Feeling Abandoned, Russian Catholics Appeal to the Pope

09.06.2017, 15:40
A group of Russian Catholics is demanding greater recognition from Pope Francis, saying the Vatican’s appeasement of Moscow threatens its very existence.

Leaders of a Russian Catholic church feel sidelined as Pope Francis pursues closer ties with the country’s dominant Orthodox Church

A group of Russian Catholics is demanding greater recognition from Pope Francis, saying the Vatican’s appeasement of Moscow threatens its very existence.

Leaders of the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church, with fewer than 30,000 members world-wide, are meeting in Italy this week in their first such synod in a century.

On the agenda is a longstanding request for their own bishop and resources for training their own clergy. Church leaders say the pope has ignored their appeals as he pursues closer ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is dominant in the country.

“The survival of the Russian Catholic Church is what’s at stake,” said the Rev. Lawrence Cross, a Russian Catholic priest based near Melbourne, Australia. “One of the essential things we need for our survival, like any church or any family, is a father.”

Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Churches, said his office was aware of the Russian Catholics’ meeting but declined to comment.

The complaints of the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church echo those of other groups who feel Pope Francis is willing to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of other priorities.

Catholics in Ukraine accuse the pope of playing down Russian aggression toward their countryin order to placate the Russian Orthodox Church, which has criticized Ukrainian Catholics’ opposition to Russian-backed separatists. Russian President Vladimir Putin has cultivated a close relationship with the Orthodox Church as part of a nationalist campaign.

And some members of China’s underground Catholic church, who have remained loyal to Rome through more than half a century of persecution, worry the pope will betray their fidelity in pursuit of a deal with Beijing and the government-controlled official Catholic church there.

The Vatican has sought stronger links with the Eastern Orthodox churches since the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, working toward ending a schism that dates to the 11th century. Pope Francis has made closer ties with the Russian Orthodox, who represent about two-thirds of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians, an especially urgent priority in light of increasing persecution of Christians around the world. In 2016, Pope Francis became the first pope to meet a patriarch of Moscow.

Amid that outreach, Russian Byzantine Catholics have felt particularly neglected. The election of Pope Francis, who had a record of supporting Eastern Catholics in his native Argentina, raised hopes that he would do likewise as pope. But those hopes, including a desire for a Russian Byzantine Catholic bishop, have been dashed.

The Moscow Patriarchate tolerates the presence of a Catholic hierarchy to minister to ethnic Germans and Poles in Russia, said the Rev. Ronald Roberson, an adviser on ecumenical matters to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference. “But if Rome were to appoint someone to lead ethnic Russian Catholics, the Russian Orthodox would go berserk,” he said.

Even as the pope meets frequently with Orthodox clergy at the Vatican, appeals from Russian Byzantine Catholics to meet with Pope Francis have gone unanswered, Father Cross said. 

“Francis has let us down,” said Father Cross. “We’ve just been left out in the cold.”

Virtually all of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics belong to the Latin—or Western—Church. A fraction, meanwhile, belong to about two dozen Eastern Catholic Churches, which regard the pope as their ultimate authority but have their own rituals, laws and traditions.

The Russian Byzantine Catholic Church is one of the smallest of these churches. It celebrates a liturgy identical to that of the Russian Orthodox and seeks to serve as a bridge across the thousand-year gap between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

Yet its relationship with both sides is troubled. Russian Catholics suffered and died alongside Orthodox Christians under the Soviet regime. Yet the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow regards the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church, like other Eastern Catholic churches, as a vehicle for luring members of its flock to Rome.

The overwhelming majority of the approximately 919,000 Catholics in the Russian Federation today are Latin Catholics, mostly ethnic Germans and Poles, Father Roberson said. The tiny numbers of Russian Byzantine Catholics inside Russia operate under the wing of a Latin rite bishop in Siberia.

Most Russian Byzantine Catholics today live outside of the Russian Federation, with communities throughout the West.

St. Michael’s Chapel in lower Manhattan, founded in 1936, attracted a small but dedicated congregation that at one time included Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and the poet-monk Thomas Merton.


Francis X. Rocca

7 June 2017 Wall Street Journal