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Posted: September 3, 2004

Interview with the Rev. John Lapidus
August 30, 2004

By John L. Allen, Jr.
Moscow

NCR Rome Correspondent John L. Allen Jr. traveled to Moscow with a Vatican delegation to return a late 17th-early 18th century copy of the Icon of the Madonna of Kazan, which was presented to Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II. While in Moscow, Allen interviewed the Rev. John Lapidus of the Patriarchate of Moscow.

Allen's story on the return of the Kazan icon can be found here: Returned icon does little to warm Russian Orthodox-Vatican relations.

How do you interpret the return of the icon of Kazan?
Firstly, the Russian Orthodox Church received this gift from the Catholic Church with gratitude. It's a really valuable gift to us. We hope that the passage of the icon will be a step in the right direction. We would like this gift to symbolize the beginning of a new policy from the Vatican in Russia. With this step, we hope that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church will take more concrete, real steps for resolving all the problems that exist among us.

By problems, you mean first of all proselytism?
Yes.

A study conducted by the Catholic Church in 2002 found there were only some 800 conversions from Orthodoxy to Catholicism in all of Russia in the 1990s. That doesn't seem very many.
The problem is not in the quantity. In the territory of Russia, there are many Protestant churches, and they have a much higher number of conversions. From our side, there is no objection to their proselytism. But we perceive the Catholic Church as a sister church, a term which has become common in theological conversation since the Second Vatican Council. The Catholic Church started to treat the Orthodox Church as a sister church, and that's how we see them. We are all for having good sisterly relations between the churches, not to be rivals. So we have a higher expectation of the Catholics.

Can you document actual cases of proselytism by Catholics?
Yes, there is a large number of these facts. At the department, we are gathering these incidents from all of the eparchies of the Russian Orthodox Church. Most of them are from Siberia, the Far East, from Vladivostok and so on. In Moscow, there are big numbers of converted people from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. If we take the data from all Russia, there's a big number.

More than 800?
Yes, of course, more. At present, many new orphanages have been opened by Catholic religious orders. The children in these orphanages are brought up in the Catholic tradition, even though they are from Orthodox families and were baptized in the Orthodox Church. This is happening all over Russia. One is in Moscow. We have the addresses. During the working of the joint theological commission, we have decided that our priests and representatives from our church will visit this orphanage in Moscow and will cooperate with the Catholic nuns in the education of these children. For us, this very fact is one positive example of cooperation that should exist between our two churches.

Other examples of proselytism?
In Novosibirsk, in the center of the town, there are announcements everywhere that people are invited to lectures about God, about belief, about Christianity, about the Church. There is an address written in this announcement where the lectures will take place, and it's the address of the Catholic cathedral, but it doesn't say that anywhere. It doesn't say that the lectures will be delivered by Catholic priests. Orthodox symbols are used in the announcement, Orthodox crosses, icons in the Orthodox style. We have passed these examples to the members of the joint commission, Fr. Joseph Maj and the others. In Vladivostok, Spanish nuns organize courses to teach the Spanish language. During these courses, the nuns also teach the Catholic faith. These sisters of Charles Borromeo, when they address Russians, usually say that we bring the word of God, the gospel, to this land that especially needs God now. They naturally don't mention that the Orthodox Christian faith has been the faith of this land for 1,000 years. In Krasnayarsk, Petroslovosk, Novosybirsk, Vladivostok, and some other cities, Roman Catholic missionaries visit state schools. On the occasions of Roman Catholic festivals such as Christmas and Easter, since we have different dates, they distribute gifts to the students postcards, some food, generally toys. After that normally there's a sort of informal Roman Catholic witness that takes place. They tell the children about the Roman Catholic faith. We're not against this in itself, but we stand for cooperation between Roman Catholics and the local diocesan structures of the Orthodox Church.

How does giving presents to children at Christmas undercut cooperation?
It's a question of their motives for doing it. There are many more examples I could give you of proselytism.

But the line between normal pastoral work and proselytism seems awfully fine.
The Russian Orthodox Church, even under the Soviet regime, never opposed pastoral care by the Roman Catholic Church towards those national groups that traditionally belonged to the Roman Catholic Church, such as Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, and so on. Unfortunately now we see that Roman Catholic missionary activity has a tendency to go out of the traditional Catholic communities to reach traditionally Orthodox people. Its target audience is largely those people who by their baptism belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. I will give you an example, a classic one. Last year a Roman Catholic priest from Argentina decided to establish a Roman Catholic monastery in Nisnynograt, a city where a Catholic parish was already in existence. It was quite enough for the Roman Catholic community of the city. It's a very small community. This priest has asked three nuns from Lithuania to come to the monastery. According to public opinion of Nisnynograt people, it was an act of importation of spirituality from abroad. From our point of view, monastic life is proper insofar as it arises from the local Christian community, not from outside. These facts witness that Russian people, the Russian nation, is being forced into Roman Catholicism

How many conversions do you think there have been to Roman Catholicism from Orthodoxy in Russia?
Our facts are based on what Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the ruling Roman Catholic bishop in Moscow, has said. In the beginning of the 1990s, he said there were about 300,000 Roman Catholics in the Soviet Union and neighboring countries. Currently, he says now we have over 600,000 Roman Catholics. You should also remember that during the last 20 years many Roman Catholics went back to Germany.

