Interview with H.E. Archbishop Charles Balvo, Apostolic Nuncio in the Czech Republic.

Interview with H.E. Archbishop Charles Balvo, Apostolic Nuncio in the Czech Republic.

Prague Forum had recently a chance to have an interview with H.E. Charles Balvo before he is leaving this week to his new post in Australia.

We wish him al the best.

1: How long are you already posted in Prague and where before?

First of all, I would like to express my thanks for to Hans Weber for inviting me to take part this interview for Prague Forum, which I regularly receive in electronic form. I have been able to enjoy articles and interviews given by different people, including some of my colleagues in the diplomatic corps.

To answer your first question, I arrived in Prague on 22 November 2018, which, coincidentally, was Thanksgiving Day in the United States, my country of origin. That day I was able to meet most of the Catholic Archbishops and Bishops at a lunch that was organized in the Archbishop’s Residence, and, in the evening, at the Apostolic Nunciature, I was treated to the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

I came to Prague from Nairobi, and I am happy to say that I have had the opportunity to live and work in many different places in the world, which has allowed me to experience the distinctiveness of so many human cultures and to admire the beauty of nature.

My first assignment, nearly 35 years ago, was to the Apostolic Nunciature in Accra, which covered Ghana, Togo and Benin. Before then I had never been to Africa, and during my three years there I had the interesting and rewarding opportunity to get to know a way of life very different from my own.

Subsequently, I spent six years in South America, three in Quito, Ecuador, and three in Santiago, Chile. I was able to learn the Spanish language and to live in a region of importance for the Catholic Church. Quito is located in the altiplano, the high plateau, between two cordilleras, the eastern and western mountain chains, at 2,800 meters above sea level. I was able to visit the westernmost extent of the Amazon rain forest and to travel to the Galapagos Islands, noted for their interesting animal life.

Santiago is not a high-altitude location, and it lies in front of the magnificent Andes mountains, shared by Chile and Argentina. The city is not really so far from Mount Aconcagua, in Argentina, the highest peak in all the Americas.

In 1996, in my third year as Secretary of the Apostolic Nunciature in Santiago, I had the opportunity to travel to Antarctica, on an ice breaker belonging to the Chilean Navy. The voyage lasted three weeks and, while I had been on ferries from time to time, it was my first time sailing on the open ocean and, happily, I did not get seasick. The whole trip was truly unforgettable.

From Santiago, I made the jump across hemispheres and oceans, to Prague, where I spent three very happy years, from 1996 to 1999. Thanks to daily lessons, I was able to learn the Czech language, to some degree, and I was able to accompany the Apostolic Nuncio at the time, Archbishop, later Cardinal, Giovanni Coppa, on trips to different parts of the county. From 25 to 27 April 1997, Pope Saint John Paul II made a pastoral visit to Prague and Hradec Králové, which gave me the first opportunity to participate in a papal journey.

From Prague I went to Amman, Jordan. The Apostolic Nuncio lived in Baghdad – that arrangement remains the same even today – so, for the most part, I was in charge of the Apostolic Nunciature. When I arrived, the most important duty facing me was the preparation of the pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II, which took place on 20 and 21 March 2000, as part of a series of pilgrimages that he was making to celebrate the great jubilee of the Christian faith.

After Jordan, I spent three years at the Apostolic Nunciature in Vilnius, which covers the three Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. These three countries were in a process of transformation after regaining their independence in 1991, and in 2004, they became members both of NATO and the European Union. The Apostolic Nuncio at the time was also the Apostolic Administrator of Estonia, that is, the bishop for the small Catholic community, so I spent a lot of time with him there assisting with his activities. The three countries are characterized by many forests and lakes, and the winters were long and beautiful, which was good for me, since I like snow very much.

