Vienna, September 2 – Roman Catholicism has deep roots in Russia and has experienced dramatic growth since the end of Soviet times, and as such that faith must be recognized as a “traditional” one, according to Father Igor Kovalevsky, the secretary general of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia.
In an appearance on Ekho Moskvy on the occasion of the appearance of a new interactive map which shows the location of the 232 Catholic parishes in Russia, Kovalevsky thus calls for the Russian Orthodox Church to accept Catholicism as a “traditional” Russian faith and should be allowed to take part in inter-religious bodies (echo.msk.ru/programs/we/706324-echo/).
That is something the Moscow Patriarchate has long opposed. According to Kirill, there are only four “traditional” religious faiths –Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism – meriting such recognition, a position Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev back and one that reflects often anti-Catholic motifs in various holidays.
Russian commemorations of Aleksandr Nevsky for example often take on an anti-Catholic aspect when commentators suggest that the medieval Russian prince would have been wrong to ally with the Mongols if he had only been fighting the German emperor but was correct to do so because he was also opposing the papacy.
And Putin’s decision to shift the November holiday from the 7th which is the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution to the 4th which marks the commemoration of the expulsion of the Catholic Poles from Moscow at the start of the 17th century also has taken on anti-Catholic shadings in some commentaries.
Consequently, Kovalevsky’s assertion represents a challenge to Moscow in various ways, all the more so because both the Russian government and Patriarch Kirill have been pursuing a rapprochement with the Vatican, especially since Benedict XVI replaced John Paul II, the Polish pope who many Russians blame for promoting the demise of the Soviet bloc and the USSR.
The Ekho Moskvy interviewer, Olga Bychkova, pointed out that the 232 Catholic organizations now marked on the interactive map represent about “one percent of the total of all registered religious organizations” in Russia, and she asked Kovalevsky to comment on whether that is a large number or a small one.
He acknowledged that “in fact this is not so many” but the Catholic parishes counted are spread across the entire territory of the Russian Federation. “Objectively,” Catholics are a minority in Russia, “but nevertheless, “they are a traditional minority,” which has been present for centuries on the territory of the Russian Empire, the USSR and now the Russian Federation.
In Soviet times, Kovalevsky stressed, “Catholics just like the representatives of other religions suffered a great deal.” And by the end of the USSR, there were “only two working Catholic churches” in Russia, one in Moscow and the other in St. Petersburg. Now, less than 20 years later, there are 232
In Moscow city and oblast alone, he said, there are perhaps as many as 50,000 Catholics, largely because there are “many foreigners here.” But there are also Russian Catholics, and they form “an absolute majority of our parishioners” even in the Russian capital. And because of that services there and elsewhere are in Russian.
Unfortunately, Kovalevsky continued, there are “many stereotypes” in Russia about Catholics. But he said he is convinced that the situation is becoming better: “Already thank God I have not encountered for a long time the question as to how Catholics are distinguished from Christians.”
But one stereotype continues to affect many in Russia: the belief that Catholicism is “associated with contemporary West European culture.” In fact, because of secularization – something Kovalevsky said is a bigger threat than Islamization – the Catholic Church is often at odds with contemporary Europe.
And in words Patriarch Kirill would approve of, the Catholic representative said that “a society which remembers its roots, its traditions and especially the religious part of its traditions is capable of relating in a tolerant fashion to representatives of other religious traditions. Precisely because it respects its own.”
In response to questions, Kovalevsky said that relations with the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian rabbis were good and getting better, although there are problems including Moscow’s unwillingness to allow the Catholics to define their sees as specific territories and the confiscation of what had been Catholic churches by the Orthodox.
Despite, Kovalevsky expressed the hope that the pope would be able to make a visit to Moscow at some point in the not too distant future – although he acknowledged that was as much a political as a religious issue -- and that the Catholics of Russia would be recognized as fully part of the Russian tradition and Russian social and political life.