Do you believe that number of 600,000?
I don't think so. Normally these numbers are based on calculations of traditionally Roman Catholic nationalities, ethnic groups in Russia.

You may know that some Catholics did a study two years ago in which they called all the parishes in Russia and asked the priest to do a count of how many people come on Sunday. The total they came up with was 200,000. What's so difficult about this debate over proselytism is that to listen to the Orthodox talk, you would think Russia is full of Catholics, while many Catholics fear exactly the opposite, that their community is in danger of shrinking.
The Russian Orthodox Church has never feared that the whole of the Russian population might become Roman Catholic. The secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia, Fr. Igor Kavalevski, says that the Catholic faith will always be a tiny minority within Russia. The objective numbers don't matter. What matters is the relationship between sister churches. If sisters have good relations, if they visit each other, if one sister says before all the world that she respects her counterpart, that's what matters. We are right if we expect our sister to behave herself.

Can you give me two concrete, specific steps the Catholic Church could take to demonstrate this attitude of sisterhood?
Of course I can. I'm not going to tell you anything new. A detailed and concrete plan of the Catholic missionaries in Russia has been produced by the Vatican, the well-known document of the Pro Russia Commission that was issued in 1992. We are ready to subscribe to each article in this document. It's very sad for us that for 12 years that document has existed, and during these 12 years Roman Catholic missionaries have never, ever followed its recommendations. I think the point of our dialogue is to research ways to implement this document.

But in terms of specific steps, what exactly are you suggesting? Are you saying the Catholic Church should withdraw its missionary orders? Are you saying it should close its charitable activities?
No. If they want to organize orphanages somewhere in Russia, they are expected to cooperate with the local diocesan authorities of the Russian Orthodox Church. If a missionary order is to organize an orphanage, it ought to cooperate and collaborate with the local diocesan authorities. There is nothing dreadful and shameful in this.

Right now this does not happen?
There is only one example, in Yaroslav. There's an orphanage called Cenacolo, where they deal with drug addicts. It was the first example in many years where the Roman Catholic clergy working in this institution invited Orthodox clergy from the Yaroslav diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church to collaborate with them.

But you're saying that normally when a Catholic order opens an orphanage or a soup kitchen, they do not collaborate?
That's correct.

Let me ask you about Ukraine. What exactly is it that the Catholic Church should do in Ukraine that it's not doing?
The problem is that the members of the Ukrainian Uniate (sic) Church are in opposition to both the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and to the Vatican. There are facts that Ukrainian Uniates violated the rights of the local Polish Roman Catholics, even physical violence. It's really well known. During the Second World War, acts of physical violence, killings, robberies, and so on were committed by the Uniate Ukrainians against the Polish Roman Catholics. Even now, Poles as a Roman Catholic ethnic group are believed to be public enemies in the Western Ukraine and are hated no less than Russians are hated.

What about the concrete steps?
I'm convinced that the Vatican leadership should establish an efficient system of power over the Greek Catholics.

You mean get them under control?
Yes. The Ukrainian situation may in any moment slip out of control. The Greek Catholic conviction that they should establish a patriarchate at any cost witnesses to a separatist tendency. If they achieve patriarchal status, they may declare their complete independence of any outward authority.

You mean, independence from Rome?
Yes, but this is only a theory for the future. If we come back to the practical state of affairs of today, we can say that in the three dioceses of the Greek Catholic Church in the Western Ukraine there is a very dangerous situation of antagonism between the Uniates and the Ukrainian Orthodox is still in existence.

Which Ukrainian Orthodox? There are three rival Orthodox churches in Ukraine.
No, this is a mistake. There is only one legal Orthodox church in Ukraine. There are two schismatic churches, and we should mention that there is a great deal of solidarity between the schismatic groups and the Uniates. This is a good example of what they in fact want to achieve. The Uniates have a problem with the legal, canonical Orthodox church. This canonical Orthodox church, with its center in the Kievan metropolinate, has never declared its willingness to succeed from the Russian Orthodox Church, to split apart. However, the schismatics have declared independence from Moscow as their primary motto.

So your fear is a kind of pan-Ukrainian Christianity that would come from an alliance between the schismatic Orthodox and the Greek Catholics?
It's true, it's true. Here we should ask ourselves what kind of canonical conscience these people really have, if they have any. There was an agreement in the beginning of the 1990s between Moscow and the Vatican that the Vatican would acknowledge the canonical decisions of Moscow as well as Moscow would acknowledge the Vatican's canonical decisions. However, the leadership of the Greek Catholics, and Cardinal Lubomyr Husar especially, have been concelebrating and praying together with those people who were excommunicated and removed from holy orders by the Russian Orthodox Church.

