ACN News, Thursday, 19th July 2012 – RUSSIA
Reconciliation – a work of centuries
Catholics and Orthodox in Russia – scenes from everyday life
By Jürgen Liminski
The music is deafening, right outside the walls of the Kremlin. Thumping beat and blatant sexual imagery in front of Lenin's mausoleum. A brief pause, then suddenly shots ring out on Red Square. The rattle of toy pistols and plastic Kalashnikovs. Inside a huge tent obstacles have been set up, as though in a war movie, and adolescents are "shooting" their way through them. Meanwhile, from inside a church on the edge of the square, the singing of Vespers can be heard. While the youngsters are celebrating the end of the school year in a sort of fairground setting, predominantly elderly people are praying and singing just a hundred yards further on. This contrast at the heart of Moscow reveals as through a magnifying glass the Russia of today – war games and litany, destruction and gathering, provocative images and modest headscarves, mindless din and devout prayer, all together on Red Square.
It is a contrast evident not only in the capital; it is a part of the system. The poverty in Moscow and St Petersburg is glimpsed only from afar, guessed at in the giant concrete slab apartment blocks. But just a few kilometres outside Moscow the roads end in tracks, then lead through alleys of wooden houses. Even in the rich and glittering Saint Petersburg, with its golden domes and magnificent buildings, the Hermitage and the splendid cathedrals – even here there are the soup kitchens. Down a winding back alley in a narrow courtyard, aid workers of the Maltese Cross provide 300 to 400 people with a hot meal each day. Open, friendly faces, clean benches and tables – here the poor can experience the warmth of a practical, living Christianity. "We can learn from the experience of the Catholic welfare organisations, from their work in social issues", says the rector of the Orthodox seminary in Saint Petersburg, Episcopal Vicar Ambrosij (Ambrose) of Gatshina. Certainly, in the new social issues there are many major challenges for the Orthodox Church in Russia. They have begun to approach them systematically. Seminarians help to care for the poor and the handicapped, and visit prisoners in the jails. And marriage and family issues will now find a place in the general curriculum for their training. "Almost four out of five families break up", Bishop Ambrose estimates. Another related social problem is that of single mothers.
(The rector of the Orthodox seminary in Saint Petersburg, Episcopal Vicar Ambrosij (Ambrose) of Gatshina with Jürgen Liminski fom ACN)
At the same time they are still trying to deal with the problems of the past. Since the political changes, the Russian Orthodox Church has either rebuilt or reconsecrated around 25,000 churches and reopened some 800 monasteries and convents. It has established 15 theological faculties and secured a new place for religion on the school curriculum. Hundreds of thousands of adults have been baptised, and the churches are well attended. But for many people, it seems, a church wedding is no more than a beautiful celebration, and weddings have become something of a fashion event, as Bishop Ambrose laments. The boom is over, "the post-Christian era is coming, secularisation is here and won't stop outside the church doors", says Bishop Ambrose. Nor does one need any special prophetic faculties to make such a prediction. Already the consequences of materialism and consumerism are evident, and the expectations on the Church in Russia are immense – the work for unborn life, the family apostolate, the promotion of marriage love and fidelity…
The young Bishop Ambrose is an unusually open man, alert to the needs of the world around him. For him it is clear that in all these issues there is a great deal to learn from the Catholic Church, "from her experience and her know-how". He is grateful for the visit by the delegation of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). He has enjoyed many years of good collaboration, in many different pastoral fields, with this charity, now a Foundation of pontifical right.
A similar openness and willingness for cooperation is also apparent in Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfejev), the head of the external affairs office of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. He speaks of a "strategic alliance" with the Catholic Church. Although "Eucharistic unity" will still be a long time coming, we can nevertheless already work together today, he believes. He too expressed his gratitude, only recently, during a meeting with the executive president of ACN, Johannes Heereman, for the charity's help in difficult times and its many efforts on the long road to unity. For now there are still only small gestures that can be made – on both sides. For example, Pope Benedict has recently renounced the papal title of "Patriarch of the West" – after 1500 years – as an ecumenical gesture towards the Orthodox. The renunciation of this title implies a reinforcement of the notion of collegiality within the Western Church, and this in turn fits in well with the overall structure of a future, reconciled Church.
