Vladimir Soloviev, the Mystic Admired by Popes

Part II looks at experts on Soloviev's insights into the 20th-21st centuries and his major work of trying to bring the Russian Orthodox Church into union once again with Rome

Vladimir Solovyov, c. 1890
Vladimir Solovyov, c. 1890 (photo: Register Files)

Who is Vladimir Soloviev, author of Tale of the Antichrist? Recent popes gave some insight.

Soloviev is a “Russian figure of extraordinary depth,” said St. John Paul II during his Angelus of July 30, 2000.

He is “one of the greatest Russian Christian philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries,” John Paul II said again in 2003 in a long message about Soloviev that the Holy Father sent to participants gathered to discuss this major figure on the 150th anniversary of his birth.

In his Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II refers to Soloviev, and in his encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) he lists Soloviev as standing in a line of distinguished Christian philosophers.

During a talk on Soloviev Cardinal Giacomo Biffi noted that the theologian-mystic was “cited approvingly by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.”

Obviously, Soloviev has exceptional credentials.

Yet, “Soloviev's teaching was simultaneously prophetic and largely ignored,” wrote Cardinal Biffi in “The days are coming, and are already here…” He added the need to again look at this theologian-mystic, “But we want to repropose it in the hope that Christianity will finally catch on to it and pay it a bit of attention.”

Although Soloviev died in 1900 as the door opened on the 20th century, Cardinal Biffi, a noted scholar of his works, pointed out his predictions of things that would happen in the 20th century are "astonishing" in their accuracy.

What are some things Soloviev the mystic-theologian envisioned?


Seeing Society Slipping

On the cusp of the 20th century the nearly universal view saw “a bright future for humanity” because “under the direction and inspiration of the new religion of progress…humanity would enjoy an era of prosperity, peace, justice, security,” explained Cardinal Biffi in his lecture “Soloviev and Our Time” that appeared in Inside the Vatican in 2000.

Instead of joining the crowd, the great Russian philosopher envisioned and “predicted with prophetic clarity all of the disasters which in fact occurred.” He foresaw that the 20th century would be "the epoch of great wars, civil strife and revolutions." He made sure to highlight these in his Tale of the Antichrist.

Naturally, the majority who were looking to the future through tinted glasses rejected “his most profound and important teachings,” noted Cardinal Biffi.

Soloviev saw the old systems phased out and being replaced by a United States of Europe. He just had the exact name of the union a bit off.  Earlier, in the 1880’s he anticipated the tyrannical turn of the government in Russia (Communism and it’s 1917 revolution) that would spread around the world.

Add to this that in his final work Soloviev had an accurate “vision of the great crisis that would strike Christianity at the end of the 20th century.” Cardinal Biffi described it as “astonishing.”

One problem Soloviev spoke of in dramatic terms in his tale foresees that “the Church of God is transformed into an organization for social work.”

In that Tale of the Antichrist that he used to bring out a number of these transformations in the world, Soloviev hinted at a fellow countryman’s successful promotion of watering down Christianity to a mere five rules.

In his long essay called “The days are coming, and are already here…” Cardinal Biffi explained: “The days will come, Soloviev tells us — and are already here, we say — in which the salvific meaning of Christianity, which can be received only in a difficult, courageous, concrete, and rational act of faith, will be dissolved into a series of ‘values’ easily sold on the world markets.

“The greatest of the Russian philosophers warns us that we must guard against this danger” because it won’t be the Christianity of Jesus which “has at its center the scandal of the cross and the astonishing reality of the Lord's resurrection.”

Cardinal Biffi, who referred to Soloviev when preaching the Lenten papal retreat in 2007, added, “Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Son of God, the only savior of mankind, cannot be transformed into a series of worthwhile projects and good inspirations, which are part and parcel of the dominant worldly mentality. Jesus Christ is a ‘rock,’ as he said of himself. And one either builds upon this ‘rock’ (by entrusting oneself) or lunges against it (through opposition).”: ‘He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one, it will crush him’ (Matthew 21:44).”

Second Central Emphasis
                “The unity of the Church was one of the main aspirations of Vladimir Soloviev,” wrote St. John Paul II to participants at a conference studying the Russian mystic-theologian-philosopher-poet’s thoughts on the Russia and the Universal Church in 2003.

Soloviev, who was raised as a strict Russian Orthodox worked zealously to heal the Catholic-Orthodox divide.

“Soloviev always referred to the Roman Catholic Church as ‘the universal Church,’” the late Father Ray Ryland, an expert on Soloviev, made clear during a 2003 interview.

A major portion of Soloviev’s work on this was issued by Father Ryland under the title, The Russian Church and the Papacy.

“Repeatedly, Soloviev pointed out once the Russian Church abandoned the jurisdiction of Rome it had inevitably fallen under the control of the government,” Father Ryland noted. “That, he said, is the fate of all purely national churches.” Soloviev believed the only way to avoid being subject to the state was for the national church to have unity with Rome.

Father Ryland clarified, “In the East, said Soloviev, there are only isolated national churches. Only if they return to the divinely appointed center of unity can they be truly catholic.”

Soloviev insisted the real issue with regard to Rome was the anti-Catholic Eastern apologists dealing mostly in the negative. The sticking point was the pope.

“Soloviev would agree with those Eastern Orthodox theologians who concede that the underlying issue between themselves and Rome is the issue of authority,” said Father Ryland.

St. John Paul II commented on Soloviev’s desire and work toward unity by pointing out he “was very familiar with the prayer that Christ addressed to his Father during the Last Supper (John 17: 20-23).”

Mentioning the Church's need to be able to breathe with both lungs, the pope said. “Soloviev was convinced that it is only in the Church that humanity will be able to coexist in full solidarity.”


Living His Work

Father Ryland made it clear that Soloviev “challenges his fellow Russian Orthodox Christians to be reconciled with Rome. He emphasizes the fact that the Orthodox churches hold much the same faith as does the Catholic Church: ‘Whatever is holy and sacred for us [the Russian Orthodox] is also holy and sacred for them [the Catholics].’"

He lived what he preached. After he gave suggestions to a Croatian Catholic archbishop about bringing the Russian Orthodox Church once again into communion with Rome, the archbishop arranged for him to see Pope Leo XIII in 1888. Father Ryland said, “At that audience, the Pope gave Soloviev the papal benediction for his efforts at reconciling the Russian Church to Catholic communion.”

Then four years before he died in 1900 at age 47, Soloviev became a member of the Eastern Catholic Church.

“His premature death apparently was caused by overwork and by the physical effects of his life of stringent self-denial,” said Father Ryland. He described how Soloviev lived Franciscan simplicity, “almost always without funds because he routinely emptied his wallet to anyone who asked for help. When he had no money, if an indigent approached him he would give the man his coat.”

During his Angelus in 2000, John Paul II said Soloviev “noted with great clarity the tragic division among Christians and the urgent need for their unity.” Then the Holy Father invited everyone “to pray that Christians of the East and West can restore their full communion as soon as possible.”

That would be Soloviev’s dream come true.