Ice curtain in the East

 — Jan. 27, 200127 janv. 2001

The Pope would like to go to Moscow, but the Russian Orthodox Church is resolutely opposed. The Pope’s concept of a Europe breathing with two lungs –East and West — is foreign to the Orthodox. The Moscow correspondent of the Oxford-based Keston Institute, which monitors religion in Eastern Europe, analyses the stand-off between the two Churches.

On 7 January, Russia’s Orthodox Church celebrated the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christ. Thousands attended the Christmas liturgy in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, triumphantly, and, many have averred, tastelessly, restored to the city’s skyline more than 60 years after Stalin ordered its obliteration from it. Live coverage of the event was marred, however, when Patriarch Alexis II arrived more than an hour late, delayed by his participation in the day’s informal meetings between President Putin and the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder.

As the television cameras panned in on the massed faithful awaiting their Patriarch, they picked out the emerald robes of seemingly the most senior cleric in attendance — Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin, head of Russia’s Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims. For the third year running, the chief representative of Russia’s Roman Catholics, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, had not been invited.

Catholic-Orthodox relations in Russia remain poor. The Moscow Patriarchate’s frequent complaints that the Catholic Church is engaging in rampant proselytism translate into a state policy of containment. In Moscow, there are 27 Masses in more than 10 languages every Sunday — almost all of which take place under two roofs.

Attempts to reclaim the third historically Catholic building of the church of SS Peter and Paul in order to relieve the strain have been fruitless. When Cardinal Angelo Sodano acting as papal legate made a request to Mayor Luzhkov’s office for three plots of land to build chapels in lieu of the return of the church of SS Peter and Paul, he reportedly received a strong and swift rejection.

According to one Catholic source in Moscow, the Catholic Church has agreed not to create any new institutions or structures in the city, so that the number of legally registered parishes totals five. The remainder — including those which group Filipinos, Latin Americans, Koreans and Iraqis — are either termed pastoral points in an official directory of the Catholic Church in Russia for the year 2000, or else are not listed at all.

In addition, the two apostolic administrations (diocese would be too provocative a term) of southern European Russia and eastern Siberia have been denied registration because they are headed by foreigners. Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Pole, and Bishop Clemens Pickel, a German, have been told that they will be granted Russian citizenship only if they marry a Russian, and currently have to pass any non-internal documentation — such as invitations for visiting foreign clergy — to their counterparts with legal status in Moscow or Novosibirsk. By contrast, the American-born Berl Lazar, the Kremlin’s preferred choice as chief rabbi over Adolf Shayevich, who is backed by the industrialist and oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, faced no obstruction in obtaining Russian citizenship.

The chancellor of the Moscow-based European Apostolic Administration, the Catholic priest Fr Igor Kovalevsky, insists that the Catholic Church in Russia is just trying to function normally and provide for its minority here. We are not posing any competition at all. With 60 per cent of the Russian population claiming to be Orthodox, and the Catholic Church bending over backwards to keep to its own while simultaneously supporting the Orthodox through foundations such as Aid to the Church in Need, it is indeed difficult to see why the Catholic minority of approximately 500,000 is subject to so much hostility.

Orthodox fears of competition appear more realistic, however, when one takes into account the fact that so few Russians are truly touched by Orthodoxy. Where they have a presence, Catholics might constitute 1 per cent of the population, with practising Orthodox making up another 3 per cent. In addition, the concentration of Orthodox parishes is such that 8,450, or almost half, are situated not in Russia, but in the west in Ukraine. The vast area of Siberia east of the Yenisei River, by contrast, contains approximately 500 parishes. The Orthodox Church’s current total of 19,000 parishes is still only a fraction of the 78,000 it had before the Revolution, and the euphoria of the early 1990s when many new believers were received is a thing of the past. Does this mean that the much-vaunted revival of Orthodoxy in Russia is a fiction? Many Western commentators have looked for it in vain, expecting a healthy revival to exhibit certain characteristics, such as social work, a desire for ecumenical dialogue or a move towards modernising liturgical language. By contrast, they have seen a rise in nationalism within the Church coupled with virulent anti-Catholicism.

If one can speak of a revival, it does not exhibit those characteristics sought for by Western Christians. There is a core of sincere, sober-minded practising Orthodox in Russia devoted to their Church, but they tend to concentrate upon the vertical aspects of church life. Asked whether there had been an Orthodox revival in Russia, one young parishioner told me that it was difficult to know what such a revival would be like from the point of view of the New Testament, since God’s kingdom is not of this world. In the light of such sentiments, it is perhaps easier to understand why one of the strongest elements of revival is not in the social sphere, but monasticism.

Compared with their Christian counterparts in western Europe, however, practising Orthodox are stronger within sections of society such as academia and youth, where they tend to enjoy the respect of their non-believing peers rather than experiencing their scepticism. Nationalist feeling among these practising Orthodox, however, remains passive. Nationalists prefer to parade on the streets with banners rather than attend church, and, as before the Revolution, only a tiny minority of Orthodox monarchists belong to the virulently nationalist Black Hundreds movement.

There are in any case two forms of nationalism in Russia — Stalinist and pre-revolutionary. Most nationalists belong in the first category and are indifferent to religion. This does not stop them from being opposed to the institution of the Catholic Church, however, since there is a general perception that it belongs to an organised anti-Russian force, and all Russians were taught in school that Catholics were crusaders from the Baltics repelled by the national hero Alexander Nevsky.

Although punching above their weight, practising Orthodox in favour of ecumenical dialogue are indeed very few. In the Soviet era, the pro-ecumenical element within the Church gained an artificial influence because of its usefulness to the foreign policy aims of the regime, and precisely for that reason is now frequently viewed with derision by post-revival practising believers.

For most Orthodox, ecumenical dialogue with Catholics (and others) is impossible for a simple reason — they are heretics. To Russian Orthodox, however, this does not necessarily conjure up emotive images of burnings at the stake: one parishioner matter-of-factly explained to me that the word heresy merely derives from the Greek for opinion; that is, anything deviating from Orthodox tradition is the product of the mistaken human notion that this tradition could be improved upon.

In one Moscow parish I recently heard a sermon in which the priest likened Orthodoxy to the calculation 2 x 2 = 4. At some stage, he said, Catholics (and others) decided that in fact it would be more accurate to say 2 x 2 = 4.000025. You can build a chair with those people using their calculations and it will turn out all right, he explained to the congregation, but if you both build spaceships and set your course on a far-off planet, their spaceship will end up somewhere else.

The Catholic concept promoted by Pope John Paul II of a Europe breathing with two lungs, East and West, is not theologically possible for Orthodox in Russia. No amount of sensitive diplomacy and donations of floating churches from Catholics will change that. There are signs, however, that the Vatican might be becoming wise to all this. The passivity towards Orthodox criticism throughout the past decade in Russia, culminating in intense diplomatic efforts to bring the Pope here in the symbolic year of 2000, has brought few returns. In the light of this, it is of some significance that the recently-returned and restored Church of the Immaculate Conception in Moscow is now openly referred to as a cathedral.

Of much greater import is the planned papal visit to predominantly Orthodox Ukraine, set up without the agreement of the leader of the only officially-recognised Orthodox Church in that country — the one that gives allegiance to the Moscow Patriarchate. It looks as if Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations might be about to become stormier, if also more open.

Posted: Jan. 27, 2001 • Permanent link:
Categories: Opinion, TabletIn this article: Catholic, Orthodox, Russian, Ukraine
Transmis : 27 janv. 2001 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : Opinion, TabletDans cet article : Catholic, Orthodox, Russian, Ukraine

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