RUSSIA - SPECIAL REPORT: Orthodox Indignant At Establishment of Catholic Dioceses.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 12 February 2002

On 11 February the head of the Catholic Church in Russia, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, announced Vatican plans to upgrade its existing four apostolic administrations in Russia to dioceses. The decision to centre Catholic bishops on the Russian cities of Moscow, Saratov, Novosibirsk and Irkutsk, he told NTV television channel news yesterday (11 February), represented "the normalisation of the structures of the Catholic Church in Russia and nothing more."

In an interview on Russian state television news the same evening, however, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations (DECR), Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, complained that the plans indicated Vatican intentions "to preach to our people - if you like, to convert them to the Catholic faith." The Russian news agency Interfax quoted Metropolitan Kirill as declaring: "It is likely that the Russian Orthodox Church will break off relations with the Vatican." On the NTV news bulletin, his assistant, Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, maintained that it was as if the Russian Orthodox Church were to "appoint an alternative to the Roman pope for Rome."

According to Interfax, the question of "essential restructuring of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia" was first mooted at a 6 February meeting between DECR vice-chairman Archbishop Kliment (Kapalin) of Kaluga and Borovsk and the papal nuncio to Russia, Archbishop Giorgio Zur, which was convened at the latter's request. While the details of the Vatican's plans were not then made public, the official website of the Russian Orthodox Church revealed that they would "violate canonical principles and standards of interchurch relations and significantly obstruct dialogue between the two Churches."

The consolidation of Catholic structures in Russia is linked by the Moscow Patriarchate to allegations of proselytism - or poaching converts from the Orthodox Church - which, in turn, is cited as an impediment to patriarchal consent to a papal visit to Russia. On 11 October 2001 Hilarion (Alfeyev) - now Bishop of Kerch who will be based in Britain - complained to Keston that in Russia there were "ongoing attempts by the Catholic Church to get established in areas where there are few Catholics and to win those who are already in the Orthodox Church or on their way to it." He added, however, that Patriarch Aleksi II was "prepared to meet the pope if he is ready to condemn proselytism: and express willingness to respect the principle of canonical territory." (The Russian Orthodox Church understands canonical territory as the assignment of one bishop to a single fixed, geographical diocese. In Britain, for instance, the Moscow Patriarchate does not link its bishops with local diocesan structures, but appoints them to "virtual" dioceses, such as Sourozh and Kerch.)

In an interview with Keston on 31 January, chancellor of the then Apostolic Administration for Catholics of Northern European Russia, Fr Igor Kovalevsky, insisted that his Church did not conduct proselytism, "or trying to win believers over from the Orthodox Church - I'd have three times as many parishioners if I did." The practice was in any case pointless, he maintained, "since we believe that the Russian Orthodox Church possesses the full means to salvation."

According to Fr Kovalevsky, "canonical territory" could only be understood within a confession. "If the Romanian Orthodox Church established parishes in Russia without the agreement of the Moscow Patriarch, for example," he explained, "or if the German Catholic Church were to start to found parishes in Russia without the agreement of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, that would constitute a violation of canonical territory."

According to the dean of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ireland, Fr Mikhail Gogolev, Catholic missionaries were being sent from Poland to Russia "especially in order to convert people who have lost the Orthodox faith for various reasons - I'm very much in support of them ministering to Germans, Poles, foreigners: but do they really need entire monasteries in Siberia where there never was a Catholic soul?" Interviewed by Keston on 5 February during a visit to Moscow, Fr Gogolev maintained that a local Orthodox Church "could not just go and send monks to a predominantly Catholic or Protestant country and start ministering to the local population there - that would constitute a total contradiction of the canonical territory of the undivided Church established by the first seven ecumenical councils, which the Catholic Church has never renounced."

In Fr Gogolev's view, the main problem was the domination of the Catholic Church in Russia by Poles - he even tentatively agreed that control by local Russian Catholic priests might be preferable - and thought that a solution would come only with the removal of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: "He is at odds with the Patriarchate, he dictates policy and refuses to make concessions."

How, asked Keston, did Fr Gogolev square such views with his own presence in predominantly Catholic Ireland? The Russian Orthodox Church did not maintain an existence in that country, he maintained, "in order to conduct any kind of proselytism." While the majority of his three-year-old parish's 1,000 worshippers would soon no longer have to stand on the street once they moved to a former Church of Ireland (Anglican) church building in south central Dublin, Fr Gogolev emphasised that these consisted of ethnic Russian political refugees from former Soviet republics, Russian and Ukrainian contract workers and students, and mixed Russian-Irish married couples. The liturgy was held in a mixture of Church Slavonic and English, he added, precisely with the children of these couples in mind, and "because it is important that we are perceived as an open Christian community by the external world."

Although he expected to see more locals involved in the Orthodox Church over the coming decade and admitted that some Irish were already preparing for the diaconate, Fr Gogolev said that there were as yet no plans to establish a separate diocese. He was keen to point out that the situation in Ireland differed quite sharply from that in Britain, where the fact that "95 per cent of the clergy are local" was the consequence of developments within the Anglican Church: "The Bishop of Bath and Wells accepts a transsexual female vicar in his diocese, the Bishop of Durham rejects transsubstantiation: When the fundamentals of Christianity are negated by the bishops, I'm not surprised people leave." There was no such analogous situation in Ireland, Fr Gogolev maintained, where the Orthodox enjoyed "excellent relations" with the Catholic Church.

According to Fr Kovalevsky, the Catholic Church "has no problems" with the Russian Orthodox establishing such new parishes or even dioceses in predominantly Catholic areas. In a letter published in the 23 December issue of the British-Irish church newspaper "Catholic Times," Dublin reader Francis Bailey also states that he "welcomes the proposal to open a Russian Orthodox church" in the Irish capital. Additional sentiments expressed by Bailey, however, point to the potential for disquiet in predominantly Catholic areas mirroring Orthodox indignation at the Vatican's latest moves in Russia. "While the Moscow patriarch has repeatedly objected to the restoration of any Catholic hierarchy to minister to Catholics in his 'canonical territory'," he writes, "he and other Orthodox bishops have not hesitated to establish Orthodox hierarchies and to proselytise in the 'canonical territories' of the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. There are eight Orthodox bishops of several national Churches in Britain alone." (END)