On 1 April (yes!) 2005, I was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to New Zealand and was given the titular see of Castello, which is part of the city of Venice. The Apostolic Nunciature in Wellington covers twenty territories. I was Apostolic Nuncio in eleven – New Zealand, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu – and Apostolic Delegate in nine – American Samoa, French Polynesia, Guam, New Caledonia, Niue, Northern Mariana Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Wallis and Futuna. The difference between the two titles and positions is that, as Apostolic Nuncio, I was accredited to the government and the local church while, as Apostolic Delegate, I was accredited only to the local church. If I were to describe all the experiences that I had during the nearly eight years I lived in Wellington, this interview would be much longer.

On 17 January 2013, I was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Kenya and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations Office in Nairobi (UN Environment Program and UN Habitat). Later in that same year, on 21 December, I was also appointed Apostolic Nuncio to South Sudan, while remaining resident in Nairobi. I was happy to return to Africa and to get to know a different part of the continent. In addition to those two countries, my duties took me to Bangui, Kampala, Kigali and Khartoum (no alliterative pun intended), so I was able to get to know different social, economic, political and religious situations. I was able to visit, in some way, most of the regions of Kenya and South Sudan. As I will mention later in this interview, the situation in South Sudan was and continues to be quite difficult due to serious internal conflicts.

Overall, I have enjoyed living in these countries, with different cultures, religious traditions and natural wonders. The most important aspect of my diplomatic postings over all was and continues to be that I meet and get to know the people.

2: When did you decide to become a priest?

To answer this question, I will have to give you some family history. My ethnic origins are Irish and Sicilian. My mother’s parents were born in Ireland and emigrated to the United States at the time of World War I. My father’s mother was born in England, of Irish parents, and emigrated to the United States in 1903. My father’s grandfather was born in Sicily and arrived in New York in 1885, while his grandmother was second generation Irish, her family having arrived in New York in the 1860’s.

Many descendants of immigrants have some relationship with their countries of origin, and some identify very strongly with those cultures. For example, my youngest sister’s husband is partly of Lebanese descent and, even if the family no longer speaks Arabic, aside from a few expressions, the culinary traditions remain, and my sister has learned to prepare some of the cuisine.

For my parents, the most important traditions and values were not those of our ethnic origins but of our Catholic faith. I am the first born of five children, two sons and three daughters, and I was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 29 June 1951. I started school in February 1957, and went to the local parochial school, Saint Edmund’s. We lived close by, so I used to walk to school twice a day, since I also came home for lunch.

In 1959, when I was eight years old, we moved from the city to Suffern, New York, a suburb about fifty kilometers to the northwest of New York. There, to complete my primary education, I went to the local parochial school, Sacred Heart. In fact, all five of us went to Catholic schools for our primary and most of our secondary education.

­­­­When I was in fourth grade, in 1959, I became an altar boy, and I really enjoyed the experience of serving Mass. During the season of Lent, which precedes the celebration of Holy Week and Easter, our parish used to schedule an extra Mass at 12:10 p.m. so that people could go to Mass during their lunch hour. The children at the parochial school were also encouraged to attend and so, when I was 9 or 10, I started to go to Mass every day during Lent. Little by little, I began to feel the desire not only to serve the Mass but also to celebrate it, as a priest.

I did not find it hard to make the decision to be a priest and in fact it is the only thing I that I really wanted to be. I had a lot of support from my parents and in fact, our family life had a strong influence on my decision. Furthermore, the priests who served in the parish were also good examples. The one who was in charge of the altar boys at that time in now about 90 years of age and I remain in contact with him.

I began my seminary studies at the earliest stage possible, in the first year of secondary (high) school, in the minor seminary of the Archdiocese of New York, located in Manhattan. Subsequently, I spent four yours at a regional seminary in Queens, New York, for the study of philosophy. In 1972, I was sent to Rome to complete the studies of theology and the formation for priesthood. I lived at the North American College, the seminary for seminarians from the United States, and I studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University, which is run by the Society of Jesus.

