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 The Word From Rome

September 3, 2004
Vol. 4, No. 2

global perspective


"I ask the Catholic believers in Russia to sacrifice, to understand that there is no forgiveness, no reconciliation without sacrifice. This is the life of the church."

Cardinal Walter Kasper,
president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Russian Catholic struggles; Ordinary Orthodox support their leaders' views; Can an icon promote unity?


Charles De Gaulle once said "to govern is to choose." These choices become particularly agonizing when they involve renouncing a lesser good for a higher one, when a leader has to say "no" to something that under other circumstances would merit an obvious "yes."

Such is the situation, it would seem, for the Catholic church in today's Russia.

One can divide the pontificate of John Paul II into three phases, each defined by its guiding idea. From 1978 to 1989, it was the confrontation with Communism; from 1989 to 1995, leading up to the Cairo and Beijing conferences, it was the promotion of a "culture of life"; and from 1995, with Ut Unum Sint, it has been the ecumenical push to reunite divided Christianity. (Not that the earlier ideas have gone away, but they have yielded pride of place). The pope's ecumenical policy has focused above all on the Orthodox, whose doctrinal and liturgical traditions John Paul, the first Slav to serve as successor of Peter, obviously reveres.

In Russia, this means the Catholic church's prime directive is the relationship with the Russian Orthodox church, the largest of the world's independent branches of Orthodoxy. Ecumenical détente with the Russians was at the heart of John Paul's decision to return a late 17th-early 18th century copy of the Icon of the Madonna of Kazan, which was presented to Patriarch Alexy II Aug. 27 by a Vatican delegation in Moscow's Cathedral of the Dormition.

(My story on the return of the Kazan icon can be found here: Returned icon does little to warm Russian Orthodox-Vatican relations.)

The aims of the policy are undeniably lofty.

First of all, its architects say, it is the will of Christ that the church be one. Second, divided Christianity offers a compromised witness to the world. In Europe, Catholic and Orthodox together would be better positioned to resist the pressures of secularism and the privatization of religion. Challenges to European cultural identity posed by growing religious pluralism, especially Islam, also would benefit from joint Catholic/Orthodox reflection. Finally, by pooling resources, Catholics and Orthodox could offer more efficient social and charitable projects.

It is difficult to argue with any of this. Many Russian Catholics, however, believe their church is in danger of being sacrificed on the altar of ecumenical progress.

Despite Orthodox complaints about runaway Catholic proselytism, getting a fix on how many Russian Catholics there actually are is nearly impossible. Official Vatican numbers say 600,000, and projections based on sampling of traditionally Catholic ethnic groups (mostly Poles, Lithuanians and Germans) say there could be as many as one and a half million. Yet when a team of local Catholics in 2002 called the 270 priests in Russia to ask them how many people come to Sunday Mass, the total was more like 200,000.

Sociologist of religion Nikolai Mitrokhin, who directs the Institute of the Study of Religion in the CIS and Baltic Countries, told me the real number may be even lower.

"If you want to talk about really practicing Catholics, meaning going to church at least once a week, it could be as low as 20,000 or 30,000," Mitrokhin told NCR August 30. "You couldn't find a single Catholic parish in Russia that draws more than 500 people."

This smallness is in part the result of a deliberate slow-growth policy, which emanates from the Vatican, and which is calculated not to offend the Orthodox. Hence if a Russian shows up at a Catholic parish and expresses interest in becoming Catholic, the priest's first response, assuming he follows the official line, will be: "Why don't you go back to the Orthodox church?" In any other country, a small Catholic community struggling to build itself up would trumpet conversions and baptisms; here, Catholic officials do everything possible to play them down.

Russian Catholics sometimes feel as if their very existence is sometimes swept under the rug.

