November 2, 2013, Saturday — “The Russians are coming”
by Robert Moynihan
“We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”—Russian President Vladimir Putin, open letter to the American people, September 11
“In the countries of the former Soviet Union, in particular in Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia and Moldavia, an unprecedented religious revival is underway. In the Russian Orthodox Church over the past 25 years there have been built or restored from ruins more than 25,000 churches. This means that a thousand churches a year have been opened, i.e., three churches a day.” —Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, October 30
“Pope Francis has said before that he likes Dostoevsky, and we would like to think that he might also like the spiritual tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church.” —Dimitry Sizonenko, Secretary of the Department of Inter-Christian Relations in the Russian Orthodox Church, March 22, 2013, just after the election of Pope Francis
“In the Orthodox Churches they have kept that pristine liturgy, so beautiful. We have lost a bit the sense of adoration. They keep, they praise God, they adore God, they sing, time doesn’t count. God is the center, and this is a richness that I would like to say on this occasion in which you ask me this question. Once, speaking of the Western Church, of Western Europe, especially the Church that has grown most, they said this phrase to me: “Lux ex oriente, ex occidente luxus.” Consumerism, wellbeing, have done us so much harm. Instead you keep this beauty of God at the center, the reference. When one reads Dostoyevsky – I believe that for us all he must be an author to read and reread, because he has wisdom – one perceives what the Russian spirit is, the Eastern spirit. It’s something that will do us so much good. We are in need of this renewal, of this fresh air of the East, of this light of the East.” —Pope Francis, July 28, interview with press on flight back from Brazil
Will Russia’s President Putin soon meet Pope Francis?
When it was the heart of the Soviet Union, Russia embraced a communist ideology that denied the existence of God and the eternity of the human soul, calling such beliefs socially harmful mystifications.
Today, in 2013, Russia is quite dramatically preaching traditional Christian faith and values — to the consternation of many secular thinkers in the once-Christian West.
This can be seen clearly in many recent declarations by Russian religious and political leaders.
These range from the letter of President Vladimir Putin on September 11 published in the New York Times, to the dramatic address October 30 of Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev at the World Council of Churches, in which he warns of the dangers of secularism and Islam to the societies of the once-Christian West (full text below).
And all of this, given the troubled global context, suggests that new collaborations, and alliances, could soon emerge on the world scene.
One of these could involve Russia and Rome.
Shortly after Pope Francis called for “a day of prayer and fasting for peace” on September 7, Russian’s president, Vladimir Putin, published an article in the New York Times entitled “A Plea for Caution From Russia: What Putin Has to Say to Americans About Syria.”
It appeared on September 11 (yes, the anniversary of 9/11).
“Recent events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders,” Putin wrote. “It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.”
The Russian president went on to say: “If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”
But it was the final line of his essay which was truly astonishing. He wrote: “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
This appeal to “the Lord” and to “God” by the Russian president raised eyebrows worldwide, not least in Rome.
The Russian president was making a reference to a spiritual power, to God; the former KGB agent was speaking not about the forces of historical determinism, but about “blessings” from a personal divinity.
Putin’s Valdai talk
A few days later, on September 19, Putin spoke at an annual gathering to discuss Russia’s future in Valdai, Russia (near Novgorod).
“Putin urges Russians to return to values of religion,” was the title of an AP report by Neil Buckley, present at the meeting. “Vladimir Putin called on Russians to strengthen a new national identity based on conservative and traditional values such as the Orthodox church, warning that the West was facing a moral crisis.”
In his talk, Putin said: “A policy is being conducted of putting on the same level multi-child families and single-sex partnerships, belief in God and belief in Satan. The excesses of political correctness are leading to the point where people are talking seriously about registering parties whose goal is legalizing the propaganda of pedophilia.”
And Putin added: “People in many European countries are ashamed, and are afraid of talking about their religious convictions. [Religious] holidays are being taken away or called something else, shamefully hiding the essence of the holiday.”
So here we see the president of Russia lamenting the loss of public respect for religion, and religious holidays, in the West.
“Do not go down that road”
The Russians, increasingly, are warning the West that the road we are traveling down will lead to the type of society that the communists build in the Soviet Union. They are warning the West against going down that road. Urging us to stop and turn around…
Several years ago, the present Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill, gave a passionate sermon in Rome.
(Photo, Kirill and Pope Francis. The photo is a collage; the two have not yet actually met)
It was in the church of St. Catherine, not far up the Janiculum hill from St. Peter’s Basilica, on the grounds of the Russian embassy, the Villa Abamalek.
The heart of Kirill’s message on that occasion, as he consecrated the chapel, blessing it with holy water, was a warning to Europe and the West for turning away from their Christian roots.
The atheistic path taken by the Soviets had led to a dead end, Kirill said. “We tried to build a world without God,” he said of the Soviet experiment. “We failed. Do not take that path.”
Still, our West, enamored by secular humanism, continues rapidly down the path toward a culture without any transcendent dimension, a culture without a sense of the sacred… a culture without God.
