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Interview with priest reveals what it’s really like for Catholics in Russia

Evgenya Novozhenina | Sputnik
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"The presence of Catholics is not a recently implanted reality that took advantage of the fall of Communism," says Claretian priest José Mariá Vegas.

Russia is Orthodox, but there are more than 250 Catholic parishes spread throughout the country’s vast territory. Despite jealousy and accusations of proselytism, the relations between Orthodox and Catholics are improving. We interviewed José María Vegas, CMF, who has been in the country for more than 20 years. He explained to us why some Russian Orthodox are attracted to the liturgy and customs of Catholics, which have traditionally been associated with dry and austere liturgies in Latin, as opposed to the rich Orthodox spirituality.

What is the situation of Catholics in Russia?

The Catholic Church has always been present as a religious minority. It is important to emphasize this: the presence of Catholics is not a recently implanted reality that took advantage of the fall of communism. The Catholic Church has always existed in Russia, due to minorities from nations of Catholic tradition: Polish, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Germans…

Since the fall of communism, it has been rebuilding constantly.

After the fall of communism, our first task was to find and rebuild Catholic structures (parishes, dioceses, the seminary) that existed before the revolution, and which, afterwards, were practically destroyed (with few exceptions); although groups of believers dispersed throughout that immense territory kept their faith, no matter how difficult it was.

Today, the presence of Catholics continues to be largely related to those minorities of Catholic nationalities, although it is also true that a significant percentage of Catholics today are Russians who do not belong to those minorities, and who have freely chosen the Catholic faith.

So, we are still dealing with a minority, which is relatively insignificant in number, although it has a notable presence through its more than 250 parishes, and 4 dioceses (two in the European part: Moscow and Saratov; and two in Siberia: Novosibirsk and Irkutsk). There is an inter-diocesan seminary in Saint Petersburg, which has produced several dozen priests over the past 25 years. One important form of Catholic presence is tied to the social work of Caritas and other Catholic organizations, and several publishing houses which translate Catholic literature to Russian—they have also started to produce a modest amount of their own Catholic content.

How does the Russian mentality receive Catholic spirituality, with its rites and customs?

Russians, the majority of whom are Orthodox, see Latin and the Roman liturgy (for them, too austere and dry) as distinctive characteristics of Catholicism. Therefore, the fact that, nowadays, the liturgy is celebrated in Russian is, for many of them, a cause of worry and a sign of a proselytizing attitude on the part of Catholics (which is simply not the case).

But it is also true that there are more than a few Russians who feel attracted by Catholic spirituality, as well as by its liturgy and customs, for various reasons. For example, the fact that the liturgy is celebrated in Russian—and therefore, they can understand what is said and done, the Word of God—is attractive for many of them. Also, the fact that there are various paths of spirituality, some of them specifically for lay people, is something that attracts some of them. We have to keep in mind that Orthodox spirituality, which has many great values, has been fundamentally structured around monastic life, and consequently, it is difficult to apply it for those who live in the world. They also appreciate the greater level of theological preparation and greater autonomy that the laity can find in the Catholic Church.

In any case, I must say that all of this is not a massive phenomenon, and that many Orthodox see Catholicism through the prism of strong historical prejudices.

What does the Virgin of Kazan represent for a Russian Catholic?

The Virgin of Kazan is an icon that came originally from that city, although today the original icon is located in Saint Petersburg. In Russia, spirituality related to icons is deep-rooted, and this also affects many Catholics. For a Russian Catholic, the Virgin of Kazan is an image that inspires veneration, just like other icons (just think of the Vladimirskaya [a particularly famous icon of Mary – translator’s note]) or other Catholic images. But it doesn’t have special significance beyond that of other religious images (icons or otherwise).

Are ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in good health?

Right now, relations between Catholics and Orthodox have calmed down and have improved noticeably. The tension that was present during the first years of the restoration of Catholic structures in Russia has decreased greatly, and accusations of proselytism have nearly disappeared. In short, the atmosphere is much more positive.

But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any positive contact or cooperation before. Actually, the above-mentioned tensions were present principally in high-level relations. But at concrete locations (parishes, cities, etc.) the situation depended, and still depends, largely on the people who work there. At many locations, relations are excellent, friendly, and fraternal; at others, there are still problems.

In Saint Petersburg, specifically at the seminary, there are good relations with the Orthodox seminary, and some Orthodox priests and lay people collaborate with our seminary by giving classes, or in other ways. Caritas is a place of intense cooperation, as many of its workers and volunteers are Orthodox.

There is much to be done, and we need to intensify our contact, but the atmosphere today is better, more positive. Without a doubt, the meeting of Kirill with Francis in Havana has helped improve this atmosphere, although already before that meeting we could feel the wind changing (a change which, surely, made the meeting possible).

What continues to surprise you about Russia, despite the amount of time you’ve lived here?

I’ve been in Russia for 21 years, so I’ve had time to get used to almost everything. It continues to be difficult for me to adapt to top-heavy Russian bureaucracy, which, in addition, changes the rules fairly frequently. But even in this regard, things have improved greatly over the past few years.

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