WARSAW, Poland—When a reliquary containing the bones of St. Thérèse of Lisieux arrived at Moscow's Sheremetiev airport in the small hours of Feb. 25, the Catholics who'd gathered to greet it found the required documents hadn't been completed.
But customs men relaxed the rules and agreed to allow the precious cargo through, so it wouldn't be late for the morning Mass at the capital's St. Ludvik church.
Preaching later with the reliquary before him, western Russia's apostolic administrator, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, thanked all those who had spent the night waiting in vigil, as well as the Caritas staffers who had arranged the formalities and the nuns who had composed special prayers.
But he had a word, too, for the Russian officials who'd shown good will, in a country long noted for its inhospitality to the Catholic Church.
St. Thérèse's reliquary is the second sacred object to be taken on tour in Russia after the image of Our Lady of Fatima traversed the country for six months in 1997.
“At the threshold of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000, humanity needs examples as never before — examples which will help us change the world for the better,” Kondrusiewicz explained in a pastoral letter.
“This pilgrimage by St. Thérèse's relics constitutes a spiritual exercise for everyone, as well as marking a key stage in the history of our evangelization.”
In the past few months, there have been other signs of modest progress in that history too.
When Russia's four-member bishops' conference, the world's newest, held its inaugural session at St. Petersburg in February, it set up eight councils covering all areas of Church life, and named Father Stanislaw Opiela, Russia's leading Jesuit, as its first secretary.
Elected chairman, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz hailed the meeting as proof that Russia's 2 million-strong Catholic minority was “beginning to live a full life.”
In May, the St. Petersburg seminary will have its first three post-communist Russian priests ordained.
Parish Life Reawakening
Meanwhile, life develops slowly in Russia's struggling Catholic parishes.
In January, Tiumen's early 20th century St. Joseph's church was reconsecrated by Siberia's Jesuit administrator, Bishop Josef Werth, 70 years after it was confiscated and closed by the Soviet regime.
In February, a Catholic parish at Irkutsk was permitted to start building a church after interventions by the Vatican's Slovak-American nuncio, Archbishop John Bukovsky (see Inperson, Page 1), to replace the Catholic cathedral which is still used as a concert hall.
Since last September, when Moscow's Sts. Peter and Paul parish became the first to be legally re-registered under Russia's restrictive 1997 religious law, only a dozen parishes have followed suit, raising fears that many could miss a December 1999 deadline.
Meanwhile, with all Catholic priests and nuns legally bound, under an August 1998 directive, to obtain fresh visas abroad every three months, Church life is hampered severely.
But the Catholic Church is determined to continue its work.
In a declaration after their February meeting, the bishops insisted Catholics in Russia came “under their pastoral care for historical reasons.”
However, other Russian citizens had a right to join the Catholic Church too “if their consciences so desire,” the bishops added, in line with principles of religious freedom and Vatican II teachings.
“The Catholic Church's basic endeavors in Russia will be concentrated on pastoral work with Catholics,” noted the declaration.
“We regard as unacceptable all forms of proselytism, meaning some-one's forceful reconversion to a given faith, or the use of unsightly means to induce or attract them.”
The declaration was presented to the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Aleksi II, and pledged Catholic help in “rebuilding Christian unity” and bringing down “barriers and prejudices.”
Yet tensions with Orthodox leaders still pose serious problems.
On the face of it, Orthodox talk of a “Catholic threat” seems illogical. In a statement to his Moscow diocese's annual assembly last December, Patriarch Aleksi said Russia's Orthodox parishes had grown from 6,800 at the time of the 1988 Christian Millennium to more than 19,000.
The church's eparchies, or dioceses, he added, had increased to 127 from 60, and were home to 151 working diocesan and auxiliary bishops, backed by 17,500 priests and 2,300 deacons.
Meanwhile, almost two-thirds of the Orthodox church's 478 monastic institutions had also reopened since the collapse of Soviet rule in 1991, and 4,000 priesthood candidates are studying at the Orthodox church's 26 seminaries, 29 spiritual schools, five academies and two universities.
Even this represents only a proportion of what the Orthodox church possessed before the 1917 revolution, when Russia boasted 54,000 Orthodox parishes and 50,000 parish schools, as well as 40 Orthodox seminaries and more than 1,000 monasteries.
But the number is increasing. In fact, it was out of date within a week of Aleksi's statement, when the Orthodox Synod consented to a new diocese for Azerbaijan, Dagestan and Chechnya, and sanctioned seven new monastic houses in Russia and three new parishes abroad.
By contrast, the Catholic Church has no dioceses in Russia, and only two provisional “apostolic administrations,” currently home to 190 priests and around 130 registered parishes. The Catholic Church's only seminary in St. Petersburg has just 60 ordinands. Its pre-seminary school in Novosibirsk has nine students on its modest two-year course.
