Russia’s small Catholic community greeted the election of Pope Francisco Bergoglio with elation and hopes that the new pontiff will continue to improve ties with the country’s Orthodox majority despite a rocky history and lingering disagreements. Congratulations to the new pope, formerly the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, 76-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio, poured in from ordinary Catholics as well as senior political and religious leaders in Russia, which has an estimated 700,000 Catholics, or about 0.5 percent of the population. President Vladimir Putin said that he hoped that ties between the Vatican and Russia would continue to develop “on the basis of the Christian values that unite us”, according to a statement posted on the official Kremlin website.
Interfax reported that Fr Igor Kovelevsky, chairman of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of the Russian Federation, which oversees the Roman Catholic Church in Russia, said that the election of the first non-European pope in centuries was a sign that the church is global and open to all. Described as warm, humble, and conservative, Bergoglio appeared to fit the bill for Russian Catholics, many of whom harbour fond memories of the gregarious and worldly Pope John Paul II Wojtyła, who helped re-establish a Catholic presence in Russia in the waning days of the USSR.
Yegor Bredikhin, 18, a student and recent convert, standing in the falling snow outside Moscow‘s main cathedral Wednesday morning, said that the new pope should unite religious believers of all faiths, including Orthodox Christians. Yekaterina, 26, a graduate student and member of the Greek Catholic Church (sic), said on the day of the vote, “He should also be conservative. It’d be very strange and contradict the teachings of the church if the Catholic pope were for same-sex marriages“.
Catholics have a long and variegated history in Russia going back to at least the 12th century. Over the years, and even to this day, they’ve had to fend off suspicion and occasional hostility from nativists who see them as an unwelcome Western import. Inter-church relations have improved in the last decade under outgoing Pope Benedict XVI Ratzinger, and Catholics interviewed by the St Petersburg Times say that they feel at home in Russia. However, unresolved issues remain between the two churches, the most troublesome being property disputes in the Ukraine. That conflict was the latest sticking point preventing a meeting of the heads of both churches, something that’s never happened in their history.
Interfax reported that Patriarch Kirill said that the Orthodox Church shared Francisco’s concern for the poor and suffering, and that this creates new opportunities for cooperation between the two churches. Experts said that Russian Catholics had reason to be optimistic and pessimistic about the arrival of Pope Francisco, but warned that Russia would probably not be high on the new pontiff’s to-do list. The Vatican’s prestige and influence suffered in recent years with mounting revelations of child sex abuse by priests and allegations of corruption at the Vatican Bank, and there’s been widespread speculation that Benedict XVI’s historic resignation had links to the church’s woes. Kommersant FM editor-in-chief Konstantin von Eggert wrote that given these challenges, and the shift of Catholicism’s heartland from Europe to South America and Africa, Russia’s tiny fraction of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics would be far from Pope Francisco’s thoughts.
Roman Lunkin, a religion expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that unlike his predecessor, a long-time Vatican insider who met with Patriarch Kirill when Kirill was still a metropolitan, Francisco doesn’t have established ties to the Orthodox Church. Furthermore, Lunkin noted that it’s going to be difficult to explain to Francisco, an Argentinean Jesuit who’s said to have a passion for social work and a concern for the poor, how things are done in Russia, saying, “Why is it important to tiptoe around the Moscow Patriarchate’s sphere of influence? Why are Catholics constantly accused of proselytising? Why is it important to be quiet when the Orthodox Church and the government object to new Catholic churches?”
A Rocky Past
The Catholic Church in Russia, which includes Roman Catholics and Eastern Catholic churches subordinate to the pope, currently consists of four dioceses in Russia… the archdiocese is in Moscow… totalling 396 parishes nationwide. The three other dioceses are in Saratov, Novosibirsk, and Irkutsk. Catholicism has a long and turbulent history in Russia, punctuated by expulsions of Catholic missionaries and frustrated attempts to reunite the largest Western and Eastern branches of Christianity, which split in the Great Schism of 1054. Roman Catholic chapels first appeared in the ancient cities of Novgorod, Ladoga, and Smolensk between the 12th and 15th centuries, and Jesuit missionaries arrived in 1684, only have the government expel them five years later, and see their leader sent to a monastery.
The government became more tolerant to Catholics in the late 18th century under Tsaritsa Yekaterina Velikaya, who established rules for a Catholic parish in the imperial capital, St Petersburg. Shortly thereafter, the Jesuits returned, but the government expelled them again less than two decades later. The relationship hit rock bottom under the Bolsheviks, who in 1918 declared all church property to belong to the Soviet state, a move followed by arrests of Catholic clergy. In 1990, diplomatic relations between the USSR and the Holy See were established and the full re-establishment of the Catholic Church in Russia took off.
A Dominant Rival
Orthodox believers make up 74 percent of the Russian population, according to a December poll by the independent Levada Centre, and critics accused the Kremlin of cosying up to the Orthodox Church to wage an information campaign against dissenters and critics. Father Kirill, a spokesman for the Mother of God Catholic Archdiocese in Moscow said that whilst all religious groups face legal and property issues, “some confessions find it easier to resolve these issues than others”. In recent years, senior Orthodox clergymen have been spotted with expensive cars and pricey jewellery, enjoying scandalous luxuries that are anathema to Francisco, who reportedly rides the subway to work, cooks his own food, and flew to Rome with a single suitcase and without an entourage. Lunkin said, referring to the Orthodox Church’s head of external relations, “Metropolitan Hilarion and other senior clergy are used to diplomatic discussions between top officials, but for this pope, concrete missions and concrete social and evangelical projects are more important”.
