By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
At the end of 2014 the publishing house of the KIRCHE IN NOT (Church in Need, Munich, part of the international catholic charity organization and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need ACN) published a book under the title: “Building a bridge between Rome and Moscow. Two decades of reconciliation and reconstruction aid for the Russian Orthodox Church.”
In this quite unusual and very emotionally written 130-pagedocument, the author Eva-Maria Kolmann gives us an insight into the history of the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, which was initiated 20 years ago.The main impulse for this “dialogue of love“ wasgiven by Pope John Paul II in the mid1990’s. In an audience with Father Werenfried van Straaten, the founder of this catholic charity organization (1947), Pope John Paul II received a briefing by the father, reporting about his travels in 1992/94 in Russia and the meetings he had with the then Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexei II. The Pope suggested to Father Werenfried van Straaten, that with the help of his charity organization“Church in need”, he should concentrate his attentionon building a dialogue between the two churches. The aim was to pave the way toward unity and reconciliation between the two sister churches, which are separated since the 1054 schism and to find common solutions for the urging problems of our time.
It is a truly historical project, especially if we look at it on the background of the tragic events which are surrounding today the Russia/Ukraine conflict and the shocking ignorance which many politicians and media in Western Europe manifest in respect to the spiritual tradition of Russia. This project could serve as an important guide for a new intellectualstart in the relations between Western Europe and Russia.
In 2011 during the Congress “Meeting point World Church” organized by the papal aid organization Church in Need inWurzburg (Germany), a very significant encounter took place for the first time between Cardinal Kurt Koch (President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity) and the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion. Hilarion at that time qualified the relations between the two churches as “strategic alliance”. Orthodox Christians and Catholicsconsider themselves as “allies” given the present challenges of our time. As Hilarion stated at that time,,the traditional Christian marriage and family, the value of human life from the inception to death, is in our modern secularized world radically put into question and reinterpreted.(….) and today only the Orthodox and the Catholic Church protect the traditional family life.That means that we can unite our forces in order to defend the traditional values.” The strategic alliance of the two churches demands the “joint engagement for the protection of the Christian identity of Europe and for the defense of the Christian tradition of the European culture.”
United against cultural pessimism and the relativizing of universal values
What unites the two churches is their reaction to the profound anthropological and cultural crisis that is gripping the people in East and West,a crisis which is reflected in the radical negation of universal values. Both Churches are also united in the concern about the growing discrimination of Christians in the Mideast. This was particularly manifested when in September 2013 both Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill from Moscow, at the height of the Syria crisis and on the occasion of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, wrotea letter to President Putin and likewise toPresident Barack Obama, in which they warned against a military intervention in Syria.
One of the special projects of the pontifical foundation ACNis the support for interfaith projects in the Christian Russian-culture and media landscape. An example is “Blagovest Info”a Russian media agency which is based in Moscow and which became famous when in 2008 it produced a film about the then Pope Benedict XVI. For the first time in history the Pope could give an address to the Russian people which was transmitted April 16th 2008 in the Russian State TV. Peter Humeniuk(responsible for Russian affairs in the Church in Need) who had the original idea for the film and supervised the project, characterized the event as a “historic event”, given the fact, that for the first time the Russians were able to see a Pope as a “venerable and loveable and warm personality.”
Another joint project between the two churches is the “Spiritual Library”, which was founded in 2004 and which functions like a spiritual cultural center in the heart of Moscow. Here the works of Catholic and Orthodox theological writers can be studied, among them the work of Josef Cardinal Ratzinger “Introduction into Christianity”, the translation of the Catholic Catechism, as well as the book “The Ethics of the Common Good” published in 2007 by Cardinal Bertone with a forward written by Metropolitan Kirill.
In his historic speech on Russian State television in 2008, the Pope spoke of his great esteem which he felt towards the peoples of Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church: “Russia is truly great, in a variety of different ways – in her sheer geographical scale, in her long history, in her magnificent spirituality, in her variety of artistic expression. During the past century the horizon of your noble land, like that of other regions on the European continent, was obscured by shadows of suffering and violence, shadows that were, however, opposed and overcome by the splendid light of so many martyrs – Orthodox, Catholics and other believers, who perished under the oppression of ferocious persecutions. The love of Christ even unto martyrdom, which unites them, reminds us of the urgent need to restore unity among Christians, a duty to which the Catholic Church feels herself to be irrevocably committed.”
Ecumenism of the Martyrs
Pope Benedict XVI referred to a chapter in the history of the two churches which bring the two churches very close to each other: It’s the martyrdomwhich many devout Christians had to suffer from. A particular martyrdom was suffered by the Russian Orthodox Church after the October Revolution in 1917. As the book by the author Eva-Maria Kolmann reports, icons and crosses Christians were torn from the church towers, Christians were persecuted and countless churches were transformed into cinemas, clubs, swimming pools or storage rooms.