In the essentials there is little separating the Churches in East and West. They have the same sacraments, only different rites. What divides them above all is the differing perceptions of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, together with a certain lack of mutual trust.
On the Orthodox side too they are beginning to overcome this mistrust and embark upon so-called trust-building measures. Even while still a professor, in the 1960s, Pope Benedict XVI had written the book Introduction to Christianity and his preface to the book was as pithy as it was clear: "Credo. Amen". This book has been many times reprinted and translated into several other languages – including Russian – and the foreword to this edition was written by none other than Metropolitan Kirill, today the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. A Catholic book that could not be more papal, in Russian for Russia and with a foreword by the Orthodox Patriarch! This same Kirill, together with the then Patriarch Alexei II, also wrote a letter of greeting to ACN in which both men congratulated the charity on its 60th birthday – with an exceptionally cordial greeting and expressing the hope for further collaboration, "among equal brothers".
Of course these are only small pieces in a large historical mosaic. But they are at least enough to lend some sketchy outline to the hope for reconciliation – albeit a reconciliation that is a work of centuries, perhaps.
Powerfully symbolic of this is a Marian religious order of nuns with a vocation of unity, founded a good hundred years ago by Blessed Boleslawa-Maria Lament. Their particular charism was, and is, to promote the reunification of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches through prayer and works. And this has been the apostolate of the "Lamentines" ever since, above all in St Petersburg. They worke in education and formation, in schools and youth work – and still today this is where the small pieces of the mosaic of everyday life and coexistence are fashioned.
Archbishop Paolo Pezzi, the chairman of the Catholic Bishops' conference in Russia, is optimistic. He describes relations with the Russian Orthodox Church as "cordial". Catholics are in the situation of a "minority Church" in Russia, he recalls, and it is therefore good-naturedly accepted that the Catholics should care for their flock, should develop their pastoral services and that we should jointly bear witness to Christian values in an environment marked with materialism. There is a tangible will "to show together that Christianity enriches society", he says.
The Catholic Church has around 400 priests ministering to around 600,000 Catholics in four dioceses of vast dimensions. The diocese of Irkutsk in Siberia is geographically the largest in the world, though it has just 50,000 Catholics. The Catholic Church in Russia is poor, and everywhere there is a legal struggle for the return of her properties, which by its very nature is difficult in a system that did not acknowledge property.
(The Chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Russia, Archbishop Paolo Pezzi
with the Executive President of Aid to the Church in Need, Johannes Freiherr Heereman © Blagovest Info)
Of course the Orthodox see not only the small number of Catholics in Russia, but behind them they see Rome. The prospect of a meeting between Pope and Patriarch is brought up again and again in conversation. Off the record people are already talking about it and saying that it will take place, on neutral soil. It will probably take some time yet, but the movement towards this goal can no longer be mistaken. Such a meeting was the heartfelt wish of Pope Benedict's predecessor, who died in 2005. But Pope John Paul II was a Pole, and although nationality should not actually play any role at this level, for a Church so intertwined with politics as the Orthodox Church is, even this would have been a signal that they did not want to give. With the German Pope times have changed. Also, in Moscow they very clearly noted who it was that the Pope quoted in his famous address in Regensburg – an emperor of Byzantium who had to defend himself against the Muslim assault on Constantinople. For discerning Russians, a sign of mutual sympathy.
Nonetheless, experts on the situation estimate that a good third of the population in Moscow, around 4 million people, are Muslims. They come from Central Asia, from the Caucasus, allegedly have more children than Russians and are less receptive to secularisation. Compared with the seriously lacking sense of unity with them, there is great harmony between Catholics and Orthodox.
The promotion of greater harmony with our sister Church was one of the great goals of the founder of ACN, Father Werenfried van Straaten, who died in 2003. Over many years he supported a wide range of projects aimed at strengthening ecumenical relations, for example the construction of "chapel boats" to serve the pastoral needs of the Orthodox Church on and around the Volga River region. To this day ACN continues to support both Catholic and Orthodox projects in Russia. In 2011 alone some $3.1 million were given, among other things for the training of priests and religious and for the production of Christian TV and radio programmes.
(The Chapel boat travelling down the Volga River)
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
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