Voices from Russia

Thursday, 10 December 2009

How Many Divisions does the Pope of Rome Have?

President Dmitri Medvedev (1965- ) (left) with Benedict Ratzinger (1927- ), the Pope of Rome (right). It’s obvious that the two are “mugging” for the camera, there’s no real friendship or trust between these men. In any case, this has nothing to do with religion, it concerns state relations, only. That is, AsiaNews and Zenit are wrong, yet again. Sorry, Charlie…


If President Medvedev’s visit to Italy was, in fact, rather routine, albeit very fruitful, then, his visit to the Vatican and his meeting with, according to Catholics, the 265th Representative of God on Earth, Benedict XVI, opened a new page in our relations with the Holy See. In May 1935, French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval allegedly asked Stalin to improve the situation of Catholics in the USSR so as not to provoke a quarrel with the Pope. At that, Stalin, with his brutal sense of humour, asked, “The Pope? How many divisions does he have?” According to another version, he addressed this remark to Churchill. Here’s how Stalin’s interpreter, Valentin Berezhkov, described this scene in his memoirs:

In 1944, at a time when the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the struggle against Nazi Germany, it was important to convince Stalin that the Western democracies accepted him as an equal. “‘In the world of the future, for which our soldiers have shed their blood on countless fronts”, the British Prime Minister said in his bombastic style, “our three great democracies will demonstrate to all mankind that they, both in wartime and in peacetime, will remain true to the high principles of freedom, dignity, and happiness of the people. That’s why I attach such paramount importance to good neighbourly relations between a restored Poland and the Soviet Union. It was for the freedom and independence of Poland that Britain went into this war. The British feel a sense of moral responsibility to the Polish people, to their spiritual values. It’s also important that Poland is a Catholic country. We can’t allow internal developments there to complicate our relations with the Vatican…”

“How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?” Stalin asked, suddenly interrupting Churchill’s line of reasoning.

Churchill stopped short. He hadn’t expected such a question. After all, he was speaking about the moral influence of the Pope, not only in Poland, but, also, throughout the world. Once again, Stalin reaffirmed that he only respected force, and brought Churchill back down to earth from the nebulous heavens.

Stalin liked to repeat his jokes. However, it’s doubtful whether he dared to send a reply to the severe statement of Pius XII, “You can tell my son Joseph that he will meet my divisions in heaven”. In spite of this, Stalin, and, especially, the Pope knew that the Vatican was influential throughout the world. It’s no wonder that the popes began their messages with the salutation, “Urbi et Orbi”, “to the city and to the world”. Even if we assume that we are talking only about the Catholic world (although, of course, the Holy See’s ambitions aren’t limited to such), it’s the largest of the Christian churches, with over a billion people. On the other hand, according to various estimates, Orthodox number some 250-300 million. If Grand Prince Vladimir in 986, during the famous “test of faith” didn’t reject the western form of Christianity because of the papal claims to temporal power and the need to worship in an incomprehensible Latin, Catholics might be more numerous today. At the same time, if you believe the chronicles, Vladimir the Red Sun said in rebuking Muslims extolling the benefits of the Islamic faith, “Drink is the joy of the Rus, one that we can’t be without”.

Grand Prince Vladimir the Baptiser opted for the Greek faith of Constantinople, but, he found that contacts with Rome were useful and important. The patron of Russia was the fourth half-mythical Pope of Rome, Clement, who died a martyr in the Crimea. St Kirill discovered his relics in Kherson; they were the primary Christian shrine of the state. The relations of Russia and Rome were unusually active during the extraordinary 40s and 50s of the 13th century because of the Tartar invasion. The initiator of an alliance in the face of a common threat under the auspices of the Holy See was Prince Daniil of Galicia. He received a royal title from Pope Innocent IV and received a crown sent from Rome. Grand Prince Aleksandr Nevsky had diplomatic relations with the papal curia through Daniil; he wanted Daniil to get the Pope to ban the territorial expansion of the Crusaders in the north-western lands.

