11:47 GMT +323 June 2018
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    MOSCOW (Father John Lapidus for RIA Novosti) Deep-rooted stereotypes dominate Western thinking when it comes to contacts between the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Churches. The former has apparently extended a helping hand to Russia, is eager to enrich Russians with progressive Western ideas and generously offers them the cultural treasures of the West. In contrast, the Russian Orthodox Church is a stagnant, xenophobic stronghold of obscurantism inherited from the Dark Ages. It is loath to forgive old wrongs and reach a compromise with the Vatican, and it is always finding fault with the Holy See.

    Let us, however, turn from public prejudice to hard facts, which reveal the true state of relations between the two Churches. The Russian Orthodox Church has repeatedly highlighted two major problems: Catholic missionary activities in Russia and other CIS countries, and Russian Orthodox clashes with Greek Catholics in western Ukraine.

    Roman Catholic stances on the two issues are ambiguous, to put it mildly. Of course, there have been many conferences with Russian Orthodox hierarchs and activists, and many joint statements. In these communiques, Catholics constantly assure Russians of their fraternal love and heartfelt respect for their Sister Church. However, dozens of Catholic missionary orders work in Russia, seeking to convert the local population. Proselytising is at its most open in those orphanages that these orders run.

    Why not conduct charitable and social work in close co-operation with the Russian Orthodox Church, especially as the Vatican issued the appropriate instructions to this end more than a decade ago (the 1992 document from the papal commission Pro Russia)? Unfortunately, Western aid to Russia is possibly not disinterested, and the needy are tempted to give up their ancestors' faith for a free lunch.

    The situation with the Orthodox clergy and flock in West Ukraine is no less serious. The violent seizure of Orthodox churches reached unprecedented levels in the early 1990s, which give rise to suspicions that the leadership of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, with the local secular authorities' support, was determined to oust Orthodox believers from Ukraine for good. Only two Orthodox parishes survive in the major city of Lvov and the municipal council has decided to pull down one of the churches despite parishioners' objections. The Ivano-Frankovsk regional administration flatly refused to assign land plots for the construction of two Orthodox churches after Greek Catholics seized the standing house of worship. There have been numerous similar instances, but no one has ever defended the interests of the Orthodox community. No more than 10% of the Ukrainian population professes the Greek Catholic faith, but the Church, nevertheless, aspires to a national status and has demanded that the Vatican declare it a patriarchate. This is despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians are Orthodox believers.

    Why, then, is the Vatican so unwilling to bring order to its missionary activities in Russia and throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States? Why has not it moved to stop the Greek Catholic advance in the Orthodox homelands of south and east Ukraine? The ENI news agency published interesting information last July that shed some light on what underlies this reluctance. Seven of the eight seminaries in staunchly Catholic Ireland had been closed down in the preceding ten years after enrolment collapsed. No one applied to 28 out of the 68 theological schools of Spain in 2002/03. Last year, there were only 606 students in Slovakia's seven Roman Catholic theological schools, and fewer and fewer applications are being received every year. Four theological schools in England and Wales ordained 48 priests in the year prior to the report, while in the preceding five years the number of theological students in Catholic Belgium had halved to just 26. In 2002, 111 priests were ordained in France, which has a population of over sixty million. Indeed, the number of French theological students decreased by 30% between 1993 and 2003, and the statistics for Switzerland were no less alarming: no one had applied to enrol in Catholic seminaries in Geneva, Fribourg or Lausanne by the start of last year. Out of all the European countries with strong Catholic traditions, Italy and Poland alone had seen an increasing number of theological students and ordained priests.

    These ominous figures raise suspicions that the Vatican regards Russia as vast land ready for cultivation in an effort to overcome its European crisis. In view of the figures, it would be entirely appropriate to ask the Catholic hierarchy: "What makes you so sure of missionary success in Russia when you cannot attract the young to the Church in your homeland?" The statistics for the Russian Orthodox Church stand in stark contrast. In 1988, it had a mere 68 eparchies, close on seventy bishops and just over 7,000 priests, 21 monasteries, three theological schools and two academies. Now, it has more than 130 eparchies, over 150 bishops, 16,000 parishes with an approximate 20,000 priests, and more than 600 monasteries. Theological education is offered in five theological academies, 33 seminaries, institutes and universities, and many schools. About two hundred graduates leave Moscow theological schools alone every year, the majority of whom are later ordained.

    The Russian Orthodox Church, therefore, has no reason at all to fear the Roman Catholic as a formidable rival, as the Vatican's representatives often say (see, for example, an interview with the Italian-based daily, l'Avvenire, on March 18, 2002 given by Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, Metropolitan of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia). The Roman Catholic Church is really our Sister Church, and we Russians would like her to take thorough stock of the situation, and regard her sister in a genuinely Christian way. The Russian Orthodox Church is now improving after the great trials it underwent in the seventy years of a godless regime. In the past fifteen years it has proved its viability and demonstrated its enormous potential. It would be far more reasonable for the two largest Christian churches to join hands, and together show Christ to the secular world. It, however, does not take beautiful words of friendship to put an end to confrontation, but practical work to prove that the Vatican is really intent on improving the situation.

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