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Back to the Future

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

At the end of August I had the privilege of joining a small committee of United States Catholic bishops on a trip to the Soviet Union. We had an ambitious itinerary – to visit Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine. We also had a generous purpose – to learn from the local clergy and people what kind of assistance they hoped for from their brothers and sisters in the West.

In terms of space, of geography, it was a trip of thousands of miles. In terms of time, it was a trip back at least 50 years.

Christianity in the Soviet Union has been on the defensive since the Bolshevik Revolution. As persecution increased under communism, Christians clung ever more tenaciously to their customs and traditions, even to the point of death. Thanks be to God for their heroic faith!

But now, as pressures are beginning to he relieved, the clergy and the faithful of these churches are challenged to face freedom and the modern world, They’re like people awakening from a long and bad dream, to discover that the worldwide Church of 1990 has changed and evolved into a Church very different from the one they have known and defended all these years.

I wonder how the “underground” Ukrainian bishops felt when they came to meet the Polish pope in Rome in June. They saw the “Latin” liturgy all simplified and in Italian – almost Protestant, when seen with the eyes of 50 years ago.

They found a special agency of the Holy See to promote Christian unity – to find ways to re-establish peaceful communion with the Orthodox Church, not to treat it as a bitter rival.

The differences they faced aren’t just externals: priests in suits instead of cassocks, religious in lay clothes instead of habits, or liturgy in the vernacular instead of Latin. Those of us who lived through the days of the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath realize the incredible change of mentality that has permeated the Church of today.

We take for granted freedom of religion and respect for conscience. Pluralism is our way of life. We no longer speak of the one, true Church, but of the servant Church that is a sacrament or sign of intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human family.

When we ask the Catholic churches of the Soviet Union what help they need, we may be thinking of the buildings, equipment and tools we’re used to; they may be more concerned for vestments, prayer books and rosaries. Our pastoral goal may be how best to support all believers, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant; theirs may be the repossession of their confiscated churches and the defense of their rights.

The challenge of their future is aggiornamento, to he caught up in the great renewal of the Church launched by the Vatican Council. Their challenge is to transform their heroic faith of resistance into the faith that plunges into the open, unknown future, with the same confidence in the Lord who promises, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

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Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA



Tags: Christianity Unity Communism/Communist Soviet Union Religious Differences