In 1438-39, first in Ferrara, and, then, in Florence, was an Ecumenical Council (sic), which culminated in an agreement signed by Pope Eugene IV and the eastern hierarchs on Church Union. An impressive delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church attended the council. Returning from Italy, Isidore, his clergy, and the laymen who attended the council, announced that the Latin and Greek churches reunited. However, in Moscow, he met with a frigid reception. On the third day after his arrival, Grand Prince Vasili II had him arrested, accused of heresy, and banished to a monastery, where, later, he fled to Lithuania.

In 1472, in St Peter’s in Rome, the wedding of the Greek Princess Sophia Paleologos with Prince Ivan III of Moscow took place in the Latin rite. Ivan was absent and an emissary stood in for him at the ceremony (this practise isn’t in the Orthodox canons). When the entourage of Grand Duchess Sophia approached Moscow, Metropolitan Filipp I said that he would leave the city if the papal legate accompanying Sophia appeared in the procession with a Latin cross. In 1523, Elder Filofei of the Pskov Monastery wrote a letter to Vasili III, which introduced the concept of the Third Rome, Moscow being such after the conquest of Constantinople by crusaders. The Orthodox Anti-Catholic Catechism (1916) outlined the main differences between the two churches. “Catholics teach that the pope is the head of the whole Church and the Vicar of God on earth, that the Pope can’t err on matters of faith, and, therefore, they call him infallible. They believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but, from the Son as well, and they acknowledge the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin”.

Russia established diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1816. After the Polish rebellion of 1863, they were in abeyance for nearly 30 years. They were broken off again at the time of the October Revolution. Restoration of diplomatic relations was the result of a personal agreement of Pope John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachyov on 1 December 1989. However, it was at the level of a mission, and not a full embassy. The current visit of President Dmitri Medvedev opened a qualitatively new chapter in a long history of contacts between the world’s largest country with the smallest in territory, but, perhaps, one of the most influential, states on Earth.

This event, of course, increased interest in the possibility of a meeting between the heads of the two Churches. “However, this meeting must be prepared with care so that we can remove existing frictions”, according to a statement made by the “foreign minister” of the MP, the head of the Department for External Church Relations, Archbishop Ilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk. “There are problems that we need to resolve in a completely different way using other means. We won’t resolve them simply by establishing diplomatic relations. First and foremost, is the problem of the Western Ukraine, where there’s enmity in the relations between Orthodox and Greek Catholics (sic). We expect the Vatican, through the Roman Catholic Church, to take specific actions that would indicate that they have a desire to work together with us and to heal the wounds that they dealt to us during the difficult period of the early nineties, when Uniates seized more than 500 Orthodox churches [in the Ukraine] and they threw the Orthodox congregations out into the street. Furthermore, we’re tendering specific answers to resolve the problems that exist”, said Archbishop Ilarion in expressing the official viewpoint of the MP.

If a canonical resolution of the disputes in the Ukraine has proven elusive so far, in Russia itself, the Vatican suspended its “expansion”. Recall that in the late 90s to early 2000s, the Catholics established dioceses in Russia without prior coordination with the MP. In such circumstances, the Russian government “was wise in refraining from diplomatic relations with the Vatican”, said Hieromonk Filipp Ryabykh, the deputy head of the MP DECR. The situation, “which was characterised by the presence of Catholic proselytism at a time of crisis, now, Catholic institutions in Russia are open to interaction with the MP, the church of the majority”, stated Fr Filipp. He encouraged us not to forget the fact that the positions of the two churches on humanitarian questions, whether social problems or a “common understanding of the concept of education in the modern world”, often coincide. We shouldn’t forget that the current heads of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, unlike their predecessors, have already met, as “simple” Cardinal and Metropolitan.

10 December 2009

Aleksandr Bangersky

Россия (Rossiya: Russia)

As quoted in Interfax-Religion



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