As the Holy Father prepares to embark on his pilgrimage to Ukraine at the end of this month (June 23-27), it is opportune to meditate on the life and vital message of Irina Ilovajskaya Alberti, a daughter of the Russian nation and a close friend of the Pope, who throughout her life identified with Jesus' last prayer “Father, may they all be one.”
Ukraine's history constantly and painfully intertwines with Russia's. The Holy Father's trip to Ukraine will certainly have an impact on relations between the Holy See and the Moscow patriarchate. One of the Holy Father's greatest desires is still to be able to visit Russia as a pilgrim. Many times he confided his great and special love for Russia to Irina Ilovajskaya Alberti.
At a press conference May 13 — that is, on the anniversary of the Fatima apparitions — Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II declared that a papal visit to Moscow would be possible “on condition that all barriers in relations between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches are removed.”
In his mind, one major barrier would be “the situation of Orthodox believers in western Ukraine.” The position of the Russian Orthodox Church is that the Greek Catholics there, since they came out of the catacombs in the early 1990s, have taken over many Russian Orthodox churches and destroyed three Orthodox dioceses.
Alberti died April 4, 2000. Fairly recently, the Holy Father confided to her daughter Chiara that “there isn't a day that goes by when I don't think of her.” He had once told Alberti privately that he considered nothing more important, at the beginning of the 21st century, than unity among Christians, especially between Catholics and the Orthodox.
Alberti understood that her vocation was to pursue that mission of unity — a mission the Pope both entrusted to her and confirmed her in.
Born in 1924 in Yugoslavia of exiled Russian parents, Alberti married an Italian diplomat whom she accompanied on successive missions to Czechoslovakia, Austria, Venezuela, Greece, Germany and France. They had two children, Chiara and Cesio.
After the premature death of her husband in 1975, she met Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Switzerland prior to his moving to Vermont, and accepted his invitation to become his secretary. In his company, in an atmosphere of prayer and silence which was the only quiet time in her life, Alberti continued to learn about the life of Russian dissidents through the letters Solzhenitsyn received. She had already started to know them by listening to thousands of Russian refugees in Italy.
She regained hope about her country, which she had believed was morally dead. She started to understand what needed to be done to help Russia. This period in her life was like a retreat, a preparation for the next.
In 1979, she was called to Paris to become editor-in-chief of La Pensée Russe, the most reliable Russian emigrants' newspaper, which she substantially reformed.
In June 1998, President Yeltsin gave her a medal for her remarkable work on behalf of Russian culture and her bridge-building efforts between East and West. Irina used to say that Russia must be explained to the West, and vice versa; and to her friends in Western Europe, she used to repeat, “Let us not abandon Russia!”
Towards the mid-80s, as her desire was growing to dedicate herself more specifically to Christian unity, she made a special consecration to God with the help of her spiritual director, a French Jesuit. Through providential circumstances, she then heard of the possibility of starting radio evangelization in Russia. This was a dream she had been praying for.
She eventually became director of Radio Blagovest, transmitting daily programs about the life of the Catholic Church. Every day, wherever she was, Alberti hosted a one-hour program, responding to people's personal queries about the faith and life of the Church in the West.
Through her articles, radio programs and participation in many conferences, Alberti managed to create an atmosphere in favor of unity among a significant number of Orthodox intellectuals. She opened people's heart to the Catholic Church. She said that for unity to come about, people must first want it — it will not be something artificially decided between hierarchies.
She was convinced that people had to know and love the Catholic Church before they could begin to desire unity. She never hid the truth about problems in the Catholic Church, but she would always explain the reasons. She never separated truth from love.
Alberti also thought that Catholics must love the Russian Orthodox in a concrete way. According to her, the greatest consequence of communism was the destruction of man made in the image of God. She understood this destruction as diabolical. The task now, she said, is to rebuild the spiritual person in Russia in a concrete way.
Brought up in the Orthodox tradition, Alberti's life was a progressive realization that the Church was one, that there could not possibly be two churches. This realization led her to profess her faith in the Catholic Church in which she found the plenitude she had been moving toward.
She used to say that instead of making unity, one had to discover it; unity must be received from Christ as a gift. She lived at the level of faith, in which the Church is undivided. In that way, she had a mystical understanding of reality.
When Albertiwent through phases of discouragement because of the many difficulties she faced in Russia, the Pope would always give her courage and strength and she would start working with renewed vigor, as “a general ready for a battle” (in the words of her daughter Chiara).
In the last years of her life, although in poor health, she would travel every month to Paris, Rome and Moscow. She translated the Catechism of the Catholic Church into Russian. She repeatedly attempted to arrange a meeting between the Patriarch of Moscow Alexy II and Pope John Paul II.
“I miss her Russia,” said the Pope recently — that is, her way of telling him about Russia. She informed him regularly of the situation there.
Irina Alberti suffered a heart attack a little over a year ago, dying without much suffering the way she had always wanted — at work.
Her last words were from T. S. Eliot's play, Murder in the Cathedral: “What good is a path if it doesn't lead to a cathedral?”
Marguerite Peeters writes from Brussels.