The Church in Russia: hope for the future

| Nick Hagen | October 9, 2014 | 0 Comments

I am witness to an underreported reality in Russia that is much deeper and more fascinating than any political situation.

This summer I have been living in the Russian Far East with a classmate from the American seminary in Rome, working in a diocese that covers an area larger than the entire United States.

Although as an established diocese, the area does not have official “mission” status, the priests, sisters and laity of the Vladivostok region spend many long hours traveling between small parishes that form in converted apartments, closed restaurants, people’s homes and even former barber shops, as well as a few churches that have survived the Soviet era.

My view of the people, culture and local Church has drastically changed during my time here.

For the first week, I was sobered. Despite the incredibly warm welcome by the Catholic community, it was impossible to shake the feeling of powerlessness against a suffocating secular culture. It was difficult to overlook statistics like an 80 percent divorce rate, rampant substance abuse, lots of red tape for the mission’s initiatives and an overall sense that the Church was begrudgingly tolerated.

Then, about a week and a half after landing in Vladivostok, I accompanied the pastor, Father Myron Effing, to his monthly Mass in Lesozavodsk. There, we were introduced to the parishioners at a tea after Mass, and our somber first impressions took a backseat to the hope and triumph bursting through the stories they shared with us.

First, there was Vladimir. After working as a sailor, he has advocated for many families in low-income housing, making sure their documents and permits are in order. His wife runs the pro-life center in their town, which is allowed to be inside the maternity ward of the hospital in order to show expectant mothers that support is available.

Next was Lydia. A poet in her 90s, she has become something of an icon in the town — the grandmother to everyone, always ready with a story or piece of Russian culture to be revived. Little could one tell she had watched her entire immediate family starve to death in a severe famine. Incredibly, she has turned this into generosity.

We also heard the story of the five Vladivostok martyrs — from the very parish we were visiting — who were shot for praying the rosary in the terrible years of the revolution.

These stories changed everything. I began to see, especially through Vladimir, how even one converted Christian makes Christ present to many. This was the reality God
saw. And in God’s eyes, there is always hope.

I saw two examples of hope at the Lesozavodsk summer camp and Far Eastern Catholic Youth Conference. Every year, the tiny Lesozavodsk parish opens its doors to about 50 local children and 20 college-aged American missionaries from the Fellowship Of Catholic University Students to pray, learn and share life together. No matter their circumstances, God is alive in these kids and can protect and love them more than any human being, and that is a cause for hope!

At the young adult conference, we saw many young Russians determined to take a stand to love like Christ: selflessly and generously, even in an atmosphere of self-gratification and denial of responsibility that touches America and Russia alike. These young adults are becoming their country’s leaven by grappling with what it means to love. They are ready to engage every tool available: prayer, psychology, history, leadership, service and, most important, the sacraments.

My American mentality can lead me to evaluate the success of the Church in terms of programs, initiatives, the strength of her public voice, her societal respectability, or her ability to command the obedience of her members. But are these Jesus’ primary terms of success? Or did he base his life on giving real individuals a radical freedom to love, live the Good and know the Truth? And once that becomes our criteria of success, we can see why Christ’s Church has triumphed in Russia: He is there, in the sacraments and in the lives of those baptized into him.

Thus, while I urge you to pray for the peace and holiness of the Church in Russia, know that the attitude there is one of hope and strength, not desperation.

Life is not easy in Russia. Anger and violence (aggravated by alcoholism and drugs) abound, especially in impoverished cities, and many kids are deeply scarred. The Church is often mocked and derided. Father Myron has had many absurd accusations and threats leveled at him with no intention other than hampering his efforts.

And yet, these make the triumph of Christ all the more apparent in the men and women fighting the good fight. Why would we consider cultural disdain discouraging when it was that very persecution that was the mark of hope and cause of rejoicing for the apostles?

I challenge you, as I was challenged, to look through God’s eyes to see the dignity, freedom and greatness of the Russian people, their dedication and hard work for their families and communities, and the hope that remains. This is certainly the mindset of the Church in Russia, and it is the only possible way they could continue their mission to love in a world so desperately craving it.

Hagen is a Theology II student at the St. Paul Seminary. He is studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. His home parish is Holy Family in St. Louis Park.

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