One of the hidden stories of this pontificate: Russian Orthodox opera diva Svetlana Kasyan with her husband, Leonid Sevastianov, her daughter, Natalya, and Pope Francis, in the Domus Santa Marta in Rome, where the Pope lives. Four days ago, on December 17 — the Pope’s 85th birthday — Svetlana gave to Francis as a birthday gift a CD of a collection of songs from many countries which she sang for the Pope in honor of his encyclical Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers all”). Svetlana also invited the Pope to visit their family in Moscow, Russia. In recent weeks, there have been indications that a papal trip to Russia at some time in the future might not be impossible…
Letter #187, 2021, Tuesday, December 21: Orthodox
Here we share several items which are of significance in regard to Catholic-Orthodox relations.
As we have stated on many occasions in the past, we are committed to working for better relations between Catholics and Orthodox in view of eventual closer union between the Churches, which were united for more than 1,000 years (up until 1054 A.D., the year of the Great Schism), and have now been divided for almost 1,000 years (1054-2021 A.D., or 967 years.
Our hope is to do everything we can before 2054 (which would be the 1,000th year of the schism) to try to hasten the day of closer relations, working together now in a kind of “strategic alliance” in support of common projects and initiatives where we share convictions due to our common Christian faith, while recognizing that work and study and prayer will continue to proceed in search of a way to overcome the divisions that remain.
To this end, we publish news from time to time about the Orthodox world, and we pray for our Orthodox brothers and sisters at all times and without ceasing.
Below, we publish the just-released Christmas message of Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. We have met with Bartholomew on several occasions over the years. We thank him for kindly receiving us, allowing us to explain our hope and vision to him, and we pray for his health and intentions, and for all the Orthodox in this Christmas season.
But first, we note the extraordinary initiative of Svetlana Kasyan, 37, the Russian Orthodox opera soprano who is also an old friend (we worked together for a November 2013 “Concert for Peace” in Rome, a few months after the election of Pope Francis on March 13, 2013, to thank the Pope for his day-long “Prayer for Peace in Syria” on September 7, 2013. At that time, we were all invited to stay at the Domus Santa Marta with the Pope, and Svetlana on that occasion struck up a friendship with Pope Francis, who has a great appreciation for opera.
Svetlana is the wife of Leonid Sevastianov, also an old friend and a collaborator in our Unitas project, which works globally for greater Church unity (and which now is also co-sponsoring the nascent Global Prayer and Rosary Campaign for the Protection of the Virgin Mary in these coming months). Leonid is the son of the former head of the Old Believer community of Russia, and has now himself been elected the leader of Russia’s Old Believer community.
In Russia four days ago, Svetlana Kasyan released an album titled “Fratelli Tutti” (“All Brothers”) — the title also of Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical on “fraternity and social friendships” — on Francis’ 85th birthday, December 17.
Here is a link to her Instagram post on that occasion. She wrote: “Today is 85th Birthday of His Holiness, Pope Francis. I dedicate to Him my first album Fratelli tutti, we are all brothers and waiting for Him in Russia. Buon Compleanno, Santo Padre (“Happy Birthday, Holy Father“).
Svetlana is a Russian Orthodox singer whose path to success in the opera world has been stunning, all the while remaining a faithful and vocal Christian.
As she says, “I am from a poor family and I know what hunger is and what it means to walk in old clothes. I have worked since the age of 11, trading sandals and carrots in the market… Mom divided the bread into quarters between me, brother, and grandmother. Strangers brought us food, clothes, and other items. It was significant aid, and it forever became engraved in my memory.”
Svetlana gained fame after playing in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca in Italy. She noted that her art is not a tribute to vanity but a service to God and people; her goal is to reveal to the world the beauty of the Divine.
In the Instagram post on the day of her album’s release, she said: “My special thanks to my humble friends who made this album possible!”
Here is an image of the album cover, with the Russian words explaining that Svetlana prepared the album for the “Rimsky Papa” — the Pope of Rome.
Svetlana Kasyan with Pope Francis in 2019 in the Domus Santa Marta (link)
This is how the Orthodox Times printed the Christmas message of Bartholomew, which was just published earlier today, December 21:
Ecumenical Patriarch: We encourage all faithful to be vaccinated (link)
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in his Christmas message did not fail to talk about the pandemic that continues to afflict humanity as he paternally urged all believers to be vaccinated.
By Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew,
Brother concelebrants and blessed children,
Having once again arrived at the splendid feast of the Nativity in the flesh of our Savior Christ, who visited us from the heights, we glorify with psalms and hymns His all-heavenly name. The Incarnation of the pre-eternal Word of God is “the crowning of our salvation,” the “eternal mystery” of divine-human communion that transcends all reason. As St. Maximus the Confessor says so eloquently, “as a loving God, He truly became human assuming the essence of humankind, although the manner in which He became human will always remain ineffable; He became human in a manner that transcends humanity.”
The divine Incarnation, along with the manifestation of the truth about God also reveals the truth and ultimate destination of man, our deification by grace. St. Nicholas Cabasilas proclaims so theologically that Christ “is the first and only One to show us the true and perfect man.” Since that time, anyone who honors God must also honor man, and whoever undermines man also dishonors God, who assumed our nature. In Christ, speaking theologically about God we speak at the same time about man. The incarnate Divine Economy definitively abolishes the image of God as tyrannical, punitive, and adversary to man. Christ is everywhere, always and in all things the denial of man and the defender of human freedom. The life of the Church, as the flesh assumed by the incarnate Son and Word of God, represents, expresses, and serves this all-saving mystery of divine-humanity.
