NAPLES, FL. (Catholic Online) – Over four decades ago Pope John Paul II said that the restoration of the Russian Orthodox Church was necessary for the cultural restoration of Western Europe. At the time his words seemed audacious. Russia was still under the Communist yoke, the winds in Poland were just starting to blow, and the Berlin wall loomed invincible.
Culture watchers dismissed the statement as the wistful longing of a faithful man. Yet John Paul, with his gift of seeing through the clutter of immediate events into the deeper and far-reaching ways of God, knew better. He believed that the fall of Communism would unleash a transformation that could only come from those who suffered.
His words are proving true. The Orthodox Church in Russia, after 80 years of brutal persecution, is emerging not only as a religious force in Europe, but also as the new leader in worldwide Orthodox Christianity. More Christians have been killed for their faith in the last century than all other centuries combined. Many of them were the Orthodox Christians of Eastern Europe.
Pope John Paul had a great fondness towards the Orthodox Church but never realized his dream of visiting Moscow or Constantinople. That would fall to his successor. At the time, the strain between Orthodoxy and Catholicism in general and Moscow and Rome in particular was more pronounced. Now the climate is changing.
What accounts for the shift? One reason is the election last year of Patriarch Kirill, the new leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kirill is a theological conservative in the mold of Pope Benedict. Both see religion as the wellspring of culture. Both understand that Europe cannot escape a final capitulation to tyranny if it does not rediscover its Christian roots.
The relationship between the Orthodox and Catholics continues to have significant strains however, and the present rapprochement is not an impending sign that the Churches will unify. Nevertheless, there is greater unity in the frank acceptance of real differences than in the shallow reality that is created by pretending they don’t exist. Accept the differences and the skies clear. We see that much work can be done together.
One area of cooperation is restoring Christian culture. If religion is the wellspring of culture, then our moral orientation – how we live and behave, the choices we make, how we order our relationships, how we value the human person – becomes critical. The spiritual life of the Christian is really a life that is lived in ways pleasing to God under the Great Commandment: Love God and neighbor. How we treat one another really matters. It touches not only the neighbor but reaches deep into the larger society.
Moreover, obedience to the Great Commandment is also the guarantor of freedom. If people throw off their responsibility to God and neighbor and live for themselves, then they will either relinquish their freedom to others or a greater power will take it from them.
Pope John Paul understood this. Pope Benedict and Patriarch Kirill understand this too. They experienced tyranny first hand. They know that virtue is the only bulwark against oppression. That’s why they exhort their flocks to moral virtue in almost identical language.
Moreover, both leaders see that moral renewal is essential for the renewal of Europe. Religion cannot be separated from morality, and morality cannot be separated from religion. A healthy and free society requires morally virtuous people, and people discover the freedom that virtue fosters through religion.
If Europe’s moral collapse continues, more instability will result and a new power will arise to maintain order. It could be a state ideology that resembles the former Communist tyrannies of Eastern Europe, or more likely a closed religion like the Islam of the East.
The next decade may be one of both instability and great creativity, much like the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a very exciting time to be alive, but it will also require more of all Christians. We have capable leaders to help us see things more clearly.
Originally published at Catholic Online.