For example, when previous Vatican delegations have come to Russia, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz (head of the archdiocese "Mother of God in Moscow" and president of the Russian bishops' conference) has not been invited to take part. This time, he was added to the delegation, but at the last possible moment -- midday on Aug. 25, some 36 hours before the flight from Rome arrived. Similarly, when the moment came to present the icon to Alexy, four members of the delegation ascended the sanctuary: Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C.; Archbishop Renato Boccardo of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications; and Bishop Brian Farrell from Kasper's office. Kondrusiewicz remained off to the side.

To add insult to injury, a group of local Catholics had asked to be able to pray in front of the icon in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Friday night, before it was handed over on Saturday. They were told, however, that out of respect for Patriarch Alexy, his should be the first eyes to see the icon. (As things turned out, the first eyes to see the icon in Russia belonged to a young female customs officer who insisted on inspecting it).

Funding is also an issue. The Russian church faces huge needs in terms of construction and personnel, yet its small base of membership is relatively poor. That means it is largely dependent upon outside support, especially from Germany and the United States. Yet the local church sometimes takes a back burner to projects of ecumenical interest. For example, in the coming days a delegation from the German Catholic aid agency Renvoabis will be in Moscow, to discuss supporting Orthodox seminaries. It can be difficult for Catholics to watch precious resources flow to the Orthodox while their own seminary faces financial struggles. (In fairness, it should be noted that Renovabis has also been a major donor to Catholic projects in Russia, such as the renovation of Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Moscow).

More broadly, Russian Catholics say that sensitivity not to offend the Orthodox means Catholics are confined to a ghetto, talking largely to themselves. There is no overt evangelization, and church leaders are hesitant to engage in public debates on social and cultural issues for fear of being perceived as usurping Orthodox prerogatives. Even pastoral activity that would be normal elsewhere, such as feeding the poor, teaching languages, and running orphanages can be problematic. The result is that, despite centuries of tradition on Russian soil, the Catholic church is all but invisible to most Russians.

Compounding the frustration is that fact that there is an obvious spiritual hunger in Russia, the clearest evidence of which is the dramatic growth of Protestantism. Denominations such as the Pentecostals, the Baptists, and Jehovah's Witnesses expanded at a clip of 20-25 percent a year during the 1990s. Today, Mitrokhin believes there are at least one million practicing Protestants in Russia, and he calls their growth "the most important religious trend" in the country.

Hence many Russian Catholics feel that in a moment when the Catholic church has an opportunity to make its mark, to add its voice to the cultural debate and to help shape the religious imagination of the country, the church has instead chosen to stay on the sidelines.

When one speaks to senior Vatican officials about all this, they often express exasperation that the local Catholics don't see the big picture. The locals have a persecution complex, one official told me Sept. 1, forgetting that the Orthodox suffered mightily as well under the Soviets -- over 1,000 priests killed. Russian Catholics, he said, should remember that.

I asked about worries from Russian Catholics that their community is shrinking because it is hesitant to evangelize.

"What does that mean?" this official said. "It means the local community is reduced. Surely we're not going to evaluate our success based just on numbers. The Catholic church in Russia has another mission."

Kasper spoke to the local Catholic press before he left, making this point explicit.

"I ask the Catholic believers in Russia to sacrifice, to understand that there is no forgiveness, no reconciliation without sacrifice," Kasper said. "This is the life of the church."

To govern is, indeed, to choose. Whether the ecumenical Ostpolitk of John Paul's Vatican is the right choice for Russia, whether it's worth the sacrifice to which Kasper refers, remains to be seen.

* * *

My wife and I arrived in Moscow Friday night, Aug. 26, and I immediately went off to St. Tatyana's Chapel, an Orthodox parish near Moscow University, where a Russian colleague had volunteered to introduce me to some of the people who worship there. St. Tatyana's is known as an "enlightened conservative" community, meaning that it's fairly traditional in liturgy and doctrine, but not allied with the Russian nationalists or with the extreme stance associated, for example, with the monks of Mount Athos in Greece.

St. Tatyana's was opened in 1837, then seized by the Soviets in 1919. It became a library, then a warehouse, and eventually a theatre before being given back to the Orthodox church in 1995. (One aside: the chapel has a number of Marian icons on its walls, including the Madonna of Kazan. It's right next to an icon of Our Lady of Loreto, which, I am told, is known in Russia as Our Lady of the Augmentation of the Mind, an image near and dear to university students).

