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‘Difficult times have returned’: The hard work of supporting Christianity in Russia

Marta Dell’Asta is a researcher with the Italian organization Russia Cristiana, where she specializes in dissent and the religious policy of the Soviet State. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill. Credit: Russian Government/Alamy Stock photo

The organization was founded by Fr Romano Scalfi in 1957, during the Soviet era, when religion was severely repressed in the communist state. The goal of Russia Cristiana was, and remains, to introduce people to the richness of the spiritual, cultural and liturgical traditions of Russian Orthodoxy, to encourage ecumenical dialogue and to contribute to the presence of Christianity in Russia. 

During a recent visit to Lisbon, Portugal, where she was a guest speaker at an event organized by the local branch of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, Dell’Asta sat down to talk with The Pillar about the current religious situation in Russia.


Your association works to support Christianity in Russia.

Is that work easier now, or more difficult than it was in the 90s?

Difficult times have returned. In the 1970s and 80s everything was clear enough: we knew that there was an enemy, Communism, and we tried to help all the dissidents. 

Nowadays things are different, because unfortunately the involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) with the government has blocked the process of ecclesial freedom that began in the 1990s. 

Many priests and laypeople are confused, because they feel that the narrative coming from their religious authorities about the war is un-religious, but they lack the means to judge, to understand. By keeping dialogue with them open, together we all can help them better understand the real terms of the issue, because today many in good faith have been led to believe that “messianic nationalism” is an integral part of the faith; it’s important to avoid scandalizing simple people.

As a matter of fact, many priests have been dismissed from the ROC, suspended, because they didn't pray for victory, as they were told, but for peace. This is a tragedy for the priest and his family, but also for his flock, which often loses trust in the institutional Church. So now we are trying to sustain them, and that is a new challenge for us.

How do you sustain them? Are you talking about material or moral support? 

I would say that today our help is more on the level of personal friendship, of a cultural order. Various Orthodox structures are present in Western Europe nowadays, and they can offer some solutions from a material point of view. 

The greatest help we can offer is that of friendship, to hold them in esteem, because we have seen that a sense of isolation and defeat can lead to serious discouragement. Our head office in Seriate, Italy, has once again become, as it was in the past, a place of hospitality and dialogue.

You said earlier that you used to help the Church in the times of Communism, but that now the ROC is involved with the government. 

We know that during the Soviet Union there was also a certain compromise between the Church and the government, and that many priests were government agents. 

True, over the past century the ROC has twice suffered the invasive influence of political power: under the atheistic Communist regime, and today, under a regime that uses religion in political terms. As a result, whereas once, at least for simple believers, it was clear that the danger lay in an external and hostile power, today the terms of the question are much more ambiguous: it seems that the greatness of the Church coincides with the imperial greatness of the nation, hence the great risk for the faith.

However, yesterday as today, we help all those priests and lay people who seek the living Christ and his truth, outside of political projects. Thank God there are many of them even today.

We know the positions of the authorities and of the Patriarch of the ROC.

But there was a group of priests who signed a letter against the war, right at the beginning of the conflict. 

Do you believe there is hope for the future? Is there still true love for the Gospel of peace within the ROC?

When we speak about the Church, we must bear in mind that it is not only a human institution — that God is present. We cannot simply say that the ROC nowadays has nothing to do with God, and that the authority betrayed God. I think that there must surely be new possibilities for a revival. 

Surely now is a time of deep suffering for the whole body of the Church. For instance, we are in touch with some priests who were dismissed and now are unemployed, with a family to support. These people understand that if their Church is going through all this it must be for a major purification, for the revival of the faith, which has been mixed with nationalist and imperialist thinking for many years – not only since the Soviets. 

They believe that a new Church is arising, and they know that this is necessary.

But this is not a new situation for the ROC. By its very nature as an ethno-national Church, it has a long history of involvement with, and dependence on, the secular authorities. 

The question is, does the ROC know how to be independent of the secular power? 

This temptation is there, and it is part of the history of the ROC, but this dependence has been condemned by a council. Several Orthodox theologians today are reflecting on this issue, which is certainly difficult and complex. 

We hope that today's difficulties will lead to a profound rethinking. For my part, I can say that historically, both lines have been present in the Russian Church: that of spiritual freedom and that of symphony with power.

After all, a figure such as Metropolitan Philipp, who was killed by Ivan the Terrible because he condemned his conduct, remains a fixed point in Orthodox spirituality. 

Unfortunately, in Russian history, the opposite tendency has often won, completely marginalizing the other, and this has produced a serious imbalance.

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How about relations between the Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Churches? Are they different now than they were before?

No, I don’t think so. The many steps taken towards each other over the past decades, the many initiatives taken together, are not cancelled, but they are frozen by a political agenda that wants war.

Ecumenism has stopped now, for a while, but at the same time it is clear that the reasons for this are strictly political, rather than religious. I think real friendship and cooperation are still possible. It's just not the moment to be too outspoken about it. 

One of the three secrets revealed to the shepherd children in Fátima was that Russia would spread its errors throughout the world, but would eventually convert. 

There has been a discussion as to whether this promise has been fulfilled, and many believed that the rebirth of the ROC was the conversion of Russia. What is your opinion?

I used to think that after the fall of Communism the prophecy had been accomplished. But now I read it in a completely different way. The Virgin’s promise is still unfulfilled, because conversion has not yet arrived. 

I am sure that the profound religious feeling of Orthodox Russia is still there, but it needs to be purified. The conversion of Russia is still to be completed, but it will not be mechanical, or automatic. The fall of Communism has not been enough, it was just the beginning. 

Are Russians aware of the Fatima prophecies? How do they feel about them?

You know, in this regard it is interesting to read the Russian Wikipedia entry about Fátima. Recently they have added a banner with the following statement: “This article describes an urban legend as if it were actually taking place. Please edit the article so that the fictitiousness of the subject is clear from the first sentences as well as from the subsequent text”. 

[Это статья описывает городскую легенду так, как будто она имеет место на самом деле. Пожалуйста, отредактируйте статью так, чтобы вымышленность предмета была ясна как из первых предложений, так и из последующего текста.]

The current regime obviously considers the Fatima message offensive for Russia.

In any case, I think that for the majority of Russians, Fatima is a rather unknown topic.

Pope Francis has been criticized about his positions on Russia. Is this fair?

Those who criticize the pope often would like to hear strong political condemnations from him. Maybe, his position is not fully understood by those who are involved in the conflict. 

As a matter of fact, the pope rightly wanted to emphasize the difference between attacker and attacked and at other times he has spoken of Russia as a country with imperial temptations. But we have to listen to everything the pope says and put it in different contexts. Oral remarks are one thing, and written texts another.

It is no secret that the Pope would like to visit Russia.

Do you think this visit will happen in the near future, and do you believe it would be helpful if it did?

I think the current wounds need to be healed before inviting the pope to Russia. But the Holy Spirit's initiative is always possible.

You obviously have a lot of contact with Russian Orthodox spirituality.

What is it that you most admire about it, and in what way has it contributed to making you a better Catholic?

For me, at the heart of Orthodoxy is the profound unity of the true, the good and the beautiful, this unity is what I also desire for my life; in the history of the Russian Church, of its martyrs, there are so many examples of such a faith. I think that despite all the failings, this light has not been obscured.

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