On April 29, I received a note from the widow of my late friend, Dmitry Khafizov. (see my Letter #18, 2021, Friday, April 23: Farewell Dmitry)
Dmitry died on April 21 in Kazan, Russia, at the age of 57.
He was well-known in Kazan and throughout Russia as a man who had spent many years researching the history of what is arguably the most venerated of all Russian icons: the Icon of the Blessed Mother of Kazan. This icon, found in Kazan in 1579, came to be called the “Protection of Russia.” It was venerated by Tsars and simple people for almost 350 years, but it was lost to the country just before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, evidently stolen from a church where it was kept.
Dmitry, almost a century later, because he was born and raised in Kazan, became interested in finding out what had happened to the icon, and began to piece together fragments of its history, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Eventually he came across evidence that the icon, or a very early copy of it (Note: this point is disputed; yet even an early copy of such an icon is regarded by Russian Orthodox believers as worthy of great veneration) had come into the possession of… the Vatican(!).
So when I, editor of a magazine called “Inside the Vatican,” traveled to Kazan in the year 2000 — having heard some part of the story of the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, and wishing to visit that city, but not yet knowing that the icon was in fact being kept in the papal apartments in the Vatican itself — Dmitry greeted me with great warmth. He guided me through his city and took me to the spot where the original icon was found, and I lit a candle in a chapel there.
Dmitry encouraged me to believe that the return to Russia of the icon of Kazan might signify a certain turning point, a certain pivotal shift, in the spiritual history of that nation, and so also, of the world.
So we became friends. And within a few months, we discovered that the icon was being held by John Paul II in the Vatican. And so the great issue became how to return it to Russia. Through an historic trip to Russia by John Paul II, perhaps? Or, if that were not possible… how?
Dmitry’s wife wrote to me (I have left the letter exactly as she wrote it, thinking it is right to do so):
Here is Olga, Dmitry’s wife
Unfortunatly I inform you about death of our dear Dmitry
He is coming to God on wednesday 21 of april
The reason is coronavirus
He told me much about you and you help by returning of icon of Our Lady
And spent nice time with your sons here in Kazan
So it very hard time now for all us his close people
Please pray for his soul
Thank you for all
Kind regards, Olga
I received another letter, a response to my Letter #18 about Dmitry, from a Benedictine monk.
Robert, Once or twice over the years, you’ve responded to me. I read about your friend Dmitry with great interest. To me the most amazing thing about the Kazan icon is John Paul II giving it to the Russians. Amazing because John Paul II was a Polish patriot to the hilt, and yet had a soft heart for the Russians, and gave them the very icon that “led” the Russian troops who took back the Kremlin from the Poles in 1612!
I was happily surprised a few days ago to read a strong appeal for peace in the Donbass from Major Abp. Shevchuk. [Note: head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, an Eastern-rite Church in union with Rome]. I figured Pope Francis maybe had a word with him recently; he’s been speaking over the years as if there was no overthrow of a democratically elected government in Kiev in 2014, followed by west Ukrainian political forces trying to give the misbegotten-borders country a single and anti-Russian identity, against the different sensibility and history of Donbass and especially Crimea. The people at the Union of Orthodox Journalists (“OCU and UGCC call for peace in Donbass: tactical switch or peacekeeping? — UOJ — the Union of Orthodox Journalists”) naturally noticed the sharp turn in Shevchuk’s position (see the link below). In Christ, (name)
This letter makes clear how tense the relations between Russia and the West are at this time. The situation in Ukraine is dangerous. Might the Catholic and Orthodox Churches there play a special role, perhaps becoming a sort of “religious off-ramp” in a situation which might otherwise prove intractable, frozen, blocked, and deadly, as part of a dialogue process leading toward a more just and more lasting peace?
So, in memory of Dmitry and his surviving wife Olga, to honor a simple friendship which has now been interrupted in this world, it seems fitting to move forward now with our new Unitas initiative, which will be officially launched on May 13, 2021.