There is some hope that values and religious sensibilities could trump differing styles. Francisco is said to be well-versed in Orthodox liturgical tradition, and an Orthodox bishop in South America told ITAR-TASS that he was “pro-Russian”, saying that Bergoglio was friendly with local Orthodox clergy in Argentina and sometimes attended Orthodox services. Because of the Catholic Church’s relatively small size and novelty in Russia… the archdiocese in Moscow was established in 2002, alarming some Orthodox leaders… it’s managed to remain isolated from some of the Roman Catholic Church’s problems, at least publicly. There weren’t any scandals involving alleged paedophilia by Catholic clergymen in Russia. The strongest whiff of sexual impropriety came in 2008, when a Russian man killed a Jesuit priest whom prosecutors said was making sexual advances.
However, its relative insignificance in the Catholic world also partly explains Russian Catholics’ exclusion from the Vatican’s hierarchy. There aren’t any Russian cardinals, and consequently, none of the 115 cardinals who chose Cardinal Bergoglio to be the 266th pontiff serves in Russia. Only one, Archbishop Audrys Juozas Bačkis of Vilnius, serves in the former USSR. Ivan Maksutov, a senior lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Religion at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU), said, “It’s too dangerous” to appoint a Russian cardinal, which would surely harm relations with the Orthodox Church. According to officials in both churches, relations warmed under Benedict XVI, who assumed the pontificate in 2005 and stepped down last month citing frailty, the first pope to retire in almost 600 years.
Moscow and the Holy See established full diplomatic relations in 2009, and perennial Orthodox complaints about Catholics’ “poaching” their flock petered out. The primary remaining irritant involves a dispute in the Ukraine between Orthodox and Greek Catholics (sic), who the Orthodox Church says wrongfully seized its property in the 1980s and 1990s. Soviet dictator Iosif Stalin ordered the seizure of Eastern Catholic Churches and gave the property to the Orthodox Church. After the collapse of the USSR, Eastern Catholics took back more than 500 of them, mostly in the Western Ukraine. Deacon Alexei Dikarev, an MP spokesman, said that the presence of Greek Catholic (sic) missionaries in traditionally-Orthodox parts of the Ukraine exacerbated the dispute.
No Easy Fix
Fr Kirill, the spokesman for the Moscow Catholic Archdiocese said that relations between the two churches would likely remain a source of tension for years to come, saying, “It’s a dialogue of love”, adding that it was natural for the two churches, while close in terms of tradition and practise, to continually calibrate their relationship. He denied that the Catholic Church ever aggressively proselytised in Russia, saying, “If by proselytism we mean scaring people or using unsavoury methods… payments, etc… then, this has never been the case”. Maksutov, the religion expert, said that relations between the two churches were currently “guarded”, observing, “They’re neither good nor bad. Because the Roman Catholic Church is less interested in the former USSR than it is in Africa and Latin America, there’s no special dialogue”.
The cardinals might have missed a chance to improve interfaith relations by failing to elect Hungarian bishop Péter Erdő as pope, who forged close ties with the Orthodox Church, who Vatican saw insiders as a leading candidate before Wednesday’s vote. Officially, the churches’ eventual goal is to unite after almost 1,000 years of separation. Dikarev said, “We’re on the path, but we’ve a long way to go”. One often-cited step on that path is a meeting of the heads of the two churches, which has never happened despite rumours in recent years that a summit was in the wings. On Thursday, Metropolitan Hilarion repeated the MP’s long-standing line on such a meeting… It’s possible, but not until the churches resolve “conflicts that arose abroad in the 1980s and 1990s”, referring to the Ukrainian property dispute. Fr Kirill downplayed the significance of a summit of the two leaders, saying, “It’s not a magical solution to our problems”, adding that spiritual unity was the main goal in bilateral ties.
Love from Russia
Bergoglio’s first appearance as Pope Francisco on the Vatican balcony at about 23.15 MSK on Wednesday earned gushing reviews from Russian-speaking Catholics on the Vkontakte social network, the largest in Russia. User Lilia Khugeyan, from the Western Ukraine, where much of the population is Catholic, wrote, “They say the strongest and most mysterious feeling is falling in love, but I’d beg to differ; I’m having ‘that feeling’ right now”. Others were more sober in their assessment. Another Western Ukrainian user, Dima Mis, replied, “Come on, girls, emotions are good, but I’m more interested in whether he’ll rise to the challenges of the times. I don’t know much about him, and his Wikipedia entry is skimpy”. Bergoglio was an unknown for many Catholics in Russia, including for Fr Daniel Ceratto, a fellow priest and Argentinean, director of the Church’s Regional Family Centre in St Petersburg. He said, “Unfortunately, I don’t know much about him. I’ve been here for 12 years”.
Although the church doesn’t keep accurate statistics, Fr Kirill speculated that the number of Catholics in Russia was probably shrinking due to emigration of Catholics with strong foreign roots. He denied that the trend was due to a “loss of faith” or signalled the church’s unsustainability. Catholics interviewed by the St Petersburg Times said that whilst they’re comfortable in Russia, many don’t always feel accepted. Bredikhin, the student, said he felt “fantastic” as a Catholic, but was concerned about how a coreligionist conscript would fare against endemic bullying in the Russian Army, saying, “They wouldn’t understand a Catholic there; he’d be an outcast. Some individuals understand that there’s freedom of religion, but the masses don’t”. Anna Belova, 28, who works in the cathedral’s catechismal library, said that her social circles didn’t include any Orthodox Christians but that she occasionally encounters resistance from particularly conservative Orthodox believers, saying, “Once I invited an Orthodox priest to see my grandmother. When he found out that I’m Catholic, he gave me a long lecture and tried to convert me”. Igor Gurkin, 39, a taxi driver and daily churchgoer, said that he hadn’t ever observed antagonism toward Catholics, but that could also be because, “It’s not written on my forehead that I’m a Catholic”.
15 March 2013
St Petersburg Times