Speaking at a conference in Italy, Pope Francis’s top official said the new deal between the Holy See and China for the nomination of bishops is “an act of faith” and addressed the growing tensions around immigration on the Italian peninsula.

“How we achieved [the deal] is a conquest of faith: from a human standpoint it seemed that there weren’t many possibilities,” said Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of State, while attending the inauguration of the academic year at the Theological Department of Emilia-Romagna in the town of Bologna Nov. 21.

Interviewed by local media, Parolin spoke about relations with China, the “many challenges” with the Orthodox Church in Russia, the debated issue of immigration in Italy and Europe, and the need for new priests capable of engaging with youth and society.

China/ Holy See Deal

Parolin discussed the October accord between China and the Holy See that addressed the existence of so-called “clandestine” bishops nominated by Francis, alongside bishops appointed by the government and not recognized by the Church.

“Now bishops will be nominated by the pope and recognized,” Parolin said.

“The current objective is to avoid having bishops that are not in communion with the Holy See. We hope that this deal works and that there may be good will on the Chinese front - there is on our side - to execute the measures that were previewed,” the cardinal added.

“It’s not easy since we have behind us complex years, but the journey that we have made together has generated more trust between the parties even if it’s difficult to strip [away] a mentality.”

The Vatican’s number two official answered questions by Italian journalist Aldo Cazzullo of the daily Corriere della Sera after his keynote speech on the topic of “The priest today and tomorrow: Annunciation, belonging, accompaniment and listening.

The dialogue between the Holy See and China has been going on since the 1970s, Parolin explained, adding that an interruption occurred in the Jubilee year 2000 due to the canonization of the Chinese martyrs on the same day of the anniversary of the Chinese Revolution, causing a diplomatic impasse.

“The date was interpreted as a provocation,” he said, until “in 2005 the Chinese approached us when the pontificate changed.”

The diplomat said that he became first involved in the tenuous relationships between the two states when he was Undersecretary for the Relations with States and praised the work of Vatican diplomats in paving the way toward the deal.

“What’s come to us is a conquest of faith, because humanly speaking there didn’t seem to be many possibilities [of obtaining a deal],” Parolin said.

“Many Challenges” with Orthodoxy in Russia

The Ukrainian crisis had already strained ecumenical efforts between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox, but the end of the Orthodox communion between Moscow and Constantinople has made diplomacy even more complex.

“There are many challenges,” said Parolin, referring to the October announcement that the Patriarchate of Constantinople had granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, following which Moscow announced a break in communion with Constantinople.

Ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox Church may no longer have to go through Moscow, the cardinal implied, stating that “there is more conviction on the part of Constantinople” in building a relationship with the Holy See.

Regarding Russia, Parolin said that he doesn’t see “the date of unity as close as it was optimistically discussed a few years ago.”

Migration: The Church Can’t Surrender

A quick glance at the policies concerning immigration across Europe shows that Francis’s message of welcoming and immigration is not reflected in local leadership or even among popular opinion.

But according to Parolin, “the Church hasn’t exposed itself too much” in pushing for further inclusion for immigrants and refugees, and for some political leaders Francis’s agenda rings true.

“The Church has done, and continues to do, its duty,” he said, adding that if it didn’t it would “fail our mission of announcing the Gospel.”

In Italy, where a populist coalition has implemented tough laws to prevent immigration and facilitate deportations, public opinion polls show that the view of the citizens couldn’t be further apart from that of the Vatican.

“I wouldn’t know how to fill that gap,” Parolin said. “The Church can’t surrender its message, perhaps we should help people reason, facing this topic with something other than fear.”

For the cardinal, the issue is not black-and-white and there is a need to address issues tied to integration of immigrants.

“But we can’t close our doors to those who are in trouble,” he added.

He also criticized dissonant approaches in the European Union and the fact that many countries are pulling back from the International Global Compact summit focusing on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration taking place in Marrakech, Morocco, Dec. 10-11.

Francis was initially rumored to attend the event but later pulled back. Parolin said that the pontiff asked him to go in his stead, “but we don’t know now if it’s appropriate to send a high-level delegation.”

The “Feeble voice” of Catholics in Politics

While some scholars wonder about the existence and importance of a “Catholic vote,” the top Vatican official expressed concern over the lack of significant Catholic presence in the public arena.

“The world has changed a lot and I don’t foresee a return to the past,” Parolin said, “but I think that Catholics have an important contribution to bring to society in several fields, including politics.”

“The fact that their voice has become feeble, almost inaudible, this concerns us,” he added.

The cardinal called Catholics to “unite and make their voices heard” especially on fundamental issues, perhaps by applying “a bit of creativity” into finding new ways of engaging with politics.

No Use Being Nostalgic for Priests of the Past

Parolin’s speech at the event focused on the changing figure of the Catholic priest, who must treasure “sharing” rather than being self-referential, to announce the message in the Gospel.

Today’s “reality is dynamic, in movement,” he said. “It would be a mistake to look at the priest with a lens of nostalgic escape toward the past, mourning the priest of the old days.”

What contemporary society needs is a priest “capable of wisely answering questions,” and who is willing to “to leave his pre-existing certainties,” the cardinal added, portraying the priest as not only a pastor, but also a disciple.

“The world needs human pastors, authentically free who know how to live peaceful interpersonal relations. A man of peace and reconciliation, a symbol of the tenderness of God. We need mediators who make themselves close to the people,” he said.

What the priest of the past and the present have in common is the “exercise of the art of accompaniment,” which must be filtered through care and listening.

To the many seminarians attending the event, Parolin said to keep a “serene outlook” on priests, who perform their function dutifully and generously even in situations that at times “are not easy.”

A little less than a month after the closing of a summit of bishops on young people, which took place at the Vatican in October, the cardinal emphasized that today’s youth is not “a lost generation.”

“Young people are open to life and seek answers, they need to be listened to. Priests, but also lay persons must listen to them,” Parolin said, adding that youth “must feel a church that is close, welcoming but able to provide guidance, because the Church is not only a mother, but a teacher.”