Unitas means “Unity.”
In the Nicene Creed, Christians profess to believe that it is essential to the Church’s nature that she be “one,” that is, united, unified, one. The Creed in Latin says we believe in: “unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam” (“one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”). [Note: The word “catholic” in this instance means “universal” — so the Church is defined in the Creed to be “one, holy, universal and apostolic.” (link)]
So the commitment to seek unity — despite all the evident risks of theological syncretism or indifferentism, which must never derail our efforts to remain at all times fully Catholic and Orthodox — finds its origin in the Creed itself.
We propose through this Unitas initiative to use the time remaining to us to work for the restoration of unity in three main areas:
(1) unity within the Catholic Church;
(2) unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and
(3) unity between individual souls and God.
The initiative will build upon what we have already been doing for almost 30 years — reporting, analyzing, building bridges of friendship where possible — and we will expand the granting of scholarships, the holding of conferences, the writing of books, the broadcasting of videos, and the hosting of retreats and times of spiritual renewal, both in the West and in the East.
To accomplish all of this, we will be seeking the type of support that an Institute, or Center, or global media operation, might require, over the next five years.
We are seeking 24 “Elders” and 153 “Founding Members,” as well as other donors, to support this work. (Simply write back to me if you would like to discuss this initiative. The emails come directly to me. —RM)
(1) Regarding unity within the Catholic Church:
Centrifugal, divisive, powerful forces seem bent on shattering the unity of the Church. What is to be done?
Decades ago, in college, I met a number of students, Catholics, who said to me: “Well, we are not Roman Catholics, we are American Catholics.” They argued that being “American” was a good thing, that it made them more “open” than rigid, hide-bound “Roman” Catholics could be.
Such conversations remained in my memory and eventually provoked my decision in the 1980s to travel to Rome (there were no virus travel restrictions then) and try to learn something about the central government and history of the Church, which led to the founding of Inside the Vatican magazine several years later.
My intent then was to find a way to show how Rome, the see of Peter (“ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia” — “where Peter is, there is the Church”) — because of Rome’s steadfast, unswerving defense of the depositum fidei(“deposit of the faith”) — is a source and standard and guarantee of unity for all Catholics.
To link America… back to Rome… that was my hope with my new publication, Inside the Vatican magazine.
However, the situation has become somewhat different today, nearly half a century later. We now find ourselves with new problems, new challenges. And a new situation, a situation in which Rome herself has become much more “modern” over recent decades… with all that that implies, both for good and for bad.
We now find ourselves in an “exceptional” time — a “time of exception.”
Two men now wear the papal white robes. Unprecedented.
Bishops and priests in various countries (now especially in Germany) proclaim openly that they will not follow Rome’s instructions or guidelines.
A retired “centrist-conservative” cardinal like Camillo Ruini of Italy can even speak — as he did just recently — of the looming danger of schism. “I hope with all my heart that there is no schism and I pray for this,” Ruini said in an interview published today in Italy. “Pope Francis, on 29 June 2019, addressed a letter ‘to the people of God who are on their way in Germany,’ in which he asks, among other things, to always preserve the sense of the Church and the bond with the universal Church: these words of the Pope offer a precious criterion and orientation. I do not deny, therefore, that there is a risk of schism, but I trust that, with God’s help, it can be overcome.” (link)
In this situation, the issue is not simply to persuade Americans or Germans to remain loyal to Rome; it is to persuade the Romans to remain loyal to themselves…
All of this is occurring precisely at a moment when very powerful secular forces seem persuaded they are now ready to use computer technology, computer chips inserted into human beings, and the artificial intelligence of super-computers, to create, at long last, the “new mankind” which will inhabit a new “earthly paradise.” A world with no thought of any “heaven.”
Precisely at a moment like this, a moment when human nature itself is in question, and the target of manipulation and change, and the transcendent dimension eliminated from our hearts, we ought to remain united.