“From approximately 60,000 Churches in which before the October Revolution the Divine Liturgywas celebrated, twenty years later only 100 were left”, the author writes. “Within only two years after the beginning of the October Revolution 15,000 priests were killed. More than 300 bishops were executed or died in captivity. The Monastery of the Solowetzki Islands, where since the 15th century monks had lived, was turned into a concentration camp. The islands–they consist of one main island, five major islands and numerous smaller islands-are located just 150 km from the Arctic Circle in the White Sea. Here winter lasts for eight months and the polar nights seem to be endless. But here for centuries monastic life had flourished, and the monastery became one of the most important spiritual centers of Russia. Here the icon painting and other crafts were practiced with great skill. In the second half of the 16th century seven churches were built, and in the 17th century 300 monks lived here.Numerous hermitages also developed here. In 1920, after the arrival of the Bolsheviks the monastery got dissolved. Almost all churches were closed, the icons were confiscated, and the large library was closed.In 1923 the monastery burnt down. A camp for the ‘reeducation of the new man’was built.” (The Russian writer Solzhenitsyn in his famous book “The Gulag Archipelago”made reference to this.)
The author Eva-Maria Kolmann further writes: “Almost all of the intellectual elite of the pre-revolutionary Russia was imprisoned in this place. Among the prisoners who suffered in this camp was also the grandfather of the current Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who was also an Orthodox priest. He survived the prison, but was imprisoned all in all in 46 different camps and prisons and got deported seven times. At the end of the Soviet Union almost halfa million people – including up to 320,000 priests –had to pay for their faith in Christ with the tremendous suffering, imprisonment and with their lives.”
The story which the author tells about the horrendous martyrdom, which the Russian Orthodox Church and its faithful had to suffer under communism, makes all the more clear the dubious character of those campaigns which are currently directed by Western European politicians and media against the “spiritual tradition” of the Russian Orthodox Church, claiming that it is the Russian Orthodox Church which together with President Putin wants to restore the “Russian Empire”.
What unites both Churches
The icon of the Madonna of Kazan is a special symbol for the unitybetween the two churches. After the turmoil of the October Revolution, the icon arrived in the West. In 2004 the Icon was given back to the Russian Orthodox Church by Pope John Paul II; it was solemnly handed over by CardinalWalter Kasperto the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexeji II. After that the Icon was brought 750 km east of Moscow, to Kazan the Capital of Tatarstan, where 60% Muslims are living today.
In a very sensitive and insightful way the author reports about some projects of the Russian Orthodox Church which in the last years enjoyed thee support from the pontificalfoundation Aid to the Church in Need.
This includes the project of the “Chapel ships”. In Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) 1000 km southeast of Moscow, on the banks of the Volga, the most famous project of Church in Need began.At that time (1998) Metropolitan German was facing a difficult situation: Four million people were living in the territory of his diocese, which extends over 14,000 square kilometers. However, there were almost no churches, because a large part of the churcheshad been destroyedduring World War II. Many villages and towns were located along the banks of the Volga. So the Metropolitan had the idea to solve his dilemma with the help of “floating churches”. Thus, the world famous “Chapel ships”came into being, whose construction was supported by ACN and whose construction was carried through by Vladimir Koretzky. Right now three Chapel ships on the Volga and Don go to the faithful who live in villages where there is no church. They are a sign of good cooperation between Catholic and Orthodox Christians.
The power of faith
“From the House of the Dead to the place of life” is the title of a particularly impressive chapter in the book. It reports about the infamous labor and prison camps, among which the name “Kolyma” is notorious. “It is a Golgotha of our time and as symbolic as Auschwitz. (…) Thousands of prisoners died in Kolyma and upon their bones, a road was built, which leads to the 300 km distant gold mines, where thousands of prisoners had to work in forced labor conditions. Due to the vast wetlands and other adverse conditions, the road was almost twice as long as the linear distance. Later it was expanded to Yakutsk, which is 1700 kilometers away. The road is in reality a mass grave, an immense cemetery where nothing remembers any more the many dead.” One of the prisoners, who still survived these horrors,is Bronislava from Lithuania. She got arrested in 1948,being accused for counterrevolutionary activities; she then was deported in cattle wagons more than 6240 kilometers away to Vladivostok. In order to give herself strength during her stay in the labor camp she mixed small balls of bread crumbs with ashes and strung them on a thread. She cut out of soap a cross into the bread and hid the Rosary in the seam of her dress. Under the most inhumane and averse conditions she was able to give with her faith many inmates strength and comfort.
Other projects between the two churches include also seminars for the education of young Orthodox priests, where today also very often Catholic theologians can teach. In addition two special institutes were founded –an institute for oriental studies and languages in the Muslim dominated areas in the Russian federation, and the other an Asian studies institute which also includes the special training in Asian language for the young Orthodox Seminarians.
At the end of the very nicely illustrated booklet,Peter Humeniuk, is quoted: “We cannot think about Europe as a space which ends at the eastern border of the European Union. We must think about Europe as a community of Christian values and culture whichextends from Lisbon to Vladivostok.”–