With this “other fashioning” of man and renewal of all creation in Christ as its banner, the Church today offers the good witness before every development that threatens the sacredness of the human person and the integrity of creation. It lives and preaches the truth of authentic spiritual life and the culture of love and solidarity. Offering testimony “about the hope that lies within us” (1 Pet 3.15), the Church does not in any way regard contemporary civilization as another sinful Nineveh by invoking like Jonah the divine wrath on it and its abolition, but rather the Church struggles for the culture’s transformation in Christ. In our age, we need pastoral imagination, dialogue and not argumentation, participation and not abstention, specific deeds and not abstract theory, creative reception, and not general rejection. All these do not function at the expense of our spirituality and liturgical life, but reveal the inviolable unity of what we call the “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions of the Church’s presence and witness. Faithfulness to the tradition of the Church is not entrapment to the past, but employment of the experience of the past in a creative way for the present.
In this past year, too, the pandemic of the Covid-19 coronavirus has troubled humankind. We give glory to the God of mercy, who strengthened the specialists and scientists to develop effective vaccines and other medications in order to confront this crisis, and we encourage all faithful who have yet to be vaccinated to do so and everyone to adhere to the protective measures by the health authorities. Science, to the extent that operates as a minister of man, is a priceless gift by God. We must gratefully accept this gift and not be misled by irresponsible voices of ignorant and self-proclaimed as representatives of God and of the authentic faith “spiritual advisors,” who, nevertheless, lamentably invalidate themselves through the absence of love for their brethren, whose lives they expose to grave danger.
Most honorable brothers and dearly beloved children,
With unshakable conviction that the life of each of us and the journey of all humanity is directed by the God of wisdom and love, we look forward to a happy 2022, which despite external factors and developments will be for every one a year of salvation, inasmuch as during its course as well, the movement of history is guided by Christ, who loves mankind and cares for all things, “who desires that all people will be saved and come to the knowledge of truth.” (1 Tm 2.4)
With God’s will, during the upcoming Holy and Great Week, we shall hold the service of the Blessing of the Holy Chrism in our venerable Center. We regard it as a uniquely divine gift to our Modesty that we shall be deemed worthy to preside over this festive and moving rite for the fourth time in our humble Patriarchal ministry. Glory to God for all things!
With these sentiments, respectfully worshiping the child Jesus born in Bethlehem, we orient our thought to our Christian brothers there and we pray for the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of all those residing in the Holy Land.
In this spirit, we wish to all of you, those near and afar, a blessed Twelvetide, as well as a healthy, fruitful in good deeds and filled with divine gifts new year in the Lord’s favor, to Whom belong the glory and might to the endless ages. Amen.
+Bartholomew of Constantinople
Fervent supplicant of all before God
 Maximus the Confessor, Varia, On Virtue and Evil, Century I, 12. PG 90. 1184.
 Nicholas Cabassilas, On the Life in Christ. PG 150. 680–681.
 See John Chrysostom, Homily before Exile. PG 52. 429.
Metropolitan Hilarion: The threat to the presence of Christians in the Holy Land cannot but cause concern to the Russian Church (link)
In an interview given to RIA Novosti news agency Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, spoke about the Statement on the current threat to the Christian presence in the Holy Land made by the heads of Local Churches of Jerusalem.
Recently an action initiated by Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem aimed at protecting the Christian presence in the Holy Land was held in Jerusalem. A few days after, the heads of the Christian Churches of Jerusalem issued a statement. What is the reason for this concern?
Metropolitan Hilarion: Jerusalem is a unique city which is held sacred by the three religions. Many wars had been fought for centuries to have it; there had been a lot of struggle and enmity. No one has won a victory, but this complicated process has resulted in the establishment of a certain balance of forces. It has been achieved through suffering of many generations, and its upsetting may have grave consequences.
Jerusalem is historically divided into the Christian, the Muslim and the Jewish quarters. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem has been trying for many years to contest the unlawful purchase by a radical group of the Patriarchate’s property located by the Jaffa Gate in the Christian quarter. Actually, we are talking not only about an eventual loss of unrestricted access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the road to which starts from the Jaffa Gate, but also about the threat to the Christian presence in Jerusalem. This is a very dangerous tendency that may lead to the loss of the status quo and step-by-step ousting of Christians from the city which is the cradle of Christianity. This is the problem that not only the Orthodox, but all Christians are facing. That is why the heads of all Christian Churches in the Holy Land have sided with His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos.
Can the changes and threats you have named affect Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church?
Hilarion: The Church of Jerusalem and the Russian Church are near each other in the diptych, occupying the fourth and the fifth places respectively, but this does not explain our nearness; we are near because Russia has always deeply revered the Church of Jerusalem as the mother of all Churches since it is the first Christian Church founded in Jerusalem. Russia has always venerated the holy places associated with the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church of Jerusalem has been a diligent custodian of these holy places for centuries.
The tradition of pilgrimage to the Holy Land appeared in Russia right after the adoption of Christianity. During many centuries our ancestors have been longing to make their way into Jerusalem to worship at the holy sites and venerate the Holy Sepulchre. The rulers of Russia have always considered it their duty to help preserve Christian shrines.
The current threat to the Christian presence in the Holy Land cannot but cause concern to the Russian Church. We fully share anxiety of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and join it in calling the Israeli authorities to do all in their power to protect the Christian community of Jerusalem and respond to the request of the church leaders in the Holy Land to create a special Christian heritage zone in Old City for the sake of preserving the unique character of the Christian quarter.