Reunification is the Ultimate Desire of Many in Russia

By Kevin Hannan, KJT News, October 1992

icon of the holy brothers Peter and Andrew; Peter representing the West (Rome); Andrew, the East (Constantinople)

Moscow is the city of wonders. For tourists there are landmarks such as the Kremlin cathedrals to occupy weeks of excursions. Off the beaten path there are impressive sights like Holy Trinity Church on Nikitniki Street, not far from the Kremlin, and the former residence-museum of the painter Vasnecov.

One of Moscow's most interesting sights, though rarely visited by foreign tourists, is the Donskoj monastery. Buried in the monastery cemetery, one of Moscow's oldest, are the remains of writer Petr Chaadajev and cleric Patriarch Pimen. Mounted in the exterior walls facing into the cemetery arc gigantic marble friezes which were rescued from the upper exterior walls of Moscow's Holy Savior Cathedral before it was torn down by Stalin. No less interesting for me was a visit to Moscow's Greek Catholic community.

Since September 1991, this Catholic community of the Byzantine-Slavonic rite has been meeting twice weekly in a school*. One of the parishioners is employed in this school and some type of arrangement has been made in which a sympathetic bureaucrat turns his head at what is probably the illegal use of a government facility. They have no church build ing and no realistic chances of obtaining one anytime in the near future. Should the local Orthodox learn of the community's existence, the pastor and parishioners could face actual physical danger. For the time being news about the community circulates clandestinely among parishioners and those sympathetic to their situation, who maintain a close network of communication with one another.

Like other Greek Catholics in Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the community maintains the liturgy and traditions of the Orthodox while professing loyalty to the Pope of Rome. They represent one of the numerous rites within the universal Catholic Church. The pastor of the Greek Catholic community in Moscow is Father Andrej. As with more than a few of his ancestors. Father Andrej was ordained a Russian Orthodox priest.

From the beginning of his work as a parish priest, Father Andrej encountered difficulties with his bishop and the KGB. His bishop worked closely with the KGB and on three occasions KGB agents attempted to force Father Andrej to work with them. Opposed to any type of politicizing of religion, Father Andrej steadfastly refused. He finally received a letter from his bishop informing him that he could no longer perform his priestly functions.

This situation was not uncommon among the Russian Orthodox, where the clergy was widely infiltrated by government agents. Father Andrej currently works as a priest under the jurisdiction of Catholic Cardinal Lubachivsky. Father Andrej considers himself Greek Catholic and Orthodox at the same time, acknowledging the authority of the Pope of Rome while embracing the traditions of Russian Orthodoxy. The chant and liturgical practices of his community are the same as those of the Russian Orthodox. Thus he seeks to reconcile the traditions of Rome and Moscow.

Father Andrej pointed out to me that he was not the first person who had tried to do this. Similarly motivated were two of Russia's greatest thinkers Petr Chaadajev (1794–1856) and Vladimir Soloviev (1853–1900). Chaadajev (image to left) shocked Russia in the 1830's with his criticism of Orthodoxy and enthusiasm for Catholicism. He viewed the papacy as "a visible symbol of unity" under which all of Christianity should be united. Chaadajev blamed Russia's stunted cultural and moral development on the fact that Russia throughout history had been cut off from Western Christianity. He blamed the Protestant Reformation for the ceaseless splintering of Christianity in the West into numberless sects. Although he was a communicant of the Orthodox Church until his death, Chaadajev remained Catholic in spirit.

Better known to Westerners is the philosopher Vladimir Soloviev. Like Chaadajev, Soloviev (image to right) was attracted by the idea of the reunification of Christians. He conceived of a universal church, which would include even Judaism, headed by the Pope of Rome. There is evidence that Soloviev converted to Catholicism in 1892. Whether or not they actually officially converted, both Chaadajev and Soloviev were Greek Catholics in the sense that they acknowledged the authority of the Pope while retaining the deepest respect for the traditions of Slavic Christianity.

In this they continued the tradition of the people of Kievan Russia, who had accepted baptism in a day when the Pope of Rome still presided over one Christian communion. It happens that both Chaadajev and Soloviev are buried in Moscow, in the cemeteries of the Donskoj monastery and the Novodevicij convent. I visited the graves of these two great Russian thinkers with Father Andrej and in Slavic tradition paid homage to their memory.

Only after a great deal of hard work was Father Andrej able to establish a Greek Catholic community in Moscow. He began by teaching children religion. With time certain parents became interested and joined the community. The parishioners come from all walks of life and backgrounds. Many are former atheists. One of the most active members is a Jewish girl from Ukraine. She told me that she knows many Jews in Russia who are interested in Christianity but fear the strongly anti-Semitic policies of the Russian Orthodox Church. There are also Tatars and foreign students, including Orthodox Bulgarians and Roman Catholic Croats.

It was moving experience to attend the community liturgy. Celebrated in a small room of the school, the liturgy contrasted favorably with the much more impersonal services of the Russian Orthodox churches. In many respects the Moscow community is an extended family in which members are in close and constant contact. They meet on Sunday mornings for liturgy, which is followed by a communal meal, instruction for children and singing for the adults. Parishioners of all ages enjoy singing religious songs to guitar accompaniment.

On Monday evenings the community meets for scripture study and prayer. They are currently reading the New Testament from front to back. Following the reading there is an in-depth discussion. Some parishioners are life-long Christians who know the Bible well, while others were until only recently atheists, and together they produce a lively discussion. Then follows an akathist, a traditional prayer to the Mother of God which is now becoming popular even among Roman Catholics. Following the akathist, there are additional prayers and finally, an informal group sing-a-long.

Father Andrej has other worries besides the parish community in Moscow. He also performs various pastoral duties in Siberia and in southern Russia. Father Andrej stated that should the Orthodox learn of his work and force him to leave Moscow, he would like to relocate to one of his mission communities in Siberia. In July he made a trip to Siberia, along with several of his Moscow parishioners, to help construct a new church building.

* In 1999, the Sts. Peter and Paul community was required to leave the school premises referred to in the article [Back]

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