Last February saw the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Havana, Cuba.
It was the first time a Pope had met with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Church and the Roman Church had drifted into schism in the two centuries after the so-called ‘Great Schism’ of 1054.
Both men took a “don’t mention the war” approach to the Schism, preferring to speak on common issues.
However, there already exists a literal common ground — a meeting point — between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox. This is the tiny Russian Byzantine Catholic Church (formally known as the Russian Greek Catholic Church), a ‘dissenting’ group of Russian Orthodox who are loyal to the Bishop of Rome as the essential element for the fullness of Orthodoxy. (For them, St Peter’s chair does not equal a monarchical papacy.)
These Russian Catholics should be the proverbial poster-child for ecumenical relations — living proof that reconciliation is possible. Instead, they are in danger of being lost to history.
The Russian Catholic Church began in the nineteenth century with the writings and work of philosopher, critic and mystic Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900).
He spoke against the unhealthy relationship between the Orthodox Church and the state (at that time, the courts of Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II). He saw that the only way to end the corruption in Moscow was for the Orthodox Church to find a point of reference outside itself. This guardian of freedom was Rome.
Sometimes called “the (John Henry) Newman of Russia”, Soloviev gathered around him a small but influential group of Russian Orthodox and Old Believers to begin the Russian Catholic Church.
By 1917 the Church had public recognition and a growing number of vocations.
After just one year of relative stability, the October Revolution (1918) kicked-off some 70 years of extreme, anti-religious persecution under Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev — only formally ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Between 12-29 million Christians were killed, not to mention the decimation of churches, monasteries, convents and seminaries.
During this time, Russian Catholics died alongside their Orthodox brethren. Imprisoned and doomed, priests of both churches shared the one clandestine Eucharist. In martyrdom, schism ceased to exist. Most died in the camps of the Gulag Archipelago, but a small community survived underground.
Today, the Russian Orthodox Church now exists comfortably with the State. President Vladimir Putin is the “champion of Christianity”, with Patriarch Kirill calling his rule a “miracle of God”.
This puts the Russian Catholic Church, once again, under suspicion.
“In the same way that in the nineteenth century our Church was a rebuke to the [Orthodox] Church for allowing itself to become a department of State … now the same thing has happened,“ said Fr Lawrence Cross, Archpriest of the Russian Catholic Community at St Kilda East, Melbourne.
“We are a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church that says, ‘Stop! Wrong way. Go back. Don’t go into the arms of the State’ … Soloviev’s message comes back, ‘Brothers and sisters, be careful.’”
This precarious relationship makes the Russian Catholic community particularly vulnerable in discussions between the Holy See and Orthodox churches.
“The truth is we are caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Fr Cross, pointing out that Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox ecumenism may come at the price of the Russian Catholic Church.
The Russian Catholics call the pope ‘Father’, but the Orthodox Church is still their Mother. Their liturgy and practice is completely Byzantine – “no more, no less, and no other” than the Russian Orthodox Church.
Those who walk into St Nicholas Church in St Kilda East, Melbourne, would easily be forgiven for thinking they were in Russian Orthodox cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Strathfield, Sydney.
“There will be a much greater impact upon your senses,” said Fr Cross about the aesthetic experience of entering a Russian church.
“The candles flickering before the icons, the colours, the smell of the incense, the chanting, the mysterious communication that is going on between the sanctuary and the body of the church: It is in beauty, that the divine mystery makes itself present.”
With about 150 people “on the books” St Nicholas is the epicentre of the Russian Catholic Church in Australia.
There are also Russian Catholic communities in Italy, Poland, Austria, Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Latvia, Germany, the Americas and an underground presence in Russia.
There is no way to know how big the community in Russia is. Fr Cross estimates there are “at least six” priests, but “there is no way to know for sure”.
In order for the Russian Catholic Church to survive they need an above-ground presence in Russia that is free from the interference imposed by Rome – interference which has seen local clergy being placed under the unsympathetic control of Roman Catholic bishops.
“Otherwise it becomes a museum piece,” Fr Cross said.
The Russian Catholics also long to see a successful end to schism. “While both lungs may have emphysema,” said Fr Cross, “there are things that the West could learn from the East.”
In the more immediate future, they aim to be reunited with their Mother, the Russian Orthodox. and to liturgically commemorate its Patriarch along with his brother, the Bishop of Rome.
“I would like us to have a dialogue with our Mother Church … and work out a way of us existing above ground in Russia. For example, we could be a lifeboat for those young Russians who are wandering off to Western sects or are being poached by the Roman Catholics.”
However, Fr Cross doubts this reconciliation will happen anytime soon.
“It is like the princess and the pea. We are like a tiny pea under the many mattresses of the Russian Orthodox Church, but oh no! She can’t sleep because she can still feel it.”
He has also tried to plead his case with the Vatican. In September 2015, he put a letter in the hands of the Pope, outlining the plight of the tiny Church, faithful to Rome.
“The letter ends with two words: Salva Nos [save us]”, he said.
Fr Cross is still waiting for a response. However, he fears that the cause has been lost in the “bureaucratic machine … more bent on self-preservation than evangelisation.”
Taking matters into their own hands, Fr Lawrence is convening a congress to open a three-way dialogue between the Russian Catholics, the Orthodox Patriarchate and the Holy See.
About 30 clerical delegates from Russian Catholic communities across the world, along with laity, will meet to discuss the future and once again petition Rome for an Exarch bishop and the revival of the Exarchate.
“We have saints and martyrs, many dead in the gulags and shot for their Russian Catholic faith. I can’t believe that was all in vain,” said Fr Cross.
“This is our last hurrah. If this fails, you can forget about the Russian Catholic movement,” he said.
The Congress will be held in June this year at Bergamo, Italy.
Photography: Laura Cheung, L’capture Photography