The church after communism

Georgie Anne Geyer

January 27, 1992|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Moscow -- IT WAS A cold Saturday morning at the Yelachovskaya Cathedral, an exquisite ocean-green church where the bearded, 62-year-old Russian Orthodox patriarch, Aleksy II, celebrates the seat and the holidays of his faith.

These streets of "storii Moskba," or "Old Moscow," remind one that there still can be beauty here. The pastel-colored old mansions of this sector shame the gray utilitarianism of the rest of the city.

In this Orthodox Church reborn in the liberalizing Gorbachev era, the gold walls and ceilings gleam in the flickering candlelight as voices are raised to heaven. And this historic church of the ancient East -- son of Constantinople, dreamer of being the "Third Rome," victim of communism's "superior" secular truths -- has reason to celebrate these days.

Since 1988, 5,000 parishes have opened (105 of those in Moscow alone), baptisms have tripled, and the number of marriages is up ninefold. An Orthodox priest is now prominently present at almost every public event, and the church claims 60 million believers.

The vacuum left behind by communism is so frightful that the search for spirituality seems everywhere. Every fleeting great moment here is transmogrified into historic themes of rescue and redemption. As James Billington, the librarian of Congress, wrote after being present at the extraordinary turning back of the military coup last August:

"On television . . . the resistance was instantly mythologized in a series of quite beautiful documentaries that portrayed the struggle as an almost pure conflict between good and evil."

Unfortunately, it does not end there, because the new struggle is now taking form. The Orthodox Church is already reverting to its "one town, one bishop" philosophy, as Protestants, Hare Krishna and ESP practitioners invade everywhere.

The most revealing incident of what lies ahead came last November, when Pope John Paul II called a special synod in Rome of 80 bishops from Western Europe and 50 bishops from Eastern Europe to discuss a "revitalization of Christianity" in the whole of Europe and especially in the East.

But even before the synod opened, the Moscow patriarchate declined the invitation to participate because "the Roman Catholic Church is actually creating parallel missionary structures on its canonical territory." Patriarch Aleksy had already charged the Catholic Church with "forceful expansionism" and said the pope was not welcome in Moscow.

The patriarch went on to specifically criticize the Vatican for establishing centers in areas with small Catholic populations, such as Novosibirsk, and for appointing a new Catholic archbishop of Moscow.

Then in July 1991, the patriarch spoke the following extraordinary words to the prominent German magazine Der Spiegel: "Senior Catholic hierarchs have assured me that the Russian Orthodox Church, with its more than thousand-year history, shall alone bear responsibility for maintaining and disseminating the faith within the borders of Russia."

And this voice of Orthodoxy has been only slightly less critical of the Protestant evangelistic efforts here -- which are blossoming in a country that desperately needs the internalized morality that underlies political and economic freedom.

Put aside for a moment the fact that the Protestant World Council of Churches gave international solace and sanctuary to the Orthodox hierarchy during the longest and blackest years of Orthodoxy. Forget the degree to which Pope John Paul II gave discreet conferences in his years as pontiff, bringing the Eastern and Western churches together in Europe and thus strengthening the Orthodox hand.

Put out of your mind, too, the degree to which all of the Orthodox hierarchy did cooperate with the bloodiest communist rulers, even after (or especially after) 80,000 priests, monks and nuns were killed following Stalin's 1932 decree to eradicate the Orthodox Church in five years.

No, think only of what Russia now needs if it is to become, not an advanced nation -- that may never happen after so much pestilence and destruction -- but a reasonably modern land.

Russia and these new lands forming about it need desperately a spiritual freedom that could underlie and give strength to a genuine political and economic freedom. Russia needs thinking people, not ones with autocratic dictates in their minds.

The Orthodox Church's attempts to close Russia to outside thought -- a closing that historically has always been the scourge and defeat of any progress here -- could be the final tragedy.

Western churchmen and women could do much. After all they have done for the Orthodox Church, this is the time for them to say: "This is not acceptable."

A recent poll of young Russian women who were asked what profession they preferred found 40 percent said "prostitute." It would seem there is enough work for everyone.

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