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Gerd Stricker {*}

Still no Thaw

Orthodox and Catholic Christians in Russia

 

From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2006/12, P. 626-631

 

    Catholics are only a small minority in Russia. Nevertheless they are by their orthodox compatriots looked at with suspicion. To a great extent the scene is dominated by substantial anti-Catholic and anti-ecumenical prejudices. There are quite good everyday life contacts between Catholics and orthodox Christians, but even they become difficult under the pressure of public opinion.

 

When the the Holy See elevated the Apostolic Administrations on the soil of the Russian Federation (Moscow/northern European Russia, Saratow/southern European Russia, Nowosibirsk/Western Sibiria, Irkutsk/Far East) on 11 February 2002 to fully qualified dioceses, the Russian Orthodox Church reacted with extreme bitterness. How could a "sister church", as the Roman Church liked to call itself, open the door to unrestrained Catholic proselytism on the "Canonical Territory" of the Russian Orthodox Church, as it is made possible by the diocesan structure? The relations between Roman Catholic Church and Muscovite Patiarchate were substantially disturbed; there was some talk of deeply felt hurting.

So for instance the orthodox archbishop of Pskov in an indignant letter to President Vladimir Putin about the Catholic diocesan structure (March 2002) said: "That is an aggression, a challenge of the Russian people. With our tears and our blood we defended our native country - and so the faith of our ancestors. Our people always understood any foreign attempt to conquer Russian territory as an attempt to destroy our faith, and it did not spare neither strength nor lives to defend it. [...] Now those people [= the Catholics] can develop unhindered in our country, against whom our ancestors fought. [...] Russia does not need a Catholic mission. Mr. President, do not allow the Roman Catholic Church to work in Russia! We ask you: Prevent with all means that it realizes its aims of conquest!"

Orthodox demonstrators who positioned themselves before Catholic churches and insulted Catholics, held up posters with pithy slogans, e.g., "Where the Vatican Is, There Is Blood!", "We Protest Against the Conquest of Russia by the Vatican!", "Rome Wants to Devour Orthodoxy!" "Down with the Catholic Expansion in Russia!", "Catholic Heresies - Out from Russia!" etc.

Cardinal Walter Kaspar worked for years to normalize the disturbed relations to the leadership of the Muscovite Patriarchate. On the highest level this has reached a stage

 


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that Bishop Clemens Pickel (Saratow), who originates from the Diocese Dresden-Meissen, on 18 October 2006 could declare in an interview: The relations between the Russian Orthodox and the Catholic Church have clearly improved in recent time; the dialogue increases; he personally in his diocese had cordial contacts with Orthodox bishops, priests, and monks. The Russian Church felt that its real opponent today is not the Catholic Church but secularization.

 

Historically Inherited Problems Have Shaped Mentalities

The question arises what the fraternal relations between Orthodox and Catholic Church on Russian soil are all in all. Do they include the whole church people - or only the hierarchy? If one realises which historically inherited problems Orthodox Russians and Catholic Poles have stored in their mentalities, it is difficult to believe that this should have changed within five years. The common history rich in conflicts is seen by Polish Catholics and Russian Orthodox Christians in their own way, each regarding themselves as the historical victim of the "others". The schism of 1054 at first was not taken note of on Eastern Slav soil. The problems developed on other fields. Since the 13th century the "Russian" territories were under constant threat by the Catholic West, which justified its raids eastward with the mission among the Orthodox population living there. So in the thirteenth century the princes of Nowgorod had to defend themselves against the threat by Swedish and German knight armies.

There remained the vital threat to the "Russian" country by the Polish-Lithuanian west. For since about the year 1300 the relationship of the Russians to their Polish and Lithuanian neighbours cannot be called but a kind of "hereditary enmity". One century after the Tartars had about 1250 destroyed the Kiew realm, which had been Orthodox since 988, the Lithuanians and Poles snatched from them central areas of the former Kiew realm - today White Russia and Ukraine. By the Muscovite Grand Princes and Tsars they were regarded as "Father's Inheritance" - as an obligation to recpture these territories from Poland-Lithuania; for centuries this was the dominant factor of Muscowit foreign policy.

The fact that in 1596 under Polish pressure within the once Kiew Orthodox areas many Orthodox bishops subordinated themselves to Rome, and so founded the with Rome "Uniate Church", up to this day causes fierce anti-Catholic feelings in Orthodoxy. "The Union is a sting in the flesh of Orthodoxy!" Finally the years 1610 to 1612 are engraved as deep disgrace in the collective Russian memory, for Poland had occupied Moscow, and had celebrated Catholic masses in the Kremlin churches.

