WITH HIS usual understatement, the Vatican's by now celebrated Secretary of State, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli described his June 13 meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev as an "end to silence".
"Now that we've made direct contact it could happen that we'll argue a lot. Better to argue than not talk at all", he said.
But his handshake with the Soviet leader under a portrait of Lenin at the Kremlin did not just break ice in the interests of world peace. The gesture was a culmination for the 74 year old cardinal, son of a North Italian tailor, of a career of bridgebuilding towards the East that he initiated in 1963 and has nurtured and advanced through the reigns of three popes.
Now that it has come so far, Casaroli prefers to call his "Ostpolitik" an "attitude of pastoral teaching".
He was in Vienna when it began in April 1963.
Two years before, John XXIII, already making overtures to Nikita Kruschev, had nominated Casaroli UnderSecretary at the Holy See's foreign office. As such the future cardinal was in Vienna representing the Vatican at a United Nations conference when he received a curt, personal message from the Pope. It ordered him to travel to Prague and Budapest for talks with political leaders. "Don't dally there in Vienna", the Pope told him.
And so, he became the first Vatican representative to meet Communist leaders in the Eastern Bloc after the Stalinist storm.
Today the Cardinal, who graduated from the Vatican's diplomatic university at the age of 26, recalls: "Those Communist leaders were convinced that Pope John was sincere, loyal and even affectionate towards them".
As Paul VI's Foreign Minister he continued to look to the East and in 1971 he visited Moscow "in the hope of an opening". Officially, he was the bringer of the Vatican's adherence to the nuclear arms limitation talks of the day and he remained just that for the Soviets. The Church delegation, in those days, was hosted in a country "dacia" at a safe distance from Red Square.
While nurturing SovietVatican relations Cardinal Casaroli, still facing East, has also been looking to bridge the gap with China. His aim is to re-forge Rome's links with the Church in China, interrupted in 1949 when Pius XII issued excommunication orders against the consecration of Chinese bishops without the Vatican's consent.
"If the patience of the Chinese is infinite, mine is eternal", is one of Casaroli's most often quoted remarks.
Another new role, more intense than before, emerged for the Vatican this decade — that of mediator in world conflicts. The Church has intervened in such questions as Chile's dispute with Argentina over the Beagle Channel, and in the Falklands War.
He and the Pope, however, do not always agree. Their animated discussions on such issues as Nicaragua and the Sandinistas and Poland are widely known, and sometimes overheard.
Like Gorbachev, struggling to reform the Soviet Union despite Party opposition, Cardinal Casaroli has his enemies, too, on home ground.
He has an openly tense relationship with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, since Vatican condemnation in 1984 of the Brazilian clergy's so-called "Theology of Liberation".
Cardinal Ratzinger condemned Brazilian Franciscan, Leonardo Boff, to a year's silence for perpetuating the "Theology" which condoned priests' active participation in often leftist, revolutionary Latin American politics. Cardinal Casaroli voiced his protest at Fr Boll's condemnation publicly: "Men hesitate to listen to prophetic voices if it proves inconvenient", he said.
Popular for his modesty and simplicity Casaroli has always managed to out-do his critics. His diplomatic style has become the object of a political study in Italy "because he rarely makes a mistake", researchers say.
The Cardinal claims to have only one basic creed: "The Church must defend the weak against the domineering of the strong".