A Walk By Night

Noon arrival in Moscow. Midnight visit to the Russian Orthodox Church of Our Lady, Joy of All Who Sorrow, a few steps from the Kremlin…

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Moscow


“The starry belltower, haven from sin,
The stones of the marble floor, polished by kisses…” —Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), Poem about Moscow 2

Why Russia?

I am in Russia — not Rome. Why?

Because, born in the middle of the 20th century, no country has seemed more mysterious, more romantic, and, yes, more vaguely sinister, to me than Russia: Holy Russia, cultured Russia, the Russia of the Czