Is the Russian Orthodox Church Opening the Door?

The dialogue between Orthodox Christians and Catholics and Christians of other confessions is proceeding on a regular basis but it has its ups and downs. There were two major events in Novembers: the second meeting of President Vladimir Putin with Pope John Paul II, and the visit of a delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA), which began on November 18. The ROCA split with the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1920s, when revolutionary atheists came to power in Russia till the end of times, as they thought.

ChurchHowever, these two events cannot fling the door wide open. Putin's meeting with the Pope was an element of political etiquette. Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and only president of the Soviet Union, and Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, visited John Paul II to promote state rather than religious relations. But it was a good sign in our mad world.

Regrettably, the hypothetical reunification of the two Orthodox churches could strengthen their isolation from the rest of the Christian world. The conservative Russian Orthodox Church Abroad has denounced ecumenism as heresy.

Some observers believe that a broader dialogue with the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches could encourage awareness of modern realities in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Why does the Russian church prefer isolation and rapprochement with the ROCA to broad dialogue with other Christian confessions? One of the main reasons is the numerous Russian phobias, in particular the fear that the Roman Catholic Church wants to absorb the Russian Orthodox Church, says Rev. Georgy Chistyakov, priest of the Church of Saints Kozma and Damian (Stoleshnikov Pereulok) and dean of the Church of Virgin Mary in the Pediatric Republican Clinical Hospital. (Chistyakov is also board member of the Russian Biblical Society, rector of the Open Orthodox University, and a prominent historian, theologian and public figure.)

In his opinion, the top hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church, though they zealously protect their interests, would nevertheless agree to talk with Roman Catholics. On November 10, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, the newly appointed representative of the Holy See in Russia, met Metropolitan Kirill, head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church. They agreed to carry on talks to improve relations between their churches and mapped co-operation prospects in the social sphere. But only six months ago the Metropolitan denounced the Roman Catholic Church for unethical attempts to change its structure in Russia. The reason for that accusation was apparent: a struggle for spheres of influence.

No wonder relations between the two churches are so complicated and have more than one layer. On the one hand, members of the Holy Synod and Patriarch Alexy II are children of the era when religion in Russia survived largely thanks to the powerful assistance of the Roman Catholic Church. Besides, there were many more Catholic dioceses and flocks before the Bolshevik Revolution, yet the churches did not clash.

On the other hand, we cannot expect relations to improve rapidly at the level of ordinary people. One can cite numerous examples when local governments, the press and provincial public attack people of other confessions. "The strong rejection of Catholicism by believers exists at the psychological level," says Rev. Chistyakov.

There is one more side to the problem and it does not clash with either of the former two. Polls show that 75% of Russians believe Catholics and Orthodox Christians can coexist peacefully and 60% of the respondents have a positive attitude to the potential visit of John Paul II to Russia.

Regarding the problem from the psychological angle, George Chistyakov believes that Orthodoxy is looking into the past in terms of structure and guidelines. It sees the modern world as an era of degenerating belief, a time when the world is departing from God. Personal will to suffer privations, fast and pray are very important in the Russian Orthodox Church. So, fervent believers who try to apply the principles of Christianity in secular life will resort to Catholic experience simply because there is no such experience in the history of Orthodoxy.

The first groups of young families have appeared in Russia who call themselves the Movement of Cana of Galilee and emulate the Catholic association in France. We now also have the movement Mothers in Prayer, also modelled after a Catholic movement. Monastic life outside the walls of monasteries and nunneries is not widespread in Russia and this is where we can draw on the experience of other confessions, too.

"Contacts between Orthodox believers and Catholics are developing where life is churning, where human beings remain Christian believers in the midst of daily routine," says Rev. Chistyakov. The country has opted for Western guidelines in its secular life and is gradually becoming integrated in international organisations. But religion in Russia is still dominated by anti-Western sentiments. This situation is in serious contradiction with modern realities.

Theologians are coming to believe that the Orthodox Church will have to review its dogmas or else it will lose the public's trust. Sergei Filatov, director of the project the Encyclopaedia of Modern Religious Life in Russia, says the importance of religious rituals will decline under the influence of current processes, but the role of social service to any religion will grow. It should be said that the ritual side of believing is so strong in the Russian Orthodox Church that even non-believers frequently strive to comply with them.

The Russian Orthodox Church joined the Ecumenical Movement in 1961. It energetically supports the peacekeeping actions of the World Council of Churches and maintains a dialogue with its participants also on other issues. "It is believed in Russia that Christians from all churches stand in opposition to the modern a-religious world," says Rev. Chistyakov. When elaborating the European Constitution, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Protestants joined forces to demand that Christianity be mentioned in it as the spiritual source of the European civilisation. In this age of secular thinking, we should support each other because "we all stand for firm families, against abortion, drugs and mass culture, which makes human beings the slaves of the consumerist civilisation," the priest holds.

"The life of a Christian is not in denying himself or herself meat on fasting days but in carrying on Christian ideals, so that they triumph not only in personal but also in societal life," says Rev. Chistyakov. "When Orthodox Christians come to see this, they will also understand that ecumenism and co-operation of believers of different confessions is the only road for Christians."

So, is the Russian Orthodox Church opening the door? It seems so. But this process will be complicated and slow, owing to internal confessional and national features. And it would be useless to try to speed it up. As the Russian saying goes, "Move slowly but surely."

Yelena Shakhova, RIAN

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Author`s name Petr Ermilin