The threats we face are a grave risk to our freedoms: the freedom of individual men and women, to live and believe as they choose in conscience, and the freedom of the Church herself, to announce the Gospel and to celebrate the mysteries of Christ’s presence, the sacraments which bring Him to us (“libertas Ecclesiae“).
For these reasons, we must be one, we must be united.
(2) Regarding unity with the Orthodox:
Dmitry was Russian Orthodox. We often spoke of the fact that Catholics and Orthodox have been separated since 1054 A.D., for nearly 1,000 years.
Catholics and Orthodox have made various efforts over the centuries to recover our unity. Orthodox have a profound respect for Rome, which was considered the center of all Christianity for 1,000 years. Those many generations left their trace.
We have had a number of successes since 1054, which offer some reason for hope. And yet…
Can we restore the unity of the Church: East and West, Greek and Latin, Orthodox and Catholic?
A different question: Can we afford not to restore our unity?
All of the problems we face separately may be faced more effectively together.
Together, we will have an opportunity to do more, to be more persuasive, to reach more people, to be more fully “universal” and so more completely faithful to the very words of the Creed: “unam, sanctam, catholicam, apostolicam.”
For this reason, we at Inside the Vatican magazine are now pivoting, shifting our focus from reporting on the various groups and orders and movements in the Catholic Church, and on those holding the leadership posts in the Church, to making a conscious effort to overcome, urgently, the divisions, and to find again, insofar as is possible, unity of faith and practice.
We choose this path because we believe the times are perilous, the dangers threatening very serious.
We choose this path because we are persuaded that those who oppose the Gospel of Christ — the “Good News” which speaks of the life, death and resurrection of Christ as the central event in the history of the universe — will make use of any fissures in our unity to divide us further and further, until our witness is compromised, diminished, ineffectual, bears no fruit.
So in these coming days, we will, in memory of Dmitry, and in solidarity with his widow, Olga, in the hope of finding peace in Ukraine, and freedom for the Church in our world, begin our new work for unity.
“Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.“ —Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom (c. 343-407 A.D.)
“I am not asking on behalf of these alone, but also for those who believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one; just as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” —The final prayer of Jesus. He prayed it on the night of the Last Supper. He asked the Father to grant that all of his followers would remain “as one,” since their being one would cause others to believe in Jesus; Gospel of John 17:20-21
“Christ is the Head of the Church, that is to say, of the new humanity in whose heart no sin, no adverse power, can henceforth finally separate man from grace. In Christ, a man’s life can always begin afresh, however burdened with sin… And this work of Christ is valid for the entire assemblage of humanity, even beyond the visible limits of the Church.” —Vladimir Lossky, Russian Orthodox theologian (1903-1958)
Below is a text, published yesterday, for your reflection (link). It concerns Blessed Carlo Acutis, a young Italian boy whose birthday was May 3, yesterday. He would have been 30 years old yesterday, but he died unexpectedly from cancer 15 years ago, in 2006, at the age of 15.
We are entrusting our Unitas project also to the patronage of Blessed Carlo, in the hope that his example of sanctity may inspire many more young people to follow the path that he walked with such joy, a path that led always toward Christ and to Christ.
Above, a photo of Blessed Carlo Acutis (1991-2006). He is a model for many young people all over the world. He would have been 30 years old yesterday, May 3, 2021. He died at the age of 15 in 2006. He is buried in Assisi, Italy
Blessed Carlo Acutis’ 30th birthday celebrated by parishes across world (link)
By Courtney Mares, Catholic News Agency (CNA)
Rome, Italy, May 3, 2021 / 13:00 pm America/Denver (CNA).
Catholic parishes across Italy and as far away as the Philippines celebrated what would have been the 30th birthday of Blessed Carlo Acutis on Monday.
Acutis, who was born on May 3, 1991, became the first millennial to be beatified by Catholic Church in October 2020. The live stream of his beatification Mass in Assisi went viral, with hundreds of thousands of people watching online.
The Diocese of Assisi celebrated the date with a live-stream prayer and reflection at the tomb of Blessed Carlo Acutis with Fr. Carlos Ferriera, rector of the Sanctuary of the Spoliation, where the Blessed is buried, followed by a rosary and Mass offered by Bishop Domenico Sorrentino.
“Today for those who love Blessed Carlo there is the memory of his earthly birthday, but as you know, for the blessed and saints, the true birthday that the Church celebrates is that of death, so his feast will be in October,” Sorrentino said at the Mass.
“But it is also nice to be able to participate in the Eucharist on this day with him, as he would have celebrated his birthday on earth, surely with the Lord, definitely Eucharist, therefore it is nice to be together with him and to experience the Eucharist.”
Young people offered birthday wishes in a collaborative video message posted on Facebook by the Friends of Carlo Acutis Association.
“Ciao, Carlo, I wish you a very happy birthday. I am grateful from my heart for how you helped me to find the salvation of my life and my faith,” a girl said at the start of the video.
A procession took place in the Philippines with a statue of Carlo Acutis as part of the “National Thanksgiving Mass for Blessed Carlo Acutis’ 30th Birthday” at the Chapel of St. Joseph in Bulacan province, with more than 36,000 viewers tuning in to the live stream.
Parishes in Naples, Salerno, Ferentino, Foggia, Salerno, and other parts of Italy are dedicating the day to prayer with relics of Carlo Acutis, as well as Masses, Eucharistic adoration, extra hours of confession, and the rosary.
The archdiocese of Pisa marked the Blessed’s birthday with three days of prayer leading up to May 3 at the Madonna dell’Acqua parish in Cascina, which also hosted a Mass for children and families on Monday night.
As part of its Eucharistic Week, San Vincenzo Ferrer parish temporarily hosted a wooden statue of Acutis that was recently blessed by Pope Francis.
A church in Roncà, outside of Verona, is dedicating a month of prayer for young people, families, and the community through Carlo’s intercession with special evening Masses May 4-27.
A new Catholic youth center named after Carlo Acutis opened in Reggio Calabria at the Holy Family parish in Palmi.
The oratory, which includes a soccer field, was inaugurated with a ribbon-cutting and blessing by Bishop Francesco Milito, who quoted St. John Bosco in his speech.
“In an oratory, three things can never be lacking: the sports field, the theater, and the church,” he said.
Antonia Salzano, the mother of Carlo Acutis, donated a relic of a lock of her son’s hair to the Catholic youth center.
“Carlo entrusted himself to the Eucharist, which he called ‘my highway to heaven,’ and by eating Christ he fed on the source of love. Carlo went to Mass, adoration, and prayed the holy rosary every day. Carlo was beatified thanks to the Eucharist, which each of us has at hand,” she said in a video message sent to the oratory.
“Carlo was quite bad at football, but he loved being with friends,” she added.
Blessed Carlo Acutis was a young Catholic from Italy with a passionate devotion to the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and an aptitude for computer programming.
From the ages of 12 to 14, he designed a website cataloging Eucharistic miracles that have occurred around the world, which he launched in 2005. He died of leukemia a year later at the age of 15, offering his suffering for the pope and the Church.
To mark his 30th birthday, priests and religious around Italy recorded a video message reflecting on what the witness of Carlo has meant to their parishes.
Pope Francis alluded to Carlo Acutis in a message to altar servers gathered at a weekend event in Fatima, Portugal, which took its theme from one of the young Blessed’s favorite quotes: “All are born as originals, but many die as photocopies.”
“You have to find out who you are and develop your personal way of being holy, regardless of what others say and think. To make yourself holy is to become more fully yourself, the one God wanted to dream and create, not a photocopy. Your life must be a prophetic stimulus that inspires others, that leaves a mark on this world, that unique mark that only you can leave,” Pope Francis said, according to Vatican News.