Russian and Vatican historians hold new seminar on ‘The Mission of peace and Ostpolitik’
by Stefano Caprio

The meeting took place during celebrations for Saint Nicholas of Myra in Russia. Pope Francis and Kirill are expected in Bari. The Vatican's commitment to the great famine of the 1920s in Russia. Condemnation of Nazism and communism and efforts to avoid the Second World War. The work of Agostino Casaroli.

Rome (AsiaNews) - A joint conference of historians of the Russian Academy of Sciences and of specialists gathered by the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, was held recently in Rome. The seminar coincided with celebrations for the feast of St. Nicholas according to the Russian calendar (22-23 May). The members of the Russian delegation were able to join the many Russian pilgrims who went to pay homage to the remains of the saint of Myra in Lycia, protector of Russia, in the basilica of Bari where they are kept, and where Pope Francis is expected to visit in July (perhaps together with the Russian Patriarch Kirill). The group of pontifical scholars was led by the Premonstratensian Canon Father Bernard Ardura; the Russian one by the imperceptible Prof. Aleksandr Chubarian, Scientific Director of the Institute of Universal History of the Academy, who has campaigned for these meetings since the days of Brezhnev.

The dialogue between historians picks up from the Moscow seminar held June 20-21 last year, when the twentieth century Vatican "Ostpolitik" and relations with Soviet Russia were discussed. The seminar continued its focus on the events of the twentieth century, on the proposed theme ‘The Peace Mission of the Christian Churches in the 20th century’. The annual rhythm of these meetings bears witness to the renewed harmony between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, but also between the Holy See and the Russian Federation, as underlined by the Russian ambassador to the Holy See Aleksandr Avdeev, former Minister of Culture in the Russian government.

The "struggle for peace" was the classic theme of diplomatic, cultural and even ecclesial meetings of the Soviet period, especially in the phase of the Krasciovian "detente" of the 1960s, a period to which the Vatican Ostpolitik also referred. The relevance of the theme is also reflected in the recent initiatives of joint support to Christians persecuted in the Middle East, and in general to the peoples suffering due to the wars taking place all over the world. The joint commitment to universal pacification was the main motivation for the meeting between Pope Francis and the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill (Gundjaev) in February 2016.  A follow up to this historic event has long been expected and still to be defined, but hopefully is not too distant.

The first speaker of the conference and main organizer, the Muscovite Professor Evgenija Tokareva,  reflected on the contacts between Moscow and the Vatican in the most dramatic years of the Stalinist "red terror", between 1935 and the beginning of the Second World War. Despite the pounding anti-religious propaganda of the Soviet regime, in the second half of the 1930s the controversy was almost "suspended", leaving room for peace initiatives of the Holy See, aimed at preventing the outbreak of a new world conflict. The encyclical letters of Pius XI of 1937 such as the Mit brennender Sorge, which condemned Nazism, and above all Divini Redemptoris, dedicated to the atheistic Bolshevik communism, were ignored. Since 1943, with the restoration of the Orthodox Patriarchate, Stalin began to accuse the Vatican of every evil, using the Russian Church as an "ideological" weapon, but perhaps even in those years there were glimmers of harmony for peace, even if they were proved wrong by events.

A young Milanese researcher, Maria Chiara Dommarco, discussed the period immediately following the October Revolution and the civil war, when several regions of Russia were hit by a severe famine. The Holy See organized an impressive Rescue Mission, led by 12 "apostles" including clergymen and laity under the guidance of the Jesuit Fr. Edmund Walsh. The Vatican group remained in Russia from 1921 to 1924, witnessing firsthand the beginning of the persecution of Churches, with the confiscation of their assets by Lenin, justified precisely by the famine. The charity of the Pope and of the Catholics of all the world was the only anchor of moderation and hope in such a tragic and turbulent moment, showing how it is always possible to defeat even the most violent assaults of the devil with love.

Other speakers also illustrated the actions by popes and bishops, from Benedict XV to the heroic Latvian cardinal Julian Vaivods, but also the "diplomatic charity" of the secretary of state Agostino Casaroli, the proponent of Ostpolitik, of which Prof. Matteo Luigi Napolitano, papal delegate for historical studies, spoke. On behalf of the Moscow Patriarchate, Father Aleksey Dikarev, recalled the initiatives of the Department led by Metropolitan Nikodim, the Russian bishop responsible for the openings of the 1960s and 70s, who died in the arms of Pope John Paul I on September 5 1978. In addition to relations between Rome and Moscow, similar events have been evoked in Mexico, Bulgaria, Afghanistan and many peace missions, which the Churches of the East and the West want to renew today for a common witness, to be whole world.