And our recent Popes, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis, have attempted to warn the West against this dead-end path.
Their message has been similar to the message of the new Russians, like Kirill.
This suggests that Rome and Russia have something in common at this historical moment. It is a common mission to save the West from a profoundly hazardous path.
The essence of the message
The essence of Kirill’s message, which is increasingly Russia’s message to the West, and to the world, is a truth about man’s nature. An anthropological truth.
It is a truth which is also a paradox: that unless man transcends himself, man cannot be himself. Unless he projects himself, orients himself, toward the eternal and the ultimately real (unless he believes himself to be “in the image and likeness of God”), man cannot live justly and harmoniously in the transient, temporal reality of this space and time.
Without this truth, in fact, as recent Popes have argued, human beings create and embrace a “culture of death.”
This truth protects human life, underlies a “culture of life.”
This was Kirill’s message.
This truth about man is of course at the limits of our comprehension: we can contemplate its meaning, but not comprehend that meaning fully, not “grasp” it.
Still, though not fully understood, it remains true. And embracing that truth, believing it (having “faith” in it) protects our dignity and freedom, even politically.
Beings of such a nature as we are cannot in justice be murdered, enslaved or cruelly exploited.
By embracing this truth, the glory of all human nature is perceived and its dignity defended.
But this truth about our nature, this secret about our destiny, is no longer believed in the once Christian West, though it once was.
Yet it is increasingly believed again in Russia… a Russia which was spoken of by “the Lady” who appeared in 1917 to the three children of Fatima as a country that would in the future again be converted to faith.
In fact, this truth about human nature is being preached even by the most unlikely figures, like the bare-chested, judo-wrestling former KGB agent, Putin (who is said to wear an Orthodox cross around his neck), and the young archbishop-composer, Hilarion, who speaks so eloquently for his Church around the world, and who is coming to Rome on November 12 to be present at a concert where his compositions will be performed…
National interest or real conversion?
We all know that religion, the passion and commitment of religious belief, is envied by states, which seek to harness the energies of individuals and society to its own ends, its own power and self-preservation. This was true in the Roman Empire, and it may be part of the reason for Putin’s embrace of Christian faith.
But what if there is something authentic about this “conversion” of Russia to its former, and for 70 years abandoned, Christian faith?
If there were something authentic in it, if it were real, then there would be reason to believe there could be “common ground” between Moscow and… Rome.
And it is in this context that we may perhaps read the reports in the press — for the moment just rumors, without confirmation — that Putin may visit Rome at the end of November, also to meet Pope Francis.
“Putin visit to Pope not denied,” reads the headline of an ANSA newsflash on October 29. “Russian president audience with Francis rumored in Moscow,” was the subtitle. Here is the report:
(ANSA) – Moscow, October 29 – Russian President Vladimir Putin may visit Pope Francis during an Italian trip at the end of next month, according to diplomatic rumors in Moscow.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov did not deny them, telling ANSA: “the schedule for the visit has not yet been set.”
“We are still defining and discussing the program with our Italian counterparts.
“I can’t say any more,” Peskov said.
Putin will attend an Italian-Russian summit in Trieste at the end of November.
He is expected to travel down to Rome for talks with Italian leaders.
Could we be on the eve of one of the most important high-level meetings in recent history? Stay tuned…
Concert for Peace
It is in this interesting context that the Urbi et Orbi Foundation (which I direct), along with a Russian Orthodox Foundation, the St. Gregory the Theologian Foundation (which was founded with the blessing of Patriarch Kirill), is co-sponsoring a “Concert for Peace” in Rome on November 12 at 9 p.m. at the Auditorium Conciliazione on via della Conciliazione #4.
This “Concert for Peace” will include pieces of classical Italian opera, sung by the young Russian opera singer Svetlana Kasyan (photo, after a recent concert in Moscow, with the US Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul) along with pieces composed by the young Russian Orthodox Metropolitan, Hilarion Alfeyev, 47.
The concert will include the world premiere of Hilarion’s composition setting to music the poetry of the great Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), the leading Spanish poet of the 20th century.
The choice of these pieces, sung by a Russian diva, is to show respect for the profound musical, and humanistic, culture of Italy.
The choice to offer the poetry of García Lorca set to music is to show respect for Spanish culture, and the Spanish language, which is the language of Pope Francis.
The choice of other pieces of Hilarion’s music is to show respect for the Russian musical tradition which produced Hilarion, who studied at the Moscow Conservatory in the early 1980s, before choosing to enter the Orthodox priesthood.
And the centerpiece of this portion of the concert is Hilarion’s stunning “Rachel’s Lament,” which draws of the biblical account of the slaughter of the innocents by Herod at the time of Jesus’s birth.
The entire concert is conceived of as a gift of thanks from the Russians, and our Foundation, which seeks to work for better relations between Catholics and Orthodox in view of a closer communion between our Churches, to Pope Francis for his remarkable witness on behalf of the cause of peace in recent months