Prague, 10 June 1998(RFE/RL) -- Former Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, who was widely considered an architect of the Holy See's policy of rapprochement with the communist East, died yesterday in Rome. He was 83.
Pope John Paul II said in a commemorative message to the College of Cardinals that Casaroli was "a passionate builder of peaceful relations between individuals and nations and, by employing the utmost diplomatic sensitivity, made brave and significant steps, especially in improving the situation of the Church in Eastern Europe."
Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, head of the Vatican's Congregation for Eastern Churches, said that Casaroli "in bilateral dealings with individual communist regimes managed to extract concrete, tangible results."
Casaroli came to prominence in the early 1960s, when Pope John XXIII initiated a policy of the gradual expansion of contacts with communist-ruled countries.
In 1964, Casaroli achieved a partial accord between the Vatican and Hungary. Seven years later, this accord paved the way for anti-communist Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty to leave his "voluntary exile" in the U.S Embassy, where he stayed for 15 years following the Soviet suppression of a popular revolt against the communist rule.
In the late 1960s, Casaroli was appointed head of the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church or the Vatican's "foreign minister." In this capacity Casaroli successfully negotiated in 1970 the restoration of relations with Yugoslavia. And in 1971 he visited Moscow to conduct religious talks with Soviet officials; he was the first senior Vatican official to do so.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Casaroli frequently traveled to Poland to talk with communist rulers there. During those visits he became closely acquainted with the future pope, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.
Following his election as Pontiff in 1978, John Paul confirmed Casaroli as the Vatican's chief diplomat and a year later appointed him as Secretary of State, the Church's top official after the pope.
In 1988 Casaroli visited Moscow again. He was subsequently credited with successfully persuading the Soviet officials to allow greater religious freedom for Catholics in Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Russia itself. A year later, in December 1989, the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul met in the Vatican. Less than four months later the Vatican and Moscow exchanged ambassadors.
In December 1990 Casaroli resigned as the Vatican's Secretary of State and was replaced by his long-time associate, Monsignor (now Cardinal) Angelo Sodano.
Casaroli was universally acknowledged as a consummate diplomat, skillful negotiator and totally loyal official of the Church. His role was essentially that of a facilitator -- expanding the Church's work in the ideologically hostile communist environment while negotiating a place for the Church within that difficult setting.
The election of Pope John Paul brought major changes in the approach. This became particularly noticeable during the papal visit to Poland in 1979, the first to a communist-ruled country.
During his visit the pope presented an uncompromising critique of the authoritarian government, focusing his attention on moral issues and human rights rather than diplomatic exchanges with the leaders and appealing directly to the public.
The impact of the visit on Poland was dramatic, undermining the authority of the established leadership and encouraging popular self-organization. Merely a year later, the first popular social movement, Solidarity, rose to prominence through a popular rebellion against the power of the state. While it was subsequently crushed by force, the spirit of public independence and social autonomy from state control survived there, and even spread to other countries and societies.
This activist approach to "pastoral" issues that originated with the Polish visit has subsequently characterized papal visits to other communist and/or authoritarian states.
Casaroli, once so dedicated to gradualism and caution, adjusted to the new situation. Casaroli's appointment by the pope to the powerful position of Secretary of State confirms that. And this was fully accepted by the pope, who clearly appreciated the skill and devotion of the veteran Vatican diplomat.
Following Casaroli's retirement, the pope was reported to have said that it was "providential" to have worked with him during the times of "historic" changes in European and world politics.
Speaking yesterday in Moscow, Anatoly Krasikov, a spokesman for Russian President Boris Yeltsin, said that Cardinal Casaroli was a statesman of international stature "who like few others left his own mark on the time in which we live."