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Cracks in Russia's Ice

Sergei Hackel

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"Suddenly there are signs of a thaw in official relations between Moscow and Rome. But the two Churches have formidable obstacles to overcome."

The Eastern Orthodox rite precedes the proclamation of the Nicene Creed with the exclamation, "Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit". Love comes first, as the precondition of the proclamation.

What we need is a love so active and generous that it can encompass others as they are - different though they are. Diversity is something to be treasured.

So much so, that there was communio in sacris - confession and communion - between the Latins and the Greeks even in the seventeenth century, regardless of the fact that there had been mutual condemnations of the Christian East and West since 1054. This communio in sacris was not at all unusual in the Aegean and the Ionian islands. When Rome adopted a more rigorous attitude to such procedures in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the local Catholic missionaries took little notice of the directions which they then received, and they persisted in their ways.

Rulings from on high cannot be ignored, of course. But the words or silences of popes and patriarchs acquire their meaning at the local level, where they have to be received. They cannot be mere fiats, or mere vetoes. And that local level is coloured by the history of the local Church - negatively as well as positively, for that history is difficult to erase from the minds of ordinary people.

Thus the memory of the crusaders inhibits Muslim-Christian contacts to this day, and the same crusading past can still affect the thinking of the modern Orthodox Christian in the Greek world. Not only did the Catholic crusaders sack the sacred city of Constantinople in the fourth crusade of 1204, but they also desecrated all its sacred sites, showing their scorn for Orthodox ways by imposing a Western patriarch to displace the Orthodox incumbent.

The shadow of more recent times can also fall on present plans. The experience of Eastern-rite Catholic Churches, the Uniates as they are often called, is an example.

These Catholic Eastern-rite Churches have often been resented by the Orthodox as making inroads into the Orthodox world, providing an alternative haven, a kind of look-alike, a virtual reality, a delusion and a missionary snare. I do not accept this appraisal as adequate. The Eastern-rite Catholic Churches have their various congregations, embedded in a variety of cultures. Their proponents argue that they provide an entrée to the Eastern rite or rites, and are themselves authentic manifestations of them.

Their history in the post-war years has been tragic. After 1944, the incorporation of the Western Ukraine into Stalin's USSR brought millions of Eastern-rite Catholics under Soviet rule. Since they were seen as agents of the Vatican, conceived as a foreign and antagonistic power, their life as Christians was curtailed. Not one parish, let alone diocese, of the Eastern rite was to be allowed. Its representatives were often imprisoned and deported; thousands were killed.

They could not be manipulated. They were therefore decimated unless, prompted and guided by the security police, they were prepared to denounce their past and "vote" to join the Russian Orthodox Church. Such "votes" were to be recorded at a special council which the authorities convened in Lvov in 1946. In return, the lapsed ones gained many churches and some clergy, even some newly created bishops, since none of the existing Eastern-rite bishops chose to play this game.

One component of this drama, which has long outlasted the Stalinist requirements of the day, was the involvement of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow. It was an Orthodox Church which provided Stalin with a façade behind which he could work and even went so far as to apply a nineteenth-century maxim to the "converts". They were "disunited from us by force", said the Orthodox leaders, "but reunited by love". Some love, as Churchill would have said.

Worse still, the Russian Orthodox Church was never to utter regret or plead forgiveness for having been party to an inhuman plan to exterminate the Catholic Eastern rite. Even when the Orthodox church administration pursued a determined policy of fostering ecumenical relations with the Catholic world at large in the days of the Second Vatican Council and beyond, the record of the past was never seriously considered. On the Vatican's side, a cautious policy towards the East allowed it to remain obscured. The liberation of Metropolitan Iosif Slipyi, the only Eastern-rite prelate of 1946 who was to survive the Soviet camps, was permitted as long as he kept silent on the subject while resident in Rome.

Not only were the Orthodox unwilling to repent, they were also unwilling to make material restoration. The revival of the Ukrainian Eastern-rite Church in the very last years of Soviet rule (1989 onwards) was met by a stubborn Orthodox retention of properties which had been confiscated in the darkest days. Even today many a property dispute has not yet been solved.

The Orthodox reluctance to make amends is as much a pastoral and spiritual problem as an historical or circumstantial one. If the incorporation of the Catholics in 1946 had been accomplished only out of dumb obedience to Stalinist demands, it should not have been difficult to ask for understanding or forgiveness. The Orthodox silence, which contrasts with Pope John Paul II's willingness to seek forgiveness for all his Church's sins, suggests that there are deeper explanations. Certainly an anti-Catholic stance is well established in non-academic circles in the Moscow Patriarchate, and at times within them as well.

In earlier times such attitudes could not survive the "ecumenism of the camps", to borrow an expression of Fr Lev Gillet. I recently visited the former penal settlements on the isles of Solovki where thousands of churchmen were imprisoned in the 1920s. At the approach of the Communist May Day in one of those years, Catholic and Orthodox bishops were required to perform debilitating duties throughout an extended Good Friday which, so I think, was marked by both the Churches on the given day. It was an occasion when their humble dedication bound them jointly to the cross.

In later times there were also notable exceptions. Among Russian hierarchs no one worked with such determination to reduce, even to dissolve, the differences between the Catholic West and the Russian Orthodox Church as Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad (1929-78). Of great import was his opening up of Orthodox altars to the Catholics who had been dispersed throughout the Soviet Union by the persecutions of the wartime years, almost all of whom were left without a single church or priest. Under his auspices, in 1969, the Russian synod made the sacraments available to any Catholic who was seeking to receive them. No conversion was required. It was an invitation without precedent in the modern Orthodox world, which caused the Orthodox elsewhere to upbraid the Russians for anticipating pan-Orthodox decisions in this field.

Not surprisingly, Metropolitan Nikodim was responsible for a thesis on the subject of Pope John XXIII, and was the first of Orthodox hierarchs to send observers to the Second Vatican Council. So it was all the more fitting that his death should have taken place in the presence of Pope John Paul I, who blessed him as he died. Dark rumours circulated that Nikodim had joined the Roman see at the very end, but my knowledge of him would not have led me to expect any such thing. He sought a more costly realignment. Some years later, sad to say, his offer of communion to the Catholic diaspora was to be abandoned. The Russian synod deemed that the invitation had been too little heeded and withdrew it.

Since Nikodim's time the Russian atmosphere has changed. When in 1996 the Orthodox icon painter and priest-monk Zinon Teodor received Communion at a Catholic Mass near Pskov, he was immediately suspended as a priest until he should repent. Among the accusations formulated by his bishop was that he had received Communion with "schismatics of another faith". Zinon argues that he could not repent of receiving the body of Christ. After all these years, his case is unresolved.

In the time of Nikodim an obscure parish priest was promoting his own variant of dialogue with the Catholic world. This was Alexander Men (1935-90). When he was asked whether he was ever tempted to become a Catholic himself, he answered, "No, I believe that the Church is one, so that would not make any sense to me". His was to become a widespread ministry at the start of Gorbachev's perestroika or restructuring. Previously, many of Men's writings were published anonymously in Belgium, and by a Catholic publishing house at that. Their circulation was not ended after his inexplicable murder.

Even so, the number of Orthodox parishes which adhere to his ecumenical positions is surprisingly few. Rather, these positions are frequently censured as heretical, and they have hardly brought the Orthodox at large into greater proximity to the Catholic world. When one woman was to begin her first confession, a Muscovite priest asked her if she had read any of the works of Men. She said yes. It was enough to terminate the confession.

Antagonism to the heritage of Men corresponds to a widespread and officially sponsored antagonism to Rome. As Eastern and Western Catholics seek to serve their flocks on Russian and Ukrainian soil, a newly-crafted term is frequently used in official Orthodox circles. This refers to the Russian realm as "our canonical territory" - "our", meaning the Moscow Patriarchate. In effect, "trespassers keep off". This approach detracts from the provisions of the 1991 constitution, which accorded all religions equality before the law.

Far from being seen as fellow workers in evangelisation, Catholics are frequently treated as proselytisers. If they come from abroad, their term of service is limited to a few months at a time; once they have left, future visa applications may be spurned. On Russian territory, licences of various kinds are difficult to obtain, the more so if the local Orthodox object. No wonder that Catholic centres are alarmed. Such is the pressure on the Little Sisters of the Poor, for example, that they are likely to leave the country soon.

