September 20, 2018

The Pope’s Divisions

The influence and actions of the Pope are global

The Pope is to visit Estonia. This news has created excitement in Estonian diplomacy, media and society for a couple of months now, which is remarkable considering how non-religious Estonians are, how small the Estonian Catholic population is and the small size of the Vatican City. When taking into account the scale of preparations in the fields of both diplomacy and security, it could perhaps be compared to a visit by the President of the United States, not the head of state of a small country. Would a visit by the head of state or the prime minister of Andorra or Liechtenstein have turned into such an important event?

It is a well-known fact that, with the exception of totalitarian societies where religion is banned and relevant data are absent, Estonia is one of the least religious countries in the world—more than half the population (about 55%) is not attached to any church or confession and most people do not believe in God. However, we need to be specific: most Estonians are non-religious, and most of the Russians belong to the Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (16% of the population; they make up the biggest confessional category in Estonia, ahead of the Lutherans, who form 10% of the population); but the most religious group is probably Estonian Muslims (Tatars, Azeris etc.). The proportion of Catholics is below 0.5%. In other words, they are a totally marginal group in demographic terms who have close to no importance, and nothing really depends on them.

Pope Francis. Pacific Press/Sipa USA/Scanpix

The Vatican City is the smallest state in the world by both area and population. When it comes to state organisation, the Vatican City seems an incomprehensible anachronism—how is an absolute theocratic monarchy still possible in 21st-century Europe? As a state, the Vatican City is not represented in the UN, nor does it participate in the work of any international organisation. In this respect there is a certain confusion in the press—and even encyclopaedias—when they refer, for example, to Vatican diplomacy or even embassies and ambassadors. This is, in fact, another unique phenomenon: the Holy See establishes diplomatic relations and carries out all diplomatic activities and does so on its own behalf, not that of the Vatican City. (A suitable comparison would be if the Republic of Estonia had no diplomatic relations, but the President of Estonia had them ex officio.) The issue is that the Vatican City is only the territory where the Holy See is located. As Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran said, the Vatican City is a small support state that ensures the spiritual liberty of the Pope with minimal territory. The Holy See can also reside elsewhere (there are many historical examples of this), and it can even exist without a territory, as between 1870 and 1929.

In light of all this, it is particularly strange that the Pope’s visit to Estonia should be such a big event and that the Vatican City is so influential. What are the sources and boundaries of this influence?

Papal influence has been a problem for many dictators and autocrats who have tried to reduce it by, for instance, translating it into military terms. Stalin’s rhetorical question is well known: “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?”; at the same time, there is confusion over to whom, when and in what circumstances it was said. The most famous version originates from Winston Churchill. When the French foreign minister, Pierre Laval, went to Moscow in 1935 to enquire about the possibility of joint action against Germany and asked whether it was in his power to do something to improve the situation of Russian Catholics, Stalin reportedly replied with the famous quip.1 But there are also other versions. Stalin’s interpreter, Valentin Berezhkov, remembers it differently: the incident allegedly occurred in Moscow in 1944, when Churchill took part in the so-called Moscow Conference. Churchill is said to have stated that the British went to war for Polish freedom and independence, felt morally obliged to protect the Polish people and their spiritual values, and could not allow developments there to complicate relations with the Vatican. “But how many divisions does the Roman Pope have?” Stalin suddenly interrupted Churchill’s speech.

It is possible that Stalin, who liked to repeat his anecdotes and aphorisms (he reportedly also told the joke about the Vatican’s divisions to his foreign minister, Molotov), used it on several occasions. In any case, it is said that his wit also reached the Holy See itself, and Pius XII responded: “You can tell my son Joseph that he will meet my divisions in heaven”.

But all of this belongs in the field of anecdotes. What is interesting is that, during the last few decades, people in Russia have started to recall those sayings, and not in a humorous context. The Pope’s invisible divisions were brought up during the Polish crisis, which resulted in the fall of the socialist regime in Poland. Both the trade union Solidarity and all leading anti-communist forces had a strong connection with the Church. The Church itself did not get involved in politics, but offered moral support to people who stood up against dictatorship. The weekly Masses for the Fatherland (Msze za Ojczyznę) held by the popular young priest Jerzy Popiełuszko since 1981 were remarkable events. He was the first priest who visited striking steelworkers and held a service for them. His actions were considered so dangerous that he was sentenced to jail in 1983, but he was released due to huge pressure from society. But then the secret police decided to get rid of him in another way; they kidnapped and murdered him in 1984. But you can only kill the body of a person, and Popiełuszko’s spirit lived on and his popularity kept on growing. Weekly Masses for the Fatherland also continued.

