11/22/2021, 09.22
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The future of the Russian Catholic Church

by Stefano Caprio

The former secretary of the Bishops' Conference, Msgr. Igor Kovalevskij, has left the ecclesiastical service in disagreement with his superiors and confreres. The debate hinges on the fate of the buildings associated with the Moscow church of Saints Peter and Paul. The need to develop a "healthy Russian Catholic patriotism" .



Rome (AsiaNews) - The resignation of the secretary of the Bishops' Conference Msgr. Igor Kovalevskij, has sparked commotion among Catholics in Moscow and elsewhere, following his stepping down from from his ecclesiastical post in protest with his superiors and confreres. His priestly ministry coincided with the thirty years of the "religious renaissance" of post-Soviet Russia; the questions he raises are not only about personal disagreements, but also about some important dimensions of the Church's mission in general.

On November 19, Msgr. Kovalevsky explained his decision in a long interview with the portal Credo.ru, an important source of information on religious life in Russia. As a predecessor of Kovalevsky (I was pro-secretary of the Russian Episcopal Conference at the time of its establishment), I think it is important to adress some of the issues his raises, not to fuel a controversy, but to accept the appeal of a brother and a friend, and for the good of the whole community.

I do not intend to comment on the issue that provoked the choice of abandonment: the fate of the buildings linked to the Moscow church of Saints Peter and Paul, which the Curia intends to use to guarantee findancila income, rather than restore it to worship and pastoral activities. As Msgr. Kovalevsky says, "one learns that the devil exists precisely in the experience of service," where one is called to make decisions for the good of the Church, and human temptations and weaknesses inevitably manifest themselves.

It is evident, also because of this symbolic event, what he defines in the interview as the "material and spiritual weakness of the Church in Russia". This is the question that concerns everyone: whether the Church should rely on "ambitious projects" or on "realism". The thirty years after the USSR presented this alternative: in the first phase, the enthusiasm for the rebirth led to the opening of many structures, even before the faithful gathered; in the last 15 years, however, it has been necessary to reduce the initiatives and pastoral programs. A way to find the right balance between the "presence" of Catholics in the country and the propulsion towards "mission", in the words of Msgr Kovalevskij.

The reconstruction of the Church in Russia has started from scratch, after 70 years of forced atheism. The faithful were and are few, even in the majority Orthodox Church, and even after 30 years the religious education and culture of Russians is still very poor. Reopening the churches is only a premise, and often the entire commitment to the proclamation of the Gospel, which instead comes from the hearts of the people, has been entrusted to the structures. Catholics in Russia are a minority and we have always been afraid to analyze the real numbers of its consistency in order not to "diminish the image", as Msgr. Kovalevskij says. It is estimated that there are about one million faithful, but the practitioners are not more than 100,000; as for the rest, out of 100 million Orthodox, at most three to four million go to church.

The former secretary of the Bishops' Conference also touches on a very sensitive issue, what he calls "polonophobia": the allergy to Poles in Russia. It is a problem that has very ancient historical roots, but which is associated with other forms of misunderstanding, within the Russian Catholic community itself. There is a discrepancy between foreign missionaries and those from the Polish-Ukrainian world, such as Kovalevsky himself. Westerners hastened to Russia (I arrived in the mid-1980s) with romantic and literary visions of "Holy Russia" in mind, the ideal partner of Catholic universalism; the Slavs of other nations, on the other hand, were well aware of the limits not only of historical Russia, but especially of post-Soviet Russia, in which great ideals are often obscured by ideological schemes and ancestral prejudices.

Another obvious gulf to cross, and this certainly does not concern Russia alone, is that between "traditionalists" and "innovators", which is exacerbated by the comparison with the Orthodox tradition, very resistant to any reform, especially liturgical. The style of the celebrations, even before the ritual variant, assumes a decisive importance in the work of evangelization. And this is a truly capital issue throughout the Church.

There is also a real distance between "official" ecumenism and practice on the ground. Pope Francis' meeting with Patriarch Kirill in February 2016 was a "summit" event that had little impact on the lives of the Catholic and Orthodox faithful. Msgr. Kovalevsky hopes for the elaboration of a Russian Catholic "healthy patriotism," which takes into account universal perspectives no less than the expressions of the soul of the Russian people, poised between nostalgia for past greatness and the desire to be a protagonist in world balances, cultural, ethical and religious even before economic, political and strategic.

Many things should be discussed, and we hope that we can really take advantage of the "synodal path" proposed to the whole Church by Pope Francis. A journey that can involve shepherds and sheep, clergy and laity, Christians of all orientations and traditions. And one that can recover a discouraged brother like Msgr. Kovalevsky, to continue to offer to the Church his valuable service as a priest, teacher, member of the Catholic community of Russia and the whole world.


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