Yet Orthodox leaders appear worried by the Catholic Church's potential.
In a New Year message, the Russian Orthodox foreign relations director, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, said his church would maintain ties with Evangelicals, Anglicans and Lutherans, despite a late December decision to suspend participation in the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.
However, dialogue with Catholics could be curbed, Kirill warned: It had failed to “achieve any practical results.”
“We cannot conduct dialogue for dialogue's sake,” the metropolitan added. “Either it will genuinely help regulate our relations, or it will simply not go on.”
Kirill was referring to Ukraine, where the Soviet-outlawed Greek Catholic Church, combining the Eastern rite with loyalty to Rome, has set up six dioceses and 3,000 parishes since being re-legalized in 1991, compared to 29 dioceses and 6,500 parishes belonging to the ex-Soviet republic's Russian Orthodox Church.
But the latest frost in ties has been felt as much in Russia. Although several churches are planning a joint conference for the year 2000, the chancellor of Russia's Moscow-based administration, Father Vadim Shajkievich, says preparations for the millennium have had “no ecumenical character,” owing to Russian Orthodox hostility.
Speaking recently in Warsaw, Shajkievich said Catholics were still “completely isolated” in Russia as a “nontraditional confession,” and had retained a “client status” in all ecumenical initiatives.
The Russian Orthodox obstinacy could backfire.
A Catholic-Orthodox International Commission reconvenes this June after a decade's suspension to debate historical and theological disputes.
Meanwhile, with a papal visit to Romania planned for May 7-8, the first by a reigning pope to a predominantly Orthodox land, interchurch relations will be under the spotlight as never before.
Patriarch Teoctist of Romania has dubbed the pilgrimage a “signal of dialogue and peace.” But there's tension over Pope John Paul II's itinerary, and Orthodox leaders are skeptical.
Speaking at a Rome conference, a Moscow Patriarchate representative, Father Viktor Petliushenko, said the “brave but risky” initiative would backfire if the Pope failed to unveil a “new era” in interchurch ties.
Besides Romania, the Pope holds state invitations from predominantly Orthodox Bulgaria, Georgia, Macedonia and Ukraine. Pressure for great-hearted interchurch gestures is certain to grow as the millennium approaches.
In a January interview, Romania's ambassador to the Vatican, Teodor Baconsky, said long-running Catholic-Orthodox disputes in his country had been seen as a “great shortcoming” abroad.
“It's important that this Pope visits Romania, since no other communism-defeating Pole will sit on the throne of St. Peter — a Pole who embodies post-war history and thinks like us,” Baconsky told his country's Ziua daily.
“He knows and admires Orthodoxy, and is one of us in his sensitivity, culture and outlook. We need his presence to show our Orthodox Church is self-governing and doesn't receive orders from any other — that Orthodoxy isn't a handicap barring the way to the European Union.”
That kind of realization should provide fertile ground for wise Church leaders to work on, in appeasing the legitimate fears and anxieties which persist on both sides.
Hope on the Horizon
Not all signs are bleak anyway.
In December, Russia's Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist leaders set up a Permanent Interfaith Council, and said they planned to invite Catholics too.
Meanwhile, President Boris Yeltsin is expected to meet Catholic leaders when he pays a millennium visit to Bethlehem next December. This month, an international Orthodox council met in Switzerland to prepare an Inter-Orthodox Synod, which could go some way toward bridging the divide with other denominations.
In a poll of 5,000 Russians last November by the Center for International Social Surveys, half revealed they knew virtually nothing about the Catholic Church and opposed talk of Christian reunification.
But just as many wanted closer ties and saw many possibilities for Catholic-Orthodox cooperation. Those who knew something about the Pope were sympathetic and often enthusiastic. Most sensed prejudices and stereotypes would break down as contacts increased.
That's the kind of common-sense tolerance which was evident at Sheremetiev airport, when Russian officials guided St. Thérèse's relics through customs in time for the morning mass at St. Ludvik's.
After Moscow and St. Petersburg, the reliquary will travel to Catholic parishes in 19 Russian towns, from Smolensk, Pskov and Novgorod, to Omsk, Irkutsk and Vladivistok, before being transported to the United States for its 11th national tour.
Besides being a patron of France, St. Thérèse (1873-97) is a co-patron of Christian missions. But that means missions of mercy and love, not missions of rivalry and rejection.
“Today's young generation finds itself at a crossroads, and is trying to find its own way in life among so many temptations,” Archbishop Kondrusiewicz told Catholics in his pastoral letter.
“In these conditions, we need St. Thérèse to shine for us like a polestar.”
Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw, Poland.