I was ordained a priest on 6 June 1976, in the chapel of the seminary in Rome. After ordination, I worked for six years as a parochial vicar (also known as an assistant or curate) in two different parishes in the Archdiocese of New York. In 1982, I was sent to the Catholic University of America in Washington, to study Canon Law, since I was expected to work in the Archdiocesan tribunal. When I finished the licentiate (equivalent to a master’s degree) in 1984, my train switched tracks. As I already noted, I was asked to become a part of the diplomatic service of the Holy See, so I returned to Rome to live at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, which prepares priests for this particular service and which is located near the Pantheon. I completed the studies of Canon Law, obtaining a doctorate from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

3: What you like the most in Prague and what have you seen in the Czech Republic?

After I returned to Prague in 2018, I was asked on occasion what I find different from when I first arrived twenty-five years ago. This is a city with a more than thousand-year history, so that some things such as Prague Castle, the Cathedral, many churches, historic buildings and city squares, remain essentially the same, even if there have been some renovations in various places.

Since I am originally from the United States, I like to point out jokingly that in the intervening years there seems to have been an increased interest in some aspects of American cuisine, with the presence of many fast-food restaurants and coffee shops.

One of the most attractive aspects of life in Prague and the whole of the country, both then and now, is the availability of so many cultural activities. I like music very much and it is possible to find concerts, in different styles, taking place on almost every day of the year. Some of these are regular subscription events, such as at the Rudolfinum, while others have been organized as individual events, particularly by some embassies.

Society is generally more prosperous now and there are many economic opportunities. As can be expected, I have noticed the difference with regard to world of finance, electronics and information technology.

On something of a more official level, during my first experience in Prague, the late Václav Havel was President, while both Václav Klaus and then Miloš Zeman served as Prime Minister. Therefore, some political figures remain on the scene while, of course, others have come to the fore.

Furthermore, since that time, the Czech Republic has become part of North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, which, although imperfect, like all human institutions, is an important instrument of unity for a continent that has experienced much conflict during its long history.

In the exercise of my functions, I have been able to visit the different regions of the country. For example, I have travelled often to Olomouc, as well as to Ostrava, Valašské Klobouky and other towns nearby, Velehrad, Kolín and Český Brod. Ever since I was a boy, I have liked anything that moves on rails, so I have frequently travelled by train. I have visited many parishes in and around Prague, and I have often used the Metro and the tramways. Many of the other places that I have visited are more easily reached by car.

In my free time, I have also visited all four national parks in the Czech Republic as well as other parks, cities and towns. The seasons of the year present so many different panoramas – I am partial to autumn colors and winter snow – and I have enjoyed travelling to places where I can enjoy the beauty of nature.

4. You have been serving in many countries. How has this affected your interpreation of your magisterium and pastoral activities?

The Gospel, which for Christians is the Word of God, has always been preached in human language, using human concepts and ideas, and addressing human cultures. From the very beginning, on the first Pentecost, the people who were listening to the apostles came from different countries and cultures, and they understood the Word in their own language. The Apostle Paul used the terminology of Greek philosophy and he also said that he tried to be all things to all people so that at least some of them could understand. At its very beginning, Christianity was influenced by and influenced, among others, the Hebrew, Greek and Roman cultures.

In central Europe, the Greek brothers, Saints Cyril and Methodius, adopted the same method in adapting the Gospel to the language of the people, even creating an alphabet in which it could be written.

Today, such a principle is referred to as inculturation, which is a term that is used to denote a process of engagement between the Christian Gospel and a particular culture. It means, on the one hand, safeguarding the integrity of the Gospel and, on the other, encouraging sensitivity to various cultural contexts.

The different assignments that I have had have allowed me to experience the life of the people in various circumstances and cultures, and the manner in which I have tried to carry out my tasks has been to some degree different in places as culturally and religiously diverse as New Zealand, the Pacific Island countries, East Africa and now the Czech Republic.

5: What are the main topics in the diplomatic relationships between the Holy See and the Czech Republic?

The diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Czech Republic are good and there are a number of fields in which both work together. In November of every year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organizes a one-day conference on intercultural and interreligious dialogue in which I have taken an active part. Last year, due to the coronavirus restrictions, the conference was held online, via zoom – it was my first such experience. This year the conference was held in a mixed format, with limited personal participation and with some of the speeches being given online.