The Moscow Patriarchate chooses never to invite the Catholic hierarchy in Russia to its routine functions. There was much Muscovite resentment, or at least much show of resentment, when the Vatican delineated Catholic sees in Russia and appointed bishops to them, without preliminary consultation with Moscow. But there is no requirement of protocol that notification should be given, and if there were, it would be difficult to find justification for it.

No wonder that the Pope himself is not invited to the country, certainly not by the Church. The Russian President feels it is proper to ask him, but only as head of state, whereas John Paul wants to come as a pilgrim. His dearest wish is to venerate the killing fields of Solovki.

In general, the Pope seeks to sample the working of Christendom's second lung, to use his memorable phrase. These last few years he had doggedly made his round of several nominally Orthodox countries: Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, even an apparently reluctant Greece, and Ukraine, where at least he saw the Catholic faithful of the Eastern rite.

Receiving a Pope is not enough in itself. Such visits are rendered more meaningful when prepared for in various ways by the would-be partners in the situation - through the work of the international Catholic-Orthodox commission, for example. This body has the capacity to loosen log-jams, but it has many centuries of catching up to do. It began its work by considering such questions as may be reasonably ready for some kind of resolution, leaving until later some of the more difficult ones, including the filioque clause in the Creed and the nature of primacy in the Church.

Meanwhile, the much more dynamic Catholic-Orthodox commission of the United States has already issued an agreed statement on the filioque. The filioque dispute might possibly be solved by some kind of reformulation. The Pope has shown his readiness for this by dropping filioque from the Creed when it is read at celebrations which bring Orthodox and Catholics together, such as the annual visits of the Patriarch of Constantinople to the Roman see for the feast of Peter and Paul.

Might this involve joint re-examination of papal primacy? Even here there is some promise in the air. For the Pope himself has said he wants to talk with members of Churches other than his own about the way in which his primacy should be understood. Occasional meetings, less formal and productive though they be, take place under the auspices of the Pro Oriente foundation, most recently in September of this year in Vienna. Regardless of the coolness, even the antagonism, which prevails at home, the Russian Orthodox delegation went out of its way to reassure their Catholic hosts that common ground between the two traditions is valued by the Russian church establishment which these well-trained speakers may be said to represent. Such reassurances were confirmed only last week in Moscow, when Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk exchanged positive and optimistic words on inter-Church relations with Russia's papal nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Menini.

Meanwhile, and equally important, there are associations and foundations where dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic traditions is part and parcel of daily life. As early as the 1920s there was the daring establishment of the Amay monastery in Belgium with its dual-rite framework bringing together Catholics of the Western and Eastern rite. Such bold ecumenism was barely tolerated at the time, but it survived the rigours of the day. Amay's work was transferred to Chevetogne, where it continues. The same Zinon whose suspension I mentioned earlier has added to the frescos of its chapel in the last few years.

As daring as Amay-Chevetogne but in a different way is the Catholic-run Collegium Orientale in Eichstätt, Germany. This institution for university-level ordinands follows the Eastern rite, but the worshippers belong to different and to separated Churches - Greek Catholic, Orthodox and (non-Chalcedonian) Oriental. More important still, most of the priests are willing to concelebrate, and therefore all, together with many members of the student body, receive Communion from a single cup.

So they anticipate reunion. But they also bring it forward by their present integration with each other, so much is rigour here transformed by love. Nor is this merely unofficial. No one shares in the institute's common life without his bishop's blessing. So this is not some para-ecclesial foundation, but an integral part of various individual Churches.

Individual Churches, but can we call them separate? It is a surprising question, which provokes a rider: do not these sister- Churches reveal themselves already as one, holy, Catholic and apostolic, despite the diversity of their previously separate ways?

Dr Sergei Hackel is an archpriest of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain. He is editor of religious broadcasting at the BBC's Russian Service.

Copyright © 2003 The Tablet Publishing Company

Read this article on The Tablet website. Reprinted with permission from TheTablet.

Posted: 12/06/03

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