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Moscow, the diocese’s self-reflection. Coming out of the “ghetto” to be missionaries

“The future of our parishes” was the theme addressed in a recent diocesan conference that took stock of the process of reflection and renewal promoted by Archbishop Pezzi. The Vicar General, Father Gorbunov, shared the highlights of the meeting with SIR: a Church that “goes forth”, formation, ecumenical dialogue. There is no shortage of problems, but these are coupled by the will to bear witness to the Gospel in this large Orthodox-majority Country

Al centro, padre Kirill Gorbunov. Nelle altre immagini, alcuni momenti della conferenza svoltasi a Vilnius (foto Olga Galkina)

The Archdiocese of Moscow – three areas of pastoral ministry, 65 parishes altogether – is determined to undergo a process of renewal and rediscovery. Rebuilt from the ashes of communism (two Churches left standing in 1991), it came to new life and experienced a period of “explosive growth.” But now it is going through a period of “stagnation.” Archbishop Paolo Pezzi therefore launched a process of reflection last fall which, through a questionnaire distributed in parishes and religious communities, produced the working document that was the subject of the VI Pastoral Conference on the theme “The future of our parishes.” (Vilnius, June 18-21). In the light of what has emerged, “the archbishop will draft the post-conference exhortation, which will indicate the path for the future”, Father Kirill Gorbunov, Vicar of the Archdiocese and member of the group that prepared the “instrumentum laboris”, told SIR.

What was the outcome of the Conference in Vilnius?
It was a very fruitful Conference that represented a step of the process initiated by the Archbishop. Its purpose is to extend the debate to the parishes. In some it has already made a decisive start, with a great deal of involvement, in others it has not. Ecclesial activity is also carried out through documents. Some consider it a bureaucratic procedure, but it is an effective way of identifying and addressing current problems, opinions on what should be done. It helps develop a sense of self-awareness for our local Church and encourages the discussion that will take place in each parish, involving the parish priest, and perhaps even informally, in our digital time, through social media.

Which future priorities have emerged from the Conference?
The first is probably the awareness that the whole Church must move forward: from an attitude of self-preservation to a mode of evangelization. This is true for the Church in general and for us too: to move from a comfortable existence in what has been built throughout the years to a mode that takes on the risk of evangelization and mission. We know that when people go to church every Sunday, this can easily slip into the mere fulfilment of a spiritual need. There is little attention to the fact that we represent this great, beautiful, significant tradition by which God reveals Himself to modern man. People have a desperate need and also the right to learn about it.

Thus the faithful should view themselves as missionaries, as tools through which God reveals himself to modern man. The parish must be an environment that nourishes this missionary awareness: we preserve only what we share. The second point that emerged concerns responsibility: the Catholic Church in Russia was rebuilt with money generously donated by other countries and for many this has become the modus operandi of the Church, a poor woman who cannot sustain herself without the money that is given by others.

This must change because it is unhealthy for growth, it prevents people from taking practical responsibility for the structures and activities of the parish. To accept this responsibility it is necessary to feel responsible for important things inside the Church, in a spirit of sharing and with great transparency, also openly discussing financial matters. We must attempt to initiate this journey…

The document also states that some parishes refused to participate in this process. How is the situation today?
In some cases it was a communication problem. In others it was believed that was had been done so far was being looked down upon. In many parishes there is a widespread feeling that everything is going fine and there is no need to change anything. Others felt that it was a formal discussion with no concrete outcome. But as the Archbishop said in his opening remarks in Vilnius, these answers highlight the need for greater communication and cooperation among the various realities of the diocese to ensure that the renewal is effective.

Did the Conference address the relationship between the Church and the social and political context in Russia? The document highlighted the risk for the Church to be confined in a “ghetto”…
The older generation of Orthodox Catholics is still afraid of suffering for their Catholic identity, a fear that is not easily overcome. Young people have no such experience, but especially in smaller towns they are concerned that revealing their religious beliefs could harm their professional careers, that it could be misunderstood. We have celebrities in Russia who are Catholic, but they never speak openly about their being Catholic, and this says a lot about how people feel. This mentality will have to be overcome. Society is also very poorly informed about Catholic identity and there is also a lot of misinformation. For example the fact that the translation of Our Father prayer has been changed was given great emphasis here, and in negative terms: what can you expect from Catholics if they even change the words of the prayer recited by Jesus? It’s widely believed that the Church is not brave enough to “go forth”, to let herself be involved in initiatives organised by others, joining the charity or educational activities promoted by the Orthodox Church or by other religious communities.

Of course it should be remembered that Catholic believers amount to less than 1% and the Church doesn’t have the resources for a large-scale involvement, but we must find the way for our significant participation in society.

Indeed, we also need people who are prepared to apply the social thought of the Church to topical political events. We are looking forward to a new generation of brave and knowledgeable Catholic intelligentsia.

Which generation do you belong to?
I am 46 years old, and having grown up in the Soviet Union I feel I am a person whose conscience was shaped by that totalitarian mentality. Some people consider this to be a feature not only of the “Soviet generation”, but that is was present even before, under the Tsarist empire. Anton Chekhov said that “the meaning of our life is to squeeze the slave out of ourselves, drop by drop”. This is the real problem experienced by many people today. In fact, younger people are more open.

What is the state of the relations with the Orthodox Church at local level?
It must be said that unfortunately, although relations at the highest levels have grown significantly over the last decade, reaching a peak with the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, not much is happening at grassroots level. In many parishes, it is restricted to inviting a few Orthodox faithful during the week of prayer for Christian unity. This is largely due to the attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church, marked by different opinions on the Catholic Church among the faithful and the clergy, with many of them being critical. But we have to admit that we don’t go out enough. When I was 17 years old, the son of a completely atheist family, I converted to the Catholic Church, the ecumenical experience seemed utterly essential to our Catholic identity. Now there is practically no interest in ecumenical dialogue, coupled by disappointment. This is partly true; we have not seen many successes in recent years, although the personal aspect is the most significant, not the institutional or theological one. If we are not able to recite liturgical prayers together we can create small discussion groups, joint charity initiatives, formation programs for non-believers, participate together in initiatives promoted by public authorities. In Moscow we see some new vitality, in the smaller cities not yet. People are sometimes very confused and they also need in-depth explanations as to our relations with the Orthodox Church, or the level of unity among us. We must explain to them that the Orthodox Church is for us a true Church, with a true episcopate, a true clergy, a true Eucharist: it’s a sister Church.


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