Estergom, Hungary — A meeting at the Vatican between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II is expected to occur sometime this year. In a Monitor interview, Hungary's Roman Catholic primate disowned first-hand knowledge of the situation and discounted Italian press reports that he has been a conduit for soundings between the Kremlin and the Holy See.
However, the primate, Laszlo Cardinal Lekai, did see the Pope as recently as November and reports since then have multiplied that a meeting later this year between the Pontiff and Soviet leader is under substantive discussion. And a meeting with Cardinal Lekai here in his 1,000 year-old archbishopric left little room for doubt that such a meeting is the matter of active ``high negotiation.'' The octogenarian primate is in lively health, despite recent rumors of indisposition.
The door was opened last year when Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, during his visit to Moscow, invited Mr. Gorbachev to Italy. The Soviet leader accepted at once.
Both sides think it unlikely that the Soviet leader would forgo an opportunity to meet with the Pope during an official visit to Rome.
``The Holy Father is at home to whoever knocks at his door,'' Cardinal Lekai said with a twinkle in his eyes.
It would be the first encounter between a Pope and a Soviet leader since Nikita Khrushchev visited the Vatican in the early 1960s. Khrushchev's successor, Leonid Brezhnev, never apparently evinced interest in a meeting, as Cardinal Lekai confirmed, though in later years Andrei Gromyko, then Soviet foreign minister, called on the Pope.
A meeting between John Paul II and Gorbachev would inevitably focus attention on the Soviet bid to enlist European and world opinion in an effort to build international concern over the nuclear threat, which Gorbachev says cannot be left to the two superpowers alone.
It is an argument with strong appeal to smaller West European nations as well as those of Eastern Europe. And it is of special interest to Hungary. It has gone far in reforming its economy. In recent years, it has been a strong supporter of the right of smaller nations, in the East or West, to have a voice of their own in international decisionmaking.
Hungary has also established East Europe's most stable relationship with the churches, including Hungary's largest congregation, the Roman Catholic. ``There still are problems,'' says the primate, ``but we talk about them regularly. Bit by bit we have progressed.''
``Which is more productive,'' he adds, ``than banging my fist on the table as some of the critics say I should.''
If there is a favorable international climate, a likely sequel to a meeting between Gorbachev and the Pope could be Soviet agreement to allow the Pontiff to visit Lithuania, the most traditionally Catholic of the Baltic states incorporated into the Soviet Union during World War II.
He has hoped for several years to be able to accept the church's invitation to attend the 500th-anniversary celebrations that have been going on for more than a year. The Soviets have vetoed such a visit thus far.