Yesterday afternoon I arrived in St. Petersburg. Upon my arrival, I kissed the ground to pay my respects to Pope John Paul II who loved Holy Mother Russia. As providence would have it, I met a Seminarian at the JFK airport. He had a different seat than me, but providence again gave an empty seat next to me, so we were able to chat for hours about God, religion and Russia. How appropriate it is to be in Russia now, when my parents are going to Portugal in the fall to visit Fatima, where our Lady prayed for the conversion of Russia. The Seminarian, Mark, told me he was going to visit with the Archbishop of Moscow, to discuss further progress between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. He plans on living in Russia in the future to help with the revival of faith in Russia. It amazes me that there is a dialogue between the two religions that parted 1000 years ago, but I am grateful for it and I believe that soon we will be united. Both groups could stand to benefit from one another. We are extremely similar in our beliefs and there are actually few differences. We both have a devotion to the Holy Mother, believe in Saints, believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the belief in each of the sacraments, believe the Mass is participation in the liturgy of Heaven and believe that the Church is an instrument toward salvation. But, yet, both groups could still stand to learn from each other. The East has a beautiful liturgy lasting 2-3 hours. 99% of Russia claims to be Eastern Orthodox, yet this country has one of the highest rates of abortion, the AIDS epidemic is fastest rising and the government is still in shambles. This is where the West could teach the Eastern religion. The Catholic Church is very apostolic in the sense that we create hospitals, schools, nursing homes, welfare programs and other charities. After the fall of communism, the “utopia” fell in Russia and basic things like medical care was hard to come by and extremely expensive. It is quite obvious that communism scared people away from churches, tore them down, used them as storage warehouses, as is made clear when it is difficult to find a church that is not a museum. The one that I explored yesterday, the Church on Spilt Blood was used to store potatoes.
Another observation, I find it interesting that in Poland, people rebelled so strongly against communism and that Catholicism survived all throughout this terrible time. Through the Catholic Church and by the the hand of Pope John Paul II, communism was brought down. Yet, in Russia, people stopped attending churches and churches were shut down. Why did that happen in Russia and not Poland? Was it because communism started here and Karl Marx was present many years before it came to Poland? Was it a cultural thing? Did people here believe that communism would actually help them? This is something that truly puzzles me.
From growing up in the Polish community, I was well attuned to the fact that many (emphasis on many) priests and lay people were killed in Russia and in Poland under communism, but perhaps conditions were rougher in Russia? I know from a personal example, that my father was demoted from his managerial position for not signing the communist papers and not denying his belief in God. It’s hard to know the reasons for this majority atheism in Russia. However, those who have held strong, both in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are now coming alive! Pope Benedict says there will be a strong revival here in Russia and kudos to him for making dialogue between the Catholics and the Orthodox his priority. I look forward to exploring this topic more when I come home.