MOSCOW, Russia – Russian Catholics are encouraged by the first ever trip by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, to Russia. Many say they “against hope, believe in hope” that previous tensions with state authorities and Orthodox Christians will remain in the past.
Estimates on the number of Catholics in Russia vary, but there are somewhere between 150,000 and 775,000 (less than one percent of the population), the majority belonging to ethnic minorities.
Two major issues have caused tensions since the collapse of the Soviet Union: Getting back Catholic property confiscated in Soviet time such as churches, chapels, other buildings; and accusations of “proselytism” – conversions of non-believers or other Christians under duress – made by the dominant Orthodox Church.
Parolin has not made a secret of his visit’s agenda, and his priorities sound promising for Catholics.
“First of all, I want to meet with the local Catholic community. I brought to the Catholics of this country the love, closeness and blessing of Pope Francis,” the cardinal said on Monday in an interview with Gaudete.Ru.
He added two more reasons to come to Russia: Meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov in order to discuss the relations between the state and the Catholic Church; and contacts with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular Patriarch Kirill, and the head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow patriarchate, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk Ilarion – with the intention “to strengthen these relations and try to work together along the path of cooperation according to the commandment and at the will of the Lord.”
It is still not clear to what extent the Vatican Secretary of State’s visit will be helpful for local Catholics, but their expectations are high – even if it is a more emotional than rational reaction.
“I do understand how difficult it would be to get back our Churches, but visible support by the cardinal who represents here the Holy Father is extremely important for us,” said Alexander – who did not give his last name – a retiree who attended a Mass on Monday celebrated by Parolin in Moscow’s Catholic cathedral.
“Thirty years ago, in Soviet times, I had to go to Lithuania to be secretly baptized in the Catholic Church. Nowadays we have three churches in Moscow – one still has not been returned – but Catholics in Smolensk, Kaliningrad, and other Russian cities have been struggling to get back church buildings for 20 years, with no success,” he said.
Alexander hopes the cardinal found the right words to convince the Russian government to make “just and wise” decisions.
“Today I talked with the nuncio, with the bishops, and I know that this is a very serious problem. Each religious community needs a proper place, needs a church, a temple, in order to have the opportunity to profess its faith,” Parolin told Gaudete.Ru, promising to raise the issue.
“Let’s hope that every visit, and especially the current visit at the level of the Secretary of State, will help resolve this problem. There is a fundamental principle of religious freedom, according to which every religious community has the right to the necessary premises to be able to practice their faith, live their lives and testify about it,” the cardinal said.
There have been some positive developments – recently the Catholic Church won a court case against the Moscow government to reclaim some buildings around Sts. Peter and Paul church, but the decision has been appealed.
Meanwhile, accusations of “proselytism” from the Russian Orthodox Church are more muted now than they were in the 1990s and 2000s.
The accusations caused a “self-silencing” within the official structures of the Catholic Church, and it has been institutionally less vocal over the past decade, preferring not to comment on issues in the country.
Olga – a 40-year-old woman who did not give her last name – is the organizer of several grass-roots Catholic initiatives in Moscow.
She hopes that after Parolin’s visit, the Russian Catholic bishops will be more outspoken on social issues.
“I also believe that His Eminence encouraged our bishops and priests to be more active in evangelization, in proclaiming the Gospel, in being more visible with a firm moral stand in Russian media and the public sphere,” Olga said.
She said she considers Parolin’s words at the Moscow cathedral on Monday to be a “vaccination against ‘proselitophobia’” – the fear to be accused of proselytism.
“Despite all the problems, all the sufferings you face in this life, be a witness of Christ in this society, where the legacy of the recent past – atheism, religious indifference – is still active,” Parolin said during his homily.
He said Christianity is growing not due to proselytism, but because of its attractiveness.
“So – go ahead, do not be afraid to help people find answers to their questions and the problems of their lives, feel that you are close to the pope, the Universal Church, and try to give a perfect testimony of faith and love in your society,” the cardinal said.
For a Catholic prelate to say this is striking in the Russian context, where government policy only recognizes four “traditional” religions in the country: Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism.
According to this understanding, Catholics – despite a history in Russia rooted in medieval times – are considered to belong to a “non-traditional” religion, which can have unpleasant consequences.
Earlier this year, the Russian Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses, causing concern for other minority faiths, including the Catholic Church.
“The situation in Russia now is complex and difficult. Catholics have very strong worries that we also may be faced, if not with persecution then at least with new manifestations of discrimination and restrictions of our freedom of religious confession,” Father Igor Kovalevsky, the general secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia, said in an interview with Catholic News Service.
He added that although there are no signs that the Catholic Church will be treated as the Jehovah’s Witnesses were, “the government should assure citizens that freedom of conscience remains intact.”
Currently, Orthodox-Catholic relations in Russia are regulated by the Pontifical Commission “Pro Russia” instruction General Principles and Practical Norms for Coordinating the Evangelizing Activity and Ecumenical Commitment of the Catholic Church in Russia and in the Other Countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), issued in 1992.
The “Pro Russia” Commission instructs Catholic bishops to inform local Orthodox bishops of all their important pastoral initiatives, especially the opening of new parishes.
But the Orthodox side in many cases understands the words “to inform” to mean “to ask for permission.”
The culmination of this misunderstanding happened in 2002, when Pope John Paul II established four dioceses in Russia. The Moscow Patriarchate was informed about new dioceses in advance, but this was considered to be insufficient, and caused a strain in Russian Orthodox-Catholic relations.
Russian Catholics hope that all of this will remain in the past, and the visit of Parolin to Moscow will open a new page in the relations between the different Christian communities in Russia.
Victor Khroul is a Russian Catholic journalist and the former editor of Svet Evangelia, Russia’s only Catholic weekly, before it closed in 2007. Khroul also teaches journalism at Moscow State University.