I recall that during the Holy Father's visit to Ukraine, there was an ecumenical meeting that Metropolitan Filaret attended.
Yes, exactly.

But many Greek Catholics say that when their church was suppressed under the Soviets, the Orthodox moved into their parishes. Now they're not really inclined to ask permission from the Orthodox to build churches or to declare a patriarchate. They feel they've paid in blood for the right to rebuild their church.
Speaking historically, Stalin offered the Uniates a choice to become Orthodox or to become Roman Catholics. After that, 99.9 percent preferred Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism. Speaking of the suffering of the Uniate Christians under the Soviet regime, I think they are incomparable to what the Russian Orthodox Church has suffered, even in percentage terms. Under the Soviet period, and more concretely in the 1960s and 1970s, a huge number of the Uniate clergy were trained in the theological schools of the Russian Orthodox Church. We knew they were Uniates, but nonetheless we accepted and received those people to make them educated priests and pastors. In the 1990s, when a conflict between the Uniates and the Orthodox broke out, we were instrumental in organizing a quadrilateral commission with representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Catholic Church. The commission's primary task was to elaborate some concrete, efficient recommendations of how to avoid local conflicts. It is well known that the activities of the commission were violently stopped. The main reason was that the Greek Catholic representatives were in fact driven out of the commission by pressure from the Ukrainian nationalist groups. Their statement was to a great extent open. 'What is the use of dealing with Muscovites? Without dealing with them, we can achieve power in Ukraine and throw them out.' In fact, this happened several years later. According to legal decisions of the Western Ukrainian courts, if there is only one church in a village, no matter to whom the church belongs, if there are both Uniate and Ukrainian Orthodox communities in the village, they are to share the church and to administer their services in turn. However, the local administrations in face ban the Orthodox Church from having a share in the use of the church. They don't follow the decisions of their own courts.

We've been talking about problems, and I'd like to finish talking about promise. When I talk to people on the Catholic side and ask them what motivates them to pursue dialogue with the Orthodox, obviously the first answer is that it's what Christ wanted for the Church. Beyond that, there are a couple of more practical issues. First, they feel together that Catholics and Orthodox can better resist secularism and moral relativism from the West, and from the East the challenge of Islam. Do you agree?
The first point is very welcome to us, because it is only together that we can really resist all this process of secularization. As for the 'Muslim threat,' Russia is unique among countries because there have never been religious wars on its territory. For 1,000 years its territory has been home to Christians, Muslims and Jews. Sometimes we are forced to stand against a radical form of Islam that is very untraditional and an unusual thing for us. As you know, one of the people who attended the giving of the icon to the Moscow Patriarchate by the Vatican delegation was the mayor of Kazan, who is Muslim. I was standing next to him and I saw his face, and I saw a sense of joy and happiness. This is a lovely example of how Muslims and Christians coexist in Russia.

So your point is that Russia may have an example to offer for Christian/Muslim relations?
Yes.

Speaking of that ceremony, there was also a delegation of Lutheran clergy from Norway led by Bishop Gunnar Staalseth of Oslo. He was invited by the Moscow Patriarchate?
Yes, of course.

Were you aware of his public comments about Pope John Paul II?
No.

While he was on the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, he criticized the pope's stand on condoms. Was his presence a coincidence?
A complete coincidence. Staalseth approached Kasper before the liturgy began and they had a lovely talk. As you know, inter-church relationships have known lots of very interesting statements that can be interpreted in many ways!

One final question about the future of the Orthodox/Catholic relationship. The Orthodox are unlikely to accept the authority of the pope as Roman Catholics today understand it. Thus structural unity in the near term seems impossible. Short of that, what should the aim be?
It's a very serious question, and it's hardly possible to answer it in two words. Unfortunately the historical memory of the Russian people contains many negative memories linked with the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican. We may remember the 13th century and the crusaders' invasion, or the time of trouble in the 17th century with the Polish invasion. I personally believe that a very important step would be for the Roman Catholic Church be delicate in its actions in Russia. A delicate approach, and respect towards the Christian tradition that has existed here on our territory for 1,000 years. It would change the attitude, the consciousness, of the Russian people if the Russian Orthodox see Catholics as open and friendly people, who don't follow any hidden goals. Then we won't have any clashes.

Short of full structural unity, what more can we do together?
From my point of view, the main goal today must be to remove psychological obstacles. Then we can talk about dogma and ecclesiology and so on. As you know, after the Second Vatican Council a theological dialogue between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church was launched. Representatives from all the local Orthodox churches took part in the talks, but it was tragically, violently broken by what happened in the early 1990s, the problems in Ukraine. I am convinced that theologians have no right to remain in dialogue and to talk about heavenly things while simple people are suffering. We have to solve these problems first and then go back to the dialogue.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 2004

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