What I found is that the hard-line attitudes towards Roman Catholicism that Orthodox leaders often take publicly definitely has a following in places such as St. Tatyana's.

The first man I spoke to was Alexander Malshev, a Moscow real estate agent in his 50s. I asked him if he felt the return of the Kazan icon was significant, and he responded, "Yes, it's significantly bad."

He said he suspected John Paul of a hidden agenda.

"It's like when you ask a girl, 'Let's go watch TV,' but you really want something else," he said. "The Catholic church wanted an excuse for a meeting with us, because they want to expand their own power. They want to rule over a unified church."

Malshev expanded at some length, and with some enthusiasm, about the untrustworthiness of Latin Christianity, then excused himself. He got halfway down the stairs towards the exit, turned around, and came back to say to me, "By the way, you are very welcome in Russia."

So it went.

Alexander Volkov, 22, a seminarian with the Moscow Patriarchate, expressed similar misgivings.

"It would have been better if the icon had been given back without any political maneuvers, just returned quietly by aircraft," he said.

Volkov said he was especially turned off by the fashion in which the return of the icon had been linked to the possibility of a papal trip to Russia, almost as if it were being held hostage.

Perhaps aware of such concerns, Enzo Bianchi, the founder of the Bose community and a member of the Vatican delegation, made a point in a toast to the Orthodox of stressing how the return of the icon came with no strings attached. "The pope is not asking anything in return," Bianchi said.

Nevertheless, Veta Uspenskaya, who teaches English at a Moscow-area school and another parishioner at St. Tatyana's, said she was "sort of suspicious" of the pope's motives.

"The number of Catholics in Russia is increasing, in places in which there is no traditional Catholic presence, in Siberia, in the Urals," she said. "They're taking advantage of bad economic situations and people's fear."

"Good relations are better than bad," she said, "but without a hidden agenda."

Whatever one wants to say about the lack of ecumenical reciprocity from Orthodox leaders, they are not just speaking for themselves. These attitudes are rooted in the Orthodox church at the popular level, at least in certain circles, which makes their reversal a much more complicated and lengthy task.

* * *

Saturday morning I attended the liturgy for the Feast of the Dormition inside the Kremlin's Cathedral of the Dormition, at the end of which Kasper presented the Kazan icon to Alexy. I ended up standing among the Vatican delegation, shoulder-to-shoulder for most of the event with Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant'Egidio Community. Among other things, I got some insight into Riccardi's tenacity; he stoutly held off wave after wave of both TV cameramen and babushkas looking to grab a better spot at the delegation's expense.

The morning's liturgy was a full-dress affair, which lasted some three hours. At one stage, Patriarch Alexy II was vested in the middle of the cathedral, as several junior clerics ceremonially brought him various items; I exchanged a couple of words with the guy whose job it was to carry the patriarch's comb on a blue satin pillow.

One point about Orthodox liturgy came home to me, both from Friday night and Saturday morning's experience. In the Orthodox conception, it is up to the believer to imaginatively and spiritually enter into worship. The celebrant's responsibility is the faithful execution of ritual, in tandem with the choir and the proto-deacon and so on. Done properly, the sounds and sights can be incredibly beautiful. The experience is not, however, "user-friendly." There is little concern for comfort, or lines of sight, or participation by the lay faithful. This is not about consumer satisfaction, although obviously millions of Orthodox believers find it satisfying.

Two observations about Saturday.

First, the return of the icon came at the end of the liturgy, with Alexy standing on the elevated sanctuary in front of the iconostasis, and Kasper to his side. Kasper made some short remarks, quoting from a message John Paul II has sent to Alexy. He spoke in Italian, with Fr. Józef Maj, a Pole who works for him in Christian Unity, translating. Then Kasper, along with McCarrick, Farrell and Boccardo, handed the icon to Alexy. Afterwards Kasper and Alexy embraced and exchanged kisses on the cheek. Alexy then made some remarks, thanking the pope for his gift but calling for a "change in policy" from the Catholic church in Russia.

