Paul VI consistently defended Vatican overtures to the USSR, although they scandalized many in the Church. Benevolent politics did not stop persecutions, which instead intensified. But a form of ecumenical and cultural resistance was born and was lived by Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox in the concentration camps. Part Two of an expert analysis.
Rome (AsiaNews) - The attempt by Vatican diplomacy to find its way through the cracks in the wall of Soviet anti-religious politics was also highly criticized both inside and outside of the Catholic Church itself. Many felt it was inadmissible and almost immoral to cultivate relations with those who continued to harshly persecute believers. The case of the Jesuit Father Alessio Floridi, one of the best Catholic specialists in relations with Russia, was a sensational one. Since 1950 he has been the chief expert on the problems of the Russian and Soviet world at the magazine Civiltà Cattolica. Due to his publications he was refused a visa for the USSR. From the mid-sixties his collaboration with the journal ended in controversy over the Vatican Ostpolitik, and led to the publication of his book denouncing Moscow and the Vatican. In the introduction to his book, the Russian dissident historian Mikhail Agursky wrote: "The problem raised by the author is truly tormenting: for reasons still unclear the Vatican, which enjoys such high global moral authority, unexpectedly has arrived at a strange and unnatural association with a force diametrically opposed to those values on which any religion is based and which not only denies them, but actively combats them".
By the mid-seventies, an overview of the Vatican’s now ten-year policy towards Eastern Europe could be traced. The balance was weighed down not only by the criticisms arriving from the East (in 1974 the same primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, expressed his opposition to the institution of a "permanent contact" between the Polish government and the Holy See, almost a premise of future diplomatic relations) and by characters like Father Floridi. The results did not seem satisfactory, despite the great change that had taken place on the Vatican side. In 1975, Paul VI publicly sketched a problematic picture. The Pope expressed his dissatisfaction, even if he reiterated the objectification of Ostpolitik: "If in some cases – he told the College of Cardinals - the results of the dialogue appear scarce, insufficient or overdue, and if others can see in this a reason enough to interrupt it, we instead consider it our serious duty to proceed with enlightened constancy on a path that seems, in the first place, exquisitely evangelical: of long-suffering, of understanding, of charity. Not without hiding, of course, the bitterness and worry that causes us to continue, or the aggravation of many situations contrary to the rights of the Church, or of the human person; and admonishing not to misunderstand our responsible attitude, as if it were a matter of acquiescence or resigned acceptance " (citation in Il Vaticano e Mosca. 1940-1990, 1940-1990, RICCARDI Andrea, Rome-Bari 1992, page 314).
In fact, the Vatican policy did not lead to a substantial change in the conditions of the believers of the countries under an atheistic regime. Their conditions remained one of near clandestinity. Indeed, taking advantage of the overtures of the West and Vatican, those regimes often deliberately exacerbated the pressure and direct persecution of believers, putting the Holy See in a somewhat embarrassing position. The case of the short regency of Khrushchev, who while proposing himself as one of the great protagonists of international détente, at the same time decided to implement the most systematic anti-religious campaigns in the history of the USSR, with the declared aim of "televising the repentance of the last pope ". The situation, however, did not improve after the removal of Chruchesev in 1964; during the long Brezhnevian "stagnation" the control over religious aspirations was continuous and suffocating, and included the institution of special mental psychiatric hospitals where the most active believers were incarcerated.
The faithful, however, continued to exist, despite all the harassment and attempts at extermination of the faith. Indeed, one of the effects of the contradictory openings of the post-war period, of the Council and of political relaxation was the emergence of a spontaneous social, cultural and religious protest movement throughout Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, the so-called "dissent", also identified with the semi-clandestine copying and distribution of literature banned by the state, the samizdat. The dissent took on clamorous public expressions only in countries closer to the West by history and mentality (and mostly Catholic) such as Poland and Hungary, where they were repressed with extreme violence by the Soviet tanks, while in the heart of the USSR empire was channeled mainly towards poetic and literary forms, in which the religious manifestation found natural and lush expression.
Religious dissidents, of course, could not understand or justify the acrobatics of Vatican diplomacy, which it often considered a true betrayal of the "Church of Silence" in which faith was preserved at the cost of suffering and humiliation, often risking one’s life. This persecution produced unexpected ecumenical convergences among the representatives of the different Christian confessions: united by an unhappy destiny, in the Soviet archipelago of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant lagers they returned to experience the harmony and fraternity of the Christians of the first centuries, overcoming without effort the most difficult doctrinal and disciplinary differences. In 1972, an orthodox theologian, Mikhail Meerson-Aksenov, published the essay The People of God and pastors, which states that "the Church founded by Christ, one and Catholic (universal, sobornaja) in history has been divided and separated in two ( the Western and Eastern Church) and then again into several contrasting parts. The forces of hell cannot defeat the Church in its fullness, but what confession enclosed in itself and opposed to others will dare to demand this fullness for itself? ". In this way, "from under the boulders", according to Solženicyn's expression, a new Christian renaissance flourished, by its nature inter-denominational and not very institutional: the local ecclesiastical hierarchies were often imprisoned by the forced collaboration with the anti-religious regime, while the Pope's emissaries bent down to continuous compromises in the complex search for space to manoeuvre.
If in the periphery of the satellite countries the reference point of the Catholics remained the Polish clergy, who better than others had been able to defend the central role of the Church even in the communist society, within the USSR the Catholics clung to the two great islands of Catholicism Lithuanian Latin, which resisted in the same spirit as the Polish neighbors, and the Greek-Western Catholicism of Western Ukraine, which was organized in total clandestinity, having been officially suppressed by Stalin in the pseudo-Synod of 1946 with the complicity of the Orthodox Church itself after the arrest of its leader, Metropolitan Josif Slipyj.
While, high-ranking Vatican spheres tried to keep a balance between diplomatic efforts and the defense of persecuted believers, in the West there were many more or less organized attempts to support the "Church of silence" with the material and spiritual solidarity of those who enjoyed all liberties. In fact, in the initial post-war period, associations, cultural centers and lay movements were formed to support brothers and sisters of the USSR and Eastern Europe. These initiatives expanded and deepened their skills in directives and intervention after the Council, adding to the anti-communist resistance, and the preservation of violated traditions, the Church's ideal of renewal and the ecumenical openness that the Council itself had offered to the whole world.
(End of Part Two: For Part One, see here)
* Professor of History and Russian Culture at the Pontifical Oriental Institute of Rome