I’ll allow myself a personal remark at this point. In 1987 I was given permission to take part in a conference abroad for the first time. The country was Poland; perestroika was already underway in Estonia, but in Poland there was still deep stagnation. I took part in a Mass for the Fatherland. I can only guess how many people there were—the mass was held in the church garden, but the square next to it was packed and I would estimate that there were 20–30,000 participants. I still remember the unique experience I was able to take part in. I can only say that, even though my Polish language skills are very modest, I understood every word of the sermon. It was really some kind of pentecostal effect that has not recurred since. Father Popiełuszko died a martyr, and the process to have him canonised started as early as 1990. In 2009 it reached its penultimate stage, beatification. Even though there were relatively few Catholics in the Soviet Union (with the exception of Lithuania and, to some extent, Latvia), Moscow was very worried about papal power—and not only because of events in Poland. John Paul II proved once again that physical violence can be powerless in the face of moral power. If we come back to Stalin, it also has a theological aspect that is actually emphasised more strongly in Orthodoxy than in Western Christianity: that is, all saints and martyrs join the heavenly powers and every martyr makes the “Pope’s divisions” more powerful. The case of Jerzy Popiełuszko can in that sense provide food for thought for many dictators.

Stalin’s quote resurfaced in the Russian media in connection with the Ukraine crisis, this time not about how Stalin’s witty remark put Laval or Churchill in their place. The Vatican’s invisible divisions supposedly occupy church buildings in Ukraine that belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, which means that the power is real and dangerous. Of course, the Kremlin’s propaganda and the pro-Kremlin media cannot be taken at face value. Nations wanting to get rid of the communist “paradise” and Moscow’s diktat do not need schemes from either the CIA or the Vatican.

In the eyes of Russian strategists and ideologists, the Pope is a real power and that power is global. The Pope is the only person on Earth who turns to the whole of humankind in his messages. Encyclicals are addressed to Urbi et orbi (i.e. Rome and the world) and indeed, it is not only Catholics who read them. A prominent example of this is Pope Francis’s latest encyclical, Laudato si’.2 Even scientists, public figures and politicians not associated with Catholicism and Christianity discuss the ecological and social problems explored in this.

It is in a way paradoxical, but not unexpected, that, during our enlightened era of technical and scientific revolution, the moral power of the Pope and the Catholic Church has increased considerably. It can even be said that it has never been so great. In the globalised world, the Holy See is a global power. I remember how a Lutheran professor at the University of Helsinki announced with great irritation that the Roman Catholic Pope was merely a sick Polish geriatric who people listened to for some reason. The Pope is, in fact, a human being who is not safe from any human weaknesses, especially when it comes to his health. But the Pope is not merely a human being. He embodies the Holy See, the papacy, which was, according to Church legend, established by Jesus Christ, who told his apostle:

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah … you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:17–19)3

So the Holy See is not a man-made institution and every pope is a successor of Peter. This aspect—the unity of temporary and evanescent on the one hand with timeless and eternal on the other—was keenly felt by Osip Mandelstam in his essay on the Russian Catholic Pyotr Chaadaev.

Chaadaev stared at one point, mesmerised—the point where the unity [the story is about the sacred and secular dimensions of events] turned into flesh that is preserved with care and is passed down from one generation to the next. “But the Pope! The Pope! What is he? Is he not just an idea, a pure abstraction? Look at this old man carried around on a palanquin … nowadays, just like a thousand years ago, as if nothing has changed in the world: Indeed, where is the human here? Is this not a symbol of the almighty time—not the one that flows, but the one which does not move and through which everything flows, but who itself remains unaffected and through whom everything is realised?”4

The persona of the Pope incorporates the temporal and the timeless and both are important. The Pope is not cut off from the context of the era; his messages are not abstract truths that are valid everywhere and always. But at the same time, all his messages are addressed to the world of our time from a timeless perspective. In that sense he stands apart from all political leaders and public figures.

The eternal dimension enlightens all statements by the Pope. For instance, he talks about love: “Love is not words, it is work and service. A humble service …”. Love is sharing, which is at the same time the distribution of both material goods and gifts from the Holy Spirit.5 So, it is about bearing gifts from the Holy Spirit and being humble, uniting the highest spiritual power and maximum down-to-earthness. In the case of the Pope, this is not merely a beautiful figure of speech. Starting with Pope John XXIII, pontiffs have become more and more down-to-earth; the gestatorial chair that Mandelstam wrote about (or rather a throne carried by people—sedia gestatoria) was eventually abandoned by John Paul II; popes, like other mortals, get around on foot or by car (after the attempted assassination of John Paul II, popes use a special “Popemobile”).

The fact that the Pope stands outside the politics of the day makes him an important political factor, even in the field of diplomacy. A good example is Francis’s historic visit to Cuba in 2015, which on the one hand significantly improved the situation of the Church in this “freedom island” but on the other helped Cuba take important steps to normalise its relations with Latin American countries. It was precisely the Pope’s visit that in a way led to US president Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in 2016. There are many more examples of the great and positive influence of the Holy See on world affairs.