The Orthodox side seemed ambivalent about attracting too much attention. Kasper and Alexy, for example, did not have microphones, so they were almost impossible to hear in the crowded cathedral for anyone who didn't have Andrea Riccardi to protect their positions. (Their texts were later released, and people watching on TV undoubtedly got a better sense of things).

Second, directly across from the Vatican delegation there was a visiting group of Lutheran clergy from Norway, which happened to be in Russia and had been invited to the morning's liturgy as well. This meant that seated directly across the aisle from Kasper was none other than Bishop Gunnar Staalseth of Oslo, who as a former member of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had opposed the pope's candidacy for the prize because of his stance on birth control. "I challenge the Vatican to redefine its attitude to condoms," Staalseth said in a 2001 interview. "The current Roman Catholic theology is one that favors death rather than life."

It took some time for members of the Vatican delegation to realize who he was, and there was obviously a certain sense of irony about the situation. Both Staalseth and Kasper were gracious, however, and by all accounts the two men had a positive exchange afterwards.

I later spoke to the Russian Orthodox official responsible for relations with the Protestants, who told me it was a "complete coincidence" that Staalseth was invited to the same event as the Vatican delegation.

* * *

By and large, the Vatican side tended to maximize the important of the icon returned on Aug. 27, while the Orthodox minimized it. In a similar fashion, the Vatican delegation went out of its way to talk about how positive the climate with the Orthodox had been, how much improved things were, for example, over last February's trip by Kasper to Moscow. The Orthodox were gracious, but did not fail to use every public occasion to issue reminders of the "problems" in the relationship.

One exception to the lukewarm Russian response came in a magazine called New Eyewitness, which in both design and intellectual seriousness is inspired by the New Yorker. A lengthy unsigned piece in the August 23 issue suggests that Alexy made a mistake by not embracing the pope's gesture with greater enthusiasm.

The article quoted a Russian government official, Dmitri Khafizov, who said that while this was not the original Kazan icon that appeared in Moscow in 1579 and was believed to have miracle-working powers, it was nevertheless important.

"Judging by the jewelry in the frame of the icon, such as diamonds, they could be gifts from the family of the Czar," Khafizov said. "It's probable that the icon has something to do with the Romanov family, but it's impossible to prove."

The article compared the Kazan icon to a famous icon of Czar Nicholas II, who was recently canonized by the Russian Orthodox. The icon reportedly produced the scent of myrrh and had healing properties. These miracles stopped, however, after the canonization, leading the article to suggest that the icon had a "mission." In the same way, the article suggests, perhaps the Kazan icon has a "mission" of promoting unity between Catholics and Orthodox.

The liberal Moscow News was also enthusiastic about the icon, suggesting that the geography of Marian icons makes the Sign of the Cross in Russia: the Tikvin icon in the North, Smolensk in the West, and Vladimir in the East, which leaves Kazan in the South. The paper described the icon as a "protector" of Russia against its enemies.

* * *

One other bit of news in terms of Catholic/Orthodox relations. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, has invited John Paul II to visit him in Turkey. The most likely date floated for such a visit would have been Nov. 30, the Feast of St. Andrew, considered the patronal feast of the patriarch. It now appears, however, that such a trip will not take place this year. A senior Vatican official told NCR Sept. 1 that John Paul's Sept. 5 outing to Loreto will be his last of 2004.

Whether the pope makes a trip to Turkey in 2005 will depend upon his health, the ecumenical situation at the moment, security, and a variety of other factors. The pope already has one fixed appointment for next year, which is the World Youth Day celebration in Cologne, Germany. Given that John Paul's handlers believe the pope is capable of three foreign trips a year, if he takes up Bartholomew's invitation, that would leave space on his dance card for one more engagement -- most probably, Ireland.

* * *

To better understand Orthodox attitudes, I went to the Danilovsky Monastery in Moscow, more or less the Vatican of the Russian Orthodox church, in order to interview Fr. John Lapidus of the Secretariat for Inter-Christian Affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate. Lapidus is the point person for the dialogue with Roman Catholicism. The full text of our interview can be found here: Lapidus Interview. Some highlights:

How do you interpret the return of the icon of Kazan?
The Russian Orthodox Church received this gift from the Catholic Church with gratitude. … We would like this gift to symbolize the beginning of a new policy from the Vatican in Russia. With this step, we hope that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church will take more concrete, real steps for resolving all the problems that exist among us.

By problems, you mean proselytism?

A study conducted by the Catholic church in 2002 found there were only some 800 conversions from Orthodoxy to Catholicism in all of Russia in the 1990s. That doesn't seem very many.
The problem is not in the quantity. In the territory of Russia, there are many Protestant churches, and they have a much higher number of conversions. From our side, there is no objection to their proselytism. But we perceive the Catholic church as a sister church, a term which has become common in theological conversation since the Second Vatican Council…. So we have a higher expectation of the Catholics.

Can you give me two concrete, specific steps the Catholic church could take to demonstrate an attitude of sisterhood?
A detailed and concrete plan of the Catholic missionaries in Russia has been produced by the Vatican, the well-known document of the Pro Russia Commission that was issued in 1992. We are ready to subscribe to each article in this document. It's very sad for us that for 12 years that document has existed, and during these 12 years Roman Catholic missionaries have never, ever followed its recommendations. I think the point of our dialogue is to research ways to implement this document.

What exactly is it that the Catholic church should do in Ukraine that it's not doing?
I'm convinced that the Vatican leadership should establish an efficient system of power over the Greek Catholics. … The Ukrainian situation may in any moment slip out of control. The Greek Catholic conviction that they should establish a patriarchate at any cost witnesses to a separatist tendency. If they achieve patriarchal status, they may declare their complete independence of any outward authority.

* * *

I also interviewed Kondrusiewicz. The full text can be found here: Kondrusiewicz Interview. Again, some highlights:

What was the significance of the return of the icon?
First of all, it's a sign of good will by the Holy Father, of his openness towards the Russian Orthodox Church. … . Also, I would like to underline the role of American Catholics … Had it not been for them, the icon might have disappeared. … I was touched by [Patriarch Alexy's] words that devotion to Our Lady brings us to the time of the undivided church. Maybe Our Lady can help us create a new climate. I see this new climate now. I don't know if you noticed at the Kremlin between the ceremony and the lunch, but there were a lot of people coming up to us, saying 'Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving us this icon.' I felt there's this very new climate. Maybe it's rudimentary, but it's something new.

The Moscow Patriarchate has repeatedly expressed concern about Catholic 'proselytism.' Is that real?
Well, I do not agree with this accusation, and that's why we have to discuss each case. … In general, we have no such policy. After the Second Vatican Council declared that Orthodox churches have the same sacraments and the same means of salvation, there is no need for such a policy. On the other hand, if someone comes to me and says I would like to be a Catholic, what can I do? Can I send him out? It would be against my conscience as a bishop, as a priest. But it's not proselytism. We are not standing in front of the Russian Orthodox church and asking them to not go there, but to come to us. Absolutely not, absolutely not. … Let me put it this way: if we have this policy of proselytism, if it's the policy of the Vatican, the Holy Father should remove me immediately from Moscow because I've not done anything!

Should the Catholic church be growing in Russia?
We are here for Catholics and for those who in conscience, with good will, would like to be Catholics. That's my answer. How many will that be? Who knows?

How do you see the future of the Catholic church in Russia?
The Catholic church always was a church of a minority, and will remain the church of a minority. … The other priority, and I have been talking about this since 1991, is to have a good relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, to help each other. We can bring our experience of the Catholic Church to our brothers. Together with them, we can develop Christian values and can promote inter-religious dialogue, which is very important.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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