Ecumenical problem number one: Russians barely know what the Catholic Church is

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Pope Francis meet in Cuba last year (CNS)

The Russian news agency Interfax has published the results of an opinion survey in which it gauges Russian reactions to the Havana meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, which can be read here.

There are one or two things in the article that will give one pause. The first is that it is clear that the vast majority of the people questioned only had a vague idea of the significance of the meeting.

For example, 67% were aware that the meeting had taken place, which means that 33% had not heard of it at all. Moreover, it is interesting to see that the survey mentions the concept of ‘unification’ between the two Churches. Actually, this is not on the table, and is misleading. What is the eventual goal of East-West ecumenism is the establishment of communion between autocephalous Churches, which is rather different to ‘unification’.

Meanwhile, Christian Today has published this analysis of the relationship that exists between the Russian Church and the Russian state.

It is interesting to note the way the article highlights the Russian Orthodox Church’s suspicion of Evangelical Christians of whom there are, let us not forget, significant communities in Russia, many of them long established. There are, for example, though statistics are notoriously unreliable in Russia, far more Baptists than Catholics in the country.

But what the Christian Today article does not say also ought to be borne in mind.

Firstly, the alliance between Church and state, throne and altar, is nothing new in Russia. This was the policy of the Tsars, and we all know how that ended. At the fall of the monarchy, the Church enjoyed a short period of freedom, but with the coming of Bolshevism, it experienced a terrible persecution, before being taken back into a kind of favour under Stalin. History has a way of repeating itself.

The second thing is this. The Russian Orthodox Church ought not to be identified exclusively with its hierarchs. While it is perfectly true that Kirill is an enthusiastic exponent of the alliance with the state, and while it is true that this has compromised his credibility as a witness to Gospel values, even without the never to be forgotten affair of the expensive watch, nevertheless, Kirill is not the Russian Church.

So, who is? The bishops are all state-sanctioned, and each has his history of collaboration with the present regime and, in many cases, the Soviet regime before it. But there are Church figures who avoided this fate, though they paid a high price in so doing. One such is the late Father Alexander Men, who was assassinated (this being Russia, no one knows by whom) in 1990. You can read about Father Men here.

His life, along with his commitment to spreading the gospel, was certainly inspiring, though he remains a controversial figure for some Russians. Father Men was a great intellectual and theologian, an inspiring pastor, socially involved and in favour of ecumenism. When one reads of Father Men one is reminded of those heroic priests in Poland and elsewhere who stood up to Communism, and paid the price, like the Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko.

There must have been others like Father Men in Russia, of whom we have not heard. Well, we need to hear about them. Perhaps, with deepening contacts on various levels with the Russian Church, we may soon do so.

To return to the survey reported by Interfax: it is clear that people in Russia have only a hazy understanding of ecumenism, and probably very little firsthand knowledge of Catholicism. Conversely, we in the West may be unaware of, not just Russian theology and spirituality, but also many of the important figures in the history of the Russian Church like Father Men, or indeed contemporary Orthodox, who show us that there are different strands of approach to that of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Ecumenism does involve meetings between Popes and Patriarchs; but it also involves learning together at grass roots level. The first has begun; the second perhaps too, though its in its infancy. Which will bear the most fruit? My guess is the second.