The Holy See is firmly committed to multilateral relations, in institutions such as the United Nations and its agencies, the Organization of American States, the African Union, and the European Union, of which the Czech Republic, as has already been mentioned, is a member. These international institutions can and do work in common efforts regarding respect for the human person, protection of the environment and issues related to justice and peace.

As I already mentioned, I was Apostolic Nuncio to South Sudan, for a period of nearly five years. Following a period of forty years of civil war between the north and the south of Sudan, the people of South Sudan, in a referendum held in 2009, voted overwhelmingly for independence, which was granted in 2011. My appointment was made public on 21 December 2013, just barely a week after the beginning of a civil war in the new nation, which has continued, to some degree, up to the present day.

The Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian Churches immediately began to seek a solution to the problem and bring peace. Cardinal Peter Turkson, a native of Ghana, who is the President of the Holy See’s dicastery – an ecclesiastical word equivalent to ministry – for the Service of Integral Human Development made two trips to that nation’s capital, Juba, and met with church and state authorities. The Secretariat of State got involved at various levels and on 11 April 2019, the President Salva Kiir and First Vice-President Riek Machar, who have been very much involved in the conflict, were invited to Rome for a two-day retreat and a meeting with Pope Francis. If you remember, he bent down and kissed their feet in an appeal for them to make peace and to stop the great suffering of the people.

This is just an example of the Holy See and the Holy Father’s commitment in favor of peace and human development, which can hopefully be achieved in cooperation with other countries, such as the Czech Republic.

At this point, I would also like to say something about my relationship with my colleagues, the Ambassadors, who number about 85, in representation of their countries. Some of them have spent their careers in the diplomatic service while others are political appointees, that is, they have some kind of relationship with the head of state or government of their nation and therefore are given the post of ambassador.

I am the dean of the diplomatic corps which means, first of all, that I have more work. As a rule, ambassadors visit me at the beginning of their mission and also at the end, the latter often with regard to the scheduling of a farewell reception at which I normally give a short speech. On account of the coronavirus pandemic, many activities were suspended or cancelled during the past year and a half but, recently, it has been possible to organize concerts, exhibitions and receptions. I would say that, as a group, there is a sense of cohesion among the heads of diplomatic missions, and we support each other in the exercise of our functions.

There are also some state and civic functions at which I am normally asked to say a few words on behalf of my diplomatic colleagues, to the President, on the occasion of the National Day, and to the President of the Parliament and the Senate, and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and at the Office of the Mayor of Prague, for Christmas and the New Year. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, most of these occasions have regretfully been cancelled.

6: Czechs have a long historical Catholic tradition but they have also experienced 40 years of Communism. How do you see their current relationship with the Faith?

The forty years of communist rule had a profound effect on the life of the Church. In general terms, the situation in Czechoslovakia was very difficult and religious practice was very much restricted and religious personnel suffered persecution. After the velvet revolution, religious freedom has been restored, which has presented religious bodies with challenges and opportunities.

With reference to the challenges, I am aware that there are a good number of people in the Czech Republic who do not identify with a particular religious tradition and do not usually take part in religious services. At the same time, with reference to the opportunities, I have met Christian communities that have a living and active life of faith and worship, and service to people in need. The people in the parishes come from diverse economic and social circumstances. The leaders of the communities – priests, religious and lay – are committed and I would consider many of them to be very active. They respect and love their people and are respected and loved in return. In some parishes the members of the congregation are older but, in many others, there are younger people and families with children. At the same time, I have seen that in general the priests and other parish personnel have good relations with the local civil authorities and actively cooperate in many social fields.

I have celebrated Mass for large groups of university and high school students, and I have also seen that young people are choosing a vocation to the priesthood or to the religious life. These are positive signs and the witness that these young people can show the importance of faith in their lives and can therefore have an effect on other people.