There is no space or need here to introduce the life of Pope Francis—a comprehensive summary of his life and views has been published in Estonian.6 I just want to focus on a couple of facts. On 28 February 2013, Pope Benedict XVI retired and became the first Pope Emeritus (Papa Emeritus). The conclave that convened under unusual circumstances quickly elected the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to be the new pope. It was something of a surprise, since the Ghanaian cardinal Peter Turkson was considered the frontrunner and a long conclave was predicted. The rapid election of a pope is a sign of consensus in the conclave and shows the cardinals were convinced that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the best person to deal with the challenges that the Holy Church must face. He thus became the first pope from the Americas. It is equally important that he is the first Jesuit pope.

But the most remarkable fact might be that he is the first Francis. Upon choosing a name, popes usually stress some continuity with their predecessors by adding a number to their name (or using the names of two preceding popes, such as John Paul I). The last pope who picked a completely new papal name for himself was Lando (913–14). He reigned during one of the darkest periods in Church history and after him no other incumbent has wanted to use that name. Francis is a truly remarkable name, and unexpected even from a Jesuit. Saint Francis is one of the most beloved Catholic saints, but during his lifetime he was more of a dissident who frequently upset the leaders of the Church; he was even suspected of heresy. Francis represented the radical wing of the Church that turned its back on earthly splendour and became the apostle of poverty. But not only poverty; Francis Christianised the whole of nature. He wrote a hymn to the sun, talked to birds and animals, and even defended the man-eating wolf by helping him make peace with the city of Gubbio. And that was during a time when the wolf was considered man’s greatest enemy in the animal kingdom in Europe. Nowadays, Saint Francis is considered the patron saint of ecologists. By choosing the name Francis, Pope Bergoglio drew attention to poverty and the environment as important directions during his service. Both of the Pope’s encyclicals develop and reinforce the teachings of the Church in these fields.

I do not mean to say that the Catholic Church, or the Pope personally, don’t face serious problems. The media currently focus on the Church’s child-abuse scandals. The frustration is justified: a paedophile priest is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—the person who is supposed to provide protection and security turns out to be a criminal predator. These problems are serious and need to be addressed more thoroughly. However, at this point I would like to say that this is not the only problem undermining Catholic unity. The second problem is the rights of homosexual couples, including their right to marry. The Vatican stands against this, but the pressure is great. Another topic is contraceptives—more specifically, condoms. The problem became particularly acute in connection with the AIDS pandemic in equatorial and South Africa. There are also other concerns.

Pope Francis, just like his predecessors, is under constant pressure from both inside and outside the Church. The Pope is attacked both by the right (as being too modern) and the left (not modern enough). His opponents criticise him for various, in their opinion incorrect, statements and decisions. On the other hand, they also criticise his statement about the pontiff being allowed to make mistakes. Pope Francis clearly distinguishes between his sacred mission and human nature. The fundamentalists criticise him for not condemning homosexuals. Instead, Francis has asked the rhetorical question: “Who am I to judge them?”. The right wing criticises him for being too welcoming to refugees; for instance, not only did he wash the feet of refugees on Maundy Thursday, but even the feet of Muslim refugees.

Critics of the Pope should be reminded of Jesus, who turned his back on the rich, fundamentalists and bigots and associated with publicans and fallen women, the most despicable human beings in society at the time.

John Paul II was the first pope to step on Estonian soil, 25 years ago. His visit became a major event, and not only for local Catholics. Let’s wait and see what the visit of Pope Francis will bring.


1 Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War. London etc.: Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 65.

2 Ole kiidetud. Laudato si. Püha Isa Franciscuse entsüklika. Hoolest meie ühise kodu eest. Tallinn: Kirjastus Gallus, 2018 (English title: “Praise Be to You. Encyclical of Pope Francis. On care for our common home”).

3 In the Estonian translation of the Bible, the word kogudus (congregation) is used as the equivalent of ekklesia in the original, which is not a mistake but brings forth only one aspect of the word. In the Byzantine and Orthodox traditions this word mainly means “church”, and the Russian gospel says “… I will build my church”. This distinction is not so clear in Catholicism since the Latin word ecclesia is an exact match to the Greek version, combining both meanings.

4 Осип Мандельштам, Петр Чаадаев. Сочинения. Том второй. Москва, 1990: 152–3 (Osip Mandelstam, Pyotr Chaadaev: Writings. Vol. 2).


6  Andrea Tornielli, Franciscus: Paavst Uuest Maailmast. Tallinn: Kirjastus Gallus, 2018 (English title: “Francis: Pope of a New World”).


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.