I was chatting to a friend the other day (as one does). She has two sons and remarked that she always wanted more but knew it would be irresponsible “because of over-population”. I gave her a short, kindly lecture on the increasing “under-population” of the developed world and she listened open-mouthed. She simply had never heard the other side of the argument; the over-population brigade had got to her first and she had unthinkingly absorbed their pessimistic propaganda.
Our conversation was on my mind this morning when I read in John Smeaton’s blog that the most recent headlines of The Freethinker (“The voice of atheism since 1881”) state: “Mother of God’s Belt comes to Russia to help reverse the population decline.” It seems that this holy relic, believed by the Orthodox to have been worn by the Virgin Mary and to have the power to boost fertility, has been brought to Russia from Mount Athos where it has been preserved for centuries, to be venerated by its dwindling population.
Before sceptical people point out that venerating a belt allegedly worn by the Virgin Mary in order to become pregnant displays the worst kind of medieval Christian superstition, I will add that whether the relic is authentic or not is not quite the point: it is a vivid and reverent reminder of the supernatural, telling the faithful that this world, its woes and social ills, is not all there is: and who can say that new life might not spring from heartfelt prayer in its presence?
The real miracle almost, given the 70-year history of Soviet Communism, when divorce was an easy option, abortions were freely available, the family unit was constantly undermined and the churches were persecuted, is that so far 800,000 people have visited Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to venerate the relic. Vladimir Putin even turned up to receive it at St Petersburg airport. He may not be a nice guy but he knows his country is in a demographic mess and is prepared to try anything to reverse the situation. Approximately two million people all over Russia have queued to see the relic. In Moscow 25 ambulances have been on hand and free meals and teas have been provided for the patient queues.
Demographer Nichols Eberstadt has written an article in the Foreign Affairs Magazine in which he remarks that “Perhaps of all the painful developments in Russian society since the Soviet collapse, the most surprising – and dismaying – is the country’s demographic decline.” This crisis is occurring in peace time, with “catastrophic” mortality levels. Obviously a religious relic alone cannot change things; healthcare, housing, employment are all involved. But it can provide the inspiration to change the climate of despair that makes people choose not to have children and the spur for individuals to think of creative solutions.
The Shrewsbury diocese will soon venerate the incorrupt heart of the Cure of Ars; Russia, too, has picked up the thread. We need a religious revival and so do they.