Furthermore, in synthesis, the Catholic Church is active in the fields of education, health care and social services. There are more than 90 schools, at various levels, in which are enrolled more than 16,000 students, many of whom come from socially disadvantaged families.

With regard to health care, a number of religious orders run hospitals, homes for the elderly and hospices, which provide both health care and social services, also for people who are suffering very serious or incurable illnesses.

Czech Caritas (Catholic Charities) is part of the worldwide system of Caritas Internationalis, which is present in most countries and territories, both on national and local levels. It is the largest non-governmental provider of health services in this country, providing primarily social services, health care and preventive care to people who are living in poverty or difficult situations; people who have disabilities; people who have terminal illnesses; people who are homeless or who are dealing with issues of substance abuse; people who are in prisons, or who are victims of domestic abuse and of human trafficking; and others in need.

The people of the Czech Republic have been very generous in offering financial assistance through the “Three Kings Collection” and the Mission Sunday collection taken up in all the Catholic parishes during the month of October, which supports the work of the Church in mission territories. As I already noted, before coming to Prague last year, I was Apostolic Nuncio to Kenya and South Sudan for nearly six years, and every year some of the funds sent to support the work of the Church in those two countries came from the Czech Republic.

7: What are the main topics in the diplomatic relationships between the Holy See and the Czech Republic?

I have had the experience of three papal visits in the course of my diplomatic service to the Holy See, as I have already mentioned. I had a limited role in the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Czech Republic in 1997. He had already made pastoral visits to Czechoslovakia in 1990 and the Czech Republic in 1995, so the church and civil authorities here had gained invaluable experience when planning the third visit.

When he made his pastoral visit to Jordan, in 2000, I was much more involved, since that country had had no such experience and also because the Apostolic Nuncio lived in Baghdad, so his participation in the organization was somewhat limited.

It is hard to believe that six years have passed since the visit of Pope Francis to Nairobi, Kampala and Bangui, which took place in late 2015. The cooperation between the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops and the government of Kenya was excellent and the visit was memorable.

The organization of a papal visit requires a lot of work, time and energy but I hope that I will be able to engage all three in a future visit of the Holy Father to this country.

8: Can the current, and hopefully declining, epidemiological emergency bring people back to their religious values?

The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken up every aspect of life, including the life of the Church. The measures that were taken at first, last year, to fight the spread of the virus had the result that many worship services, conferences, meetings and other activities were very much limited in participation or outright cancelled. This reality also affected the plans that I had made, during that period.

The pandemic has posed both a challenge and an opportunity. It has been a challenge since the Church was not able to carry out its mission in the usual way. It is also an opportunity since the Church has had to find news means of preaching the Gospel and celebrating the Holy Mass and the sacraments. The modern means of social communication have been very helpful in this sense, such as the Catholic television channel Televize Noe and the Christian radio station Radio Proglas. Individual priests and parishes have streamed worship services online, on You Tube or Facebook. I know that other kinds of activities have been organized, such as, moments of prayer and meditation, lectures on religious themes and scripture studies, most of which have been made available online.

Many people have given selflessly of themselves in service to those who have been afflicted by Covid-19. In his prayer that took place on 25 March 2020, in Saint Peter’s square, Pope Francis pointed out that we can see “how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people – often forgotten people – who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest show, but who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time: doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women and so very many others … . How many people every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility. How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday gestures, how to face up to and navigate a crisis by adjusting their routines, lifting their gaze and fostering prayer”.

He noted that “a positive fruit of the present health crisis is the feeling of solidarity, since all the nations of the world are facing this moment of pain. The virus knows no borders and has broken down the barriers and distinctions of race, nation, religion, wealth, and power. Therefore, we should not go back to things as they were before this moment”.

As Pope Francis has exhorted us, we should not waste this opportunity to reimagine how our world can be. It is a time when we can use the vast resources at our disposal to achieve the goals that are most necessary, not the production of more weapons, but rather those that are most urgent, namely, health, hygiene, food, the fight against poverty, stewardship of creation. He invites us to leave to the next generation a world richer, not in material goods or money, but in humanity.

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