Russian Catholics: Challenging the Stereotypes
…the appointment of an apostolic exarch for Russian Catholics … could thus pave the way for a union of the Ukrainian Orthodox with the church of Rome.
Next June, thirty Russian Catholic priests from around the world are scheduled to meet at Seriate, near Bergamo in northern Italy. They are expected to petition the Holy See for the appointment of a Russian Catholic exarch.
Why does this concern Ukrainian Catholics and Orthodox? First of all, it was by the initiative of Greco-Catholic Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, a great Ukrainian ecumenist, that the Russian Catholic Church was formed in 1917. Second, the Russian Catholic Church offers a relatively recent example of the union of Orthodox Christians with the Roman Catholic Church – an example that Ukrainian Orthodox are sure to study closely. Thirdly, the very existence and possible revival of Russian Catholicism challenges two common stereotypes.
The first of these stereotypes is that Russians can only be Orthodox. This was belied in the nineteenth century, when a number of Russian nobles became Baptists or Roman Catholics. The second is that a Russian who becomes a Catholic must adopt the Latin Rite. While some converts did in fact do so, some of the most thoughtful and influential ones sought a union of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches that would preserve the Byzantine Slavonic Rite and the Russian Orthodox tradition.
The philosopher Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) advocated a “free theocracy” in which the authority of God was combined with the principle of total freedom. God’s three vicars on earth would be the Tsar, the Pope, and “the prophet.” Man would be guided by the principle of wisdom, or “Sophia.” While sympathetic to Catholicism in his later years, Soloviev conceived of “leading all the churches to a higher form of unity that none of them had yet found.” (James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, 1966, 1970; p. 468). He was thus one of the first ecumenists.
Soloviev influenced the poet Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949), who left Russia for Italy in 1924 and in 1926 became a Roman Catholic. Yet Ivanov “saw his acceptance of Catholicism not as a betrayal of Orthodox Christianity, but as a synthesis of the two churches.” (Emily Wang, “Viacheslav Ivanov in the 1930s: the Russian Poet as Italian Humanist,” Slavic Review, Winter 2016, pp. 896-918, at 898).
Soloviev’s ecumenical ideas also influenced a circle of Russian Catholics that met regularly after religious freedom was established in Russia in 1905. Among them was the Blessed Fr. Leonid Fyodorov (1879-1935, beatified in 2001). InMarch 1917, the Tsar’s abdicationand the formation of the Provisional Government provided an opportunity to establish a Russian Catholic Church. On 29-31 May 1917, Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, who had been imprisoned by the Russians since 1914, presided over an eparchial council that organized the Russian Catholic Church, formed an exarchate, and elected Fr. Leonid as exarch. After the Bolshevik coup d’etat in November, both Orthodox and Catholics suffered persecution. Exarch Leonid Fyodorov was arrested, tried, sentenced, and exiled to the Solovkiislands from 1923 to 1932; he died three years after his release. Meanwhile, a Russian Catholic apostolic exarchate was erected at Harbin in China in 1928.
In 2004, Russian Catholic priests appointed an administrator, whose place was taken by Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Werth, apostolic administratorfor Siberia. Today, over a dozen parishes and communities of Russian-rite Catholics in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other parts of Russia still lack an apostolic exarch. Should the priests and laity who gather next June near Bergamo succeed in petitioning the Holy See for the creation of an exarchate, the implications would be important.
For one thing, the appointment of an apostolic exarch for Russian Catholics would be a vindication of the right of separate groups of Orthodox believers to conclude unions with the Roman Catholic Church – as happened at Brest in 1596 as well as at St. Petersburg in 1917. It could lead to a new model for the union of Orthodox with Rome – one involving a fuller recognition of their spiritual, canonical, and liturgical, and theological heritage. It could thus pave the way for a union of the Ukrainian Orthodox as well. It would also be a recognition that Metropolitan Sheptytsky’s creation of a Russian Exarchate was not a doomed Uniate venture, but a far-sighted ecumenical step.