With that the time of humiliation by the Catholic Poles ended for the Orthodox Muscowites. Now the pendulum swung back to the other side. Since 1656 the Muscovite tsars

 


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(since 1700 the Saint Petersburg emperors) piece by piece incorporated "Father's Inheritance" into their realm; the largest part after the divisions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795). Besides the Viennese Congress (1815) awarded the Russian empire the largest part of the Polish national territory. At once far-reaching measures were taken to make these areas Russian again; Polish rebellions (1830, 1863) were bloodily suppressed.

In the new western areas of Russia where the Roman and Greek-Catholic population were in the majority, the relations between the Holy See and the Petersburg government became highly problematic. A permanent conflict arose because Petersburg tried to remodel the Catholic dioceses into a submissive national church. To the annoyance of the government these attempts had only little success. On the part of the government the Catholic Church, in spite of the foundation of the new suffragan diocese "Tiraspol" with seat in Saratow/Volga for the Catholic Russian-Germans, was exposed to constant harrassments more radical than for instance the Lutheran Church.

 

What about Today's Relations between Catholics and Orthodox Christians?

The Soviets intuitively took over the anti-Catholic resentments from the time of the tsars, and continued the discrimination of Catholics. Hence nearly in the entire Soviet Union after World War II the Catholic Church was forced underground, whereas the Russian Orthodox Church on the religious level abroad represented the official Soviet Union (for instance in ecumenical committees). Except in Lithuania and Latvia only a few dozens of parishes were "registered", a diocesan structure was not permitted. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Central Asia had to gather - always at the risk of arrest - in underground parishes.

Only in Riga there was a Catholic seminary for priests - for the entire Soviet Union to be precise (that in Kaunas was intended for Lithuania only). At Soviet times the Catholic Church used to be denounced as a counter-revolutionary institution. Up to this day this negative image of Catholics is deeply engraved in the minds of the former "homines sovietici", and together with the historically grown anti-Roman resentments intensifies to an anti-Catholic complex, which may at any time change into aggression.

At the beginning of October 2006 Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz (Moscow) spoke of 600.000 Catholics in Russia (about 0.3 per cent of the total population of 145 million). Many think the real number is much lower (not least after the exodus of the Russian-Germans). It was to be reckoned with 225 parishes. Hence the Catholic Church in the "Russian Federation" statistically is a Quantité négligeable. When the Russian side polemizes against it, it is not concerned about the number of its members, but about the fact that the Catholic (and all the more the Greek Catholic) Church have no business on the "Canonical Territory" of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The question arises how the relations between Orthodox Christians and Catholics have developed after 11 February 2002. Because of the infinite expansion of Russia and because of the contrast between city and country the differences are great. One has also to differentiate between lay or church intelligence and people with a lower educational level. And among Catholics the different ethnical mentalities (Poles, Germans, people from the Baltic States and the few Russians) are to be taken into account.

But the things in common among these ethnical and religious "mini minorities" are more prominent. There is a "collective consciousness" of the Catholics in Russia. Since Putin made the Russian Orthodox patriotism the core of the new Russian national ideology, the anti-Catholic resentments can be more easily mobilized among Orthodox Russians (comparable anti- Lutheran emotions are not at all imaginable in Russia).

In order to win, in spite of these restrictions, a certain idea of the situation at the Orthodox and Catholic basis, I asked for this article Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic clergymen from the circle of acquaintances to state their attitude toward the respective other church, and to consult further colleagues and above all laymen. Absolute anonymity was promised.

The return stayed within limits. Obviously people with clear aversions against the respective other church did not answer at all, for it was evident that the inquiry came from the west. Nevertheless the answers received are informative - how Orthodox priests criticize Orthodox institutions with regard to their dealing with Catholics. Or when Orthodox as well as Catholic laymen declare to maintain good relations with members of the respective other church, and wish both churches would finally settle the controversy, which they as laymen did not understand at all.

Educated laymen again with regard to the confrontation of Orthodox versus Catholic Church think that it was only about politics. There are references to good Catholic-Orthodox mixed marriages; particularly in large cities one meets Catholic godfathers for Orthodox children and vice versa. Catholics pointed to an often uncomplicated living and working together at the basis.

On the Catholic side one always feels the "underdog" position, the mentality of the once persecuted and deported minorities: Germans, Poles, Balts. They still harbour subliminal fears toward Russians, and are therefore looking for good relations with the leading nation, which for them are the best basis for a fruitful existence on the "Canonical Territory"

 


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of the Russian Church. A Catholic priest thought 98 per cent of all Catholics had highest respect for the Orthodox Church.

 

Catholics Feel Misunderstood

In Orthodox and Catholic magazines in different formulations the suggestion was found that Bishop Pickel's statement that since the low of the year 2002 on the Orthodox side something had changed for the better was probably true for part of the Orthodox episcopacy only. Laymen of both denominations deplore that the solidarity among Orthodox Christians and Catholics during the Soviet persecution got soon lost after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Catholic ministers say frankly a confirmation of the optimistic description of the situation by church-leading (Orthodox and Catholic) circles was missing; they did not feel any improvement of the relations. Even in the year 2006 the readiness of Orthodox priests for discussions with Catholic "heretic" ministers is extremely small. Also most Orthodox bishops they knew in the province, were - be it veiled or demonstratively - unfavourably disposed towards Catholic priests and laymen.

This attitude is attributed to the education in Orthodox educational institutions, where an anti-Catholic attitude was inoculated into the seminarians. Only one case is mentioned where an Orthodox minister invited his Catholic colleague to the Easter Liturgy and to the following Agape. Catholic ministers refer to the unfortunately quite rare theological discussions with Orthodox colleagues. But: These discussions are to take place secretly, and the Orthodox clergymen would ask urgently not to tell anybody about these discussions - they feared for their good reputation in the parish, with their Orthodox colleagues, and particularly with their bishop.

"How then are we to lead a dialogue with Orthodox Christians, if none wants to speak with us?" This question runs through all Catholic statements. "They accuse us of "making proselytes" and of mission. That is unfounded. We few priests are completely overburdened with the pastoral care for people with Catholic roots who lost the faith of their fathers under the pressure of the Soviet regime. We have no strength for missionary work."

 


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"Well, people with Catholic roots, who are baptized in the Orthodox Church, because there were no longer Catholic priests at that time, we do not send back, if they want to come to us. But Russians who contact us in principle are sent back to the Orthodox Church. If they come back then and declare, 'We want to live with you in the Catholic parish!', then we cannot reject them."

When Catholic priests want to speak with Orthodox colleagues, they are usually ushered out of the house with a set of reproaches: A discussion with Catholics was pure waste of time and dangerous for the salvation of an Orthodox Christian's soul; since Catholics were schismatic one may not even pray with them; the Vatican wanted to make Russia, Ukraine and White Russia "Catholic"; hence Catholic priests wanted nothing else but do missionary work in these countries and to entice away Orthodox Christians

Ecumenism was a wrong track: Orthodoxy alone was the true faith, which the Catholic teachings had falsified and made a heresy. "Despite crusades and Inquisition the victory remains ours: God is with us!" Beyond that the condemnation of the "Filioque" and the dogma of the "pope's infallibility" (in Orthodox interpretation) are stereotyped patterns of Orthodox critique of Catholicism.

 

Personal Encounters Are Difficult

That not the entire Orthodox episcopacy endeavours to foster agreement with the Catholic Church may be proved by two examples - of genuine "hard liners" -, to whom one could add countless others. Archbishop Tichon from Novosibirsk had already in 2001, that is before the "éclat" of 11 February 2002, declared in future he would visit no public meeting to which also the Catholic bishop (Josef Werth) was invited. Since then the authorities may no longer invite the Orthodox and the Catholic bishop together. In 2003 the metropolitan bishop Vladimir of Tashkent in the "Izvestija" called John Paul II a "cold, cruel politician in the mask of a pious old man, who had called to the crusade against Moscow". Understandably the western interrogator got answers only from such Orthodox priests and laymen who are open for Catholic interests, and wish an improvement of the situation. They judge the Orthodox conduct against Catholics critically, and refer to the following: The perhaps most difficult obstacle for Orthodox Christians to get to know Catholics is that there are so few Catholics in Russia, particularly in the province. Personal Orthodox-Catholic encounter is difficult for statistic reasons and happens rather by chance.

It is emphasized that the "normal Russian" knows little about the Catholic Church. The media flood him/her with undifferentiated information. True, in the secular and all-Russian press the effort to report objectively is recognizable. But in the church and regional press (and that is nearly the only one at the disposal of the citizen in the province) the Catholic Church usually appears completely disfigured. Positive reporting is rare. The regional media serve a range between distrust and hate against all Catholic matters. The polemic tone adopted with regard to Catholics is characteristic. Since the nineties Orthodox literature from the time of the tsars is reprinted in large quantities and sold particularly in church kiosks. These works are full of anti-Catholic statements.

The "normal Orthodox Christian" had only little concrete knowledge of the Catholic Church. So for example that the head of the Catholics is the pope in the Vatican and the clergy is unmarried. The most important thing was: The Catholic Church is the main enemy of Orthodoxy. Orthodox Christians - an Orthodox priest wrote - often do not recognize the Catholic Church as Christian (the last thing would be to see it as embodiment of the grand tradition of western Christianity), but despise it because of its falling away from Orthodoxy in 1054. One does not consider Catholics as pious, for they deviate from the strict liturgical and fasting practice of Orthodoxy. The fact that the Catholic Church in the Soviet Union brought forth countless martyrs hardly any Orthodox Christian is interested in.

The Orthodox Christians' negative judgement on Catholicism results less from media and books, but is shaped on the one hand by the public opinion, on the other hand by the social surroundings: Neighbours, colleagues, parties, associations - and of course by the parish. Usual opinions and anti-Catholic stereotyped patterns are taken over and passed on. Naturally one wants to avoid conflicts with one's parish. Hence many people continue to grumble at Catholics, even when they personally are satisfied with them. With sympathetic reports on it they would have to swim against the Orthodox tide.

Above all the usually conservative Orthodox priests face all Catholic matters negatively, and in this spirit lead their parishes. This attitude is already instilled into future clergymen at the seminary for priests. Their number (more than 70) is deceptive. Most institutes are still in the construction phase. The training body often is not qualified. As text books often serve the mentioned reproductions from the nineteenth century, which are thoroughly anti-ecumenical and above all anti-Catholic. Orthodox specialized literature which argues seriously with the Catholic Church, its teachings and history, is decidedly rare. To inspire the clergy with a new spirit, (Orthodox priests write)

 


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the entire education in the seminaries, and the mental climate there are to be changed. But that is neither possible for the time being nor to be expected soon.

 

The Pope's Visit Would Be Helpful

Orthodox priests react ill-naturedly when they hear of Catholic contacts of their parishioners. But they are not forbidden in principle. Orthodox Christians also shy to approach Catholics, because they fear for their Orthodox self identification, and are afraid that the parish disapproves of their behaviour. One can only be a true Christian in an Orthodox parish. In this context also the reference that the ethnically Russian Catholic has the image of a traitor is revealing. He has departed from his Orthodox foundations and turned to a foreign (actually hostile) culture.

Orthodox Christians occasionally have to do with Catholics on a church-humanitarian basis. But here too a genuine approach does not take place, because Orthodox Christians are afraid of the Catholic competition: Admittedly the Catholic humanitarian help in Russia was a good thing, but sometimes it had gone beyond the context of the Catholic Church, and there had also been some cases of proselytizing. Beside the good reconstruction work not everything after the end of the Soviet Union had of course been done correctly by the Catholic side. But the crucial point was: Catholic errors were blown up by the Orthodox side, in order to confirm prejudices and to get new reproaches for pulling Catholics to pieces.

It would be best of course if it came to contacts between priests of both denominations. But these are unwanted on the part of the conservative bishops; they put pressure on the priests just as the usually absolutely anti-ecumenical minded parishes do. Parishioners, so an Orthodox priest writes expressly, keep a watchful eye on clergymen. Any step that to their mind is false, for instance a step toward a Catholic priest, is held against them. That is why the Orthodox priests need great personal courage, if they want to talk with a Catholic colleague. An exception of this rule are the few "liberal" parishes, as for instance that at the church "Kosmas and Damian" in Moscow with the priests Georgij Tschistjakow and Alexander Borisow. Here is also an ecumenically orientated bookshop.

The Russian Orthodox hierarchy forms in its predominant part a nomenclature, which does not want to divide power and influence with anybody - above all not with the Catholic Church, therefore it does not really wish an approach. Only a small part of the episcopacy is benevolently disposed towards the Catholic Church. An absolutely necessary condition for the work at the basis is the inter-denominational discussion among priests. Why not: A visit of the Pope in Russia would certainly weaken the anti-Catholic opinion in the country, would spread concrete knowledge about the Catholic Church, and overcome the handed down nonsensical ideas - an Orthodox priest writes.

 

    {*} Dr. phil. Gerd Stricker (born in 1941), editor-in-chief of the magazine "G2W/Faith in the Second World". Areas of work: Christian churches in the former Soviet Union; State and church in Russia; the Russian-Germans and their church structure. Numerous publications about these topics.

 

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