evangelize the changing world.
He was born in Rennes (France) in 1946, spent his childhood in Africa, studied in Rome and entered the Holy See’s diplomatic corps in 1977. He has served in nine countries, been apostolic nuncio to Haiti, Uganda and Mexico and has represented the pope in the United States of America since 2016. Now, on the eve of his appointment as cardinal at the consistory on September 30, the Vatican media interviewed Archbishop Christophe Peter.
How did you react to the appointment of a cardinal announced by the Pope last July? Will he continue to serve as nuncio to the United States?
Of course it was a big surprise, no one expects to become a cardinal! I received it with surprise because it is an act of great trust that the Holy Father has given me. I immediately saw this as a continuation of the work that I have always done as the Pope’s representative, especially in recent countries where I have been Apostolic Nuncio for practically 27 years. The nuncio is a person who represents the Holy Father. This is not just a formal representation, it must enter into the dialogue that exists between the Holy See and the local Church, and the aim is to really help the people living in a country to better understand the Holy Father to understand and then to be able to live in a climate of dialogue for the good of the church. I’ve always experienced that. As a cardinal, I don’t know how to do this, but the Holy Father tells me that I will continue to serve as Apostolic Nuncio.
This is how it will continue, after all he is not the only Cardinal Apostolic Nuncio, because we also have Cardinal Zenari in Syria…
Now we could form a club of cardinal nuncios, there are three of us! (together with Monsignor Emil Paul Tscherrig, Apostolic Nuncio to Italy, who will be appointed Cardinal on September 30, ed.).
The Pope recently highlighted the danger of polarization in the Church in the United States. How can it be avoided? Is this a more widespread phenomenon affecting all of American society?
I would say that it doesn’t just affect the United States. Polarization exists all over the world today, and we see it particularly in politics. I notice how difficult it is for politicians to sometimes talk to each other in order to solve concrete problems. Polarization comes from easily forgetting the concreteness of reality, which always revolves around people. When you close or forget people and concrete situations and turn to ideas, you become polarized because we get into what we in the United States call a certain “culture war.” The culture war exists in society. Let’s take a specific problem, namely immigration, a major problem in our society and not just in the United States. It is a specific problem that has no other way than to solve it. But society, particularly in the United States, seems unable to solve the problem and polarizes around solutions that are never put into practice. The American Church has done extraordinary work over the last 50 years in defending real values: the value of life and the fight against abortion, defending the poorest… The American Church is doing extraordinary work in defending the poorest. The risk, the Holy Father said, is to focus only on “value” and to lose sight of the human being. We always have to defend the lives of certain people. And that happens through the church. Therefore, it is not just a battle of ideas, but a commitment that must be undertaken by all levels of society and the Church in mutual cooperation. For example, the struggle for life must be realized at all levels. There is a great mother support movement in the United States. This is what the Pope asks of us. So that we are not just defenders of ideas, because if I defend just one idea, anyone who disagrees with me becomes my enemy. And then the effect is the opposite: we end up waging a cultural battle but forgetting reality.
In a few days the first of the two synods on the subject of synodality will open. A topic that at first glance may seem “technical” and internal to the church. How is it perceived in the United States?
Some are afraid, many people have demonized the idea of synodality because they do not understand what the Holy Father wants. I think the Pope started it because he sees that society has changed. I remember that at the Aparecida conference in 2007 a very important topic was raised, the change of times: that is, in this globalized world, a new world, the problems are new. At that time the Church understood that we had to look together for solutions for the evangelization of a new world. Walk together as a church through the method of encounter and dialogue. Many people are a little afraid of dialogue, because for dialogue you have to open up and be a little poor and look for solutions together. The Synod launched by the Holy Father is just that. Unfortunately, many people have not correctly read all of Francis’ interventions, for example when he says: “We must be together, talk to each other, listen to each other. Listen, pray together and ask the Holy Spirit to inspire us.” There are those who think that it is about recreating a new church that has nothing to do with the old one and begin to say: “That is a disaster!”. The challenge today is to overcome this fear and get back on track… We must do this with great humility, listening to each other, seeing what we have already done for the new world to evangelize, exchange ideas and then draw some conclusions for evangelization, do not change all structures or draw conclusions that could be part of the agenda of some groups.
What does the future Cardinal Pierre expect from the Synod on Synodality?
I hope so. I see it in my country – I have lived in the United States for seven years – that there is a need for great dialogue and great listening in the church. I think the direction we all need to take is to organize listening. And allow everyone, everyone, the right to speak. A right to speak that does not mean imposing a theory or an agenda, but rather saying what I feel, always in the spirit of evangelization. The Pope expressed the urgency of evangelization in today’s changing world, since there is a certain loss of values and many people have forgotten their vocation and mission, namely that of being witnesses of Jesus in the society in which they live. A new education is necessary for evangelization.
On his most recent trip to Mongolia, Pope Francis also emphasized that the church is neither a political organization nor a company. How will the Synod contribute to understanding its true nature and mission?
The synod must be people-oriented, that is, it must consult the person, the people at all levels of the church. Nobody – the Pope has said this many times – should be forgotten, everyone must be taken into account. Everyone has a role, a calling, a mission. The dialogue is taking place precisely between these people, the Pope has his role and will have it, but the bishops, the laity… it is an enormous undertaking, but necessary. In a world that seems to be isolating itself, where people no longer speak to each other and have forgotten who they are, their calling and their mission in a new world.
They received the Pope’s envoy, Cardinal Zuppi, at the nunciature in Washington. What role does Holy See diplomacy play in peace?
I accompanied Cardinal Matteo Zuppi during the three days he spent in Washington. For me it was interesting: an experience of dialogue between this cardinal who represented the Holy Father with a specific mission… I believe that the first necessary step is to establish a dialogue in which everyone first listens to the other. And I felt that compassion on every level. The cardinal met with many parliamentarians. And then there was the meeting with President Biden, which lasted a long time and also resulted in a good dialogue. It’s a start. I greatly admired the Cardinal’s attitude, because he came without pretensions, only with the desire to make known the Holy Father’s wish: that the idea, the desire for peace is present even in a world where only war is spoken of becomes. The Pope wants to be present, like the Church, to evoke the idea of peace, because at some point peace must come, otherwise we are heading for catastrophe.
At the moment there are no solutions, but we hope they can be found…
This is the method of papal diplomacy, which is not about finding solutions, because that corresponds to the politicians, the actors involved, but we are also actors because we represent people who suffer, who live reality. It has already been interesting to see that the Cardinal, through his contacts in both Ukraine and Russia and now in Washington, has recognized the need for humanitarian assistance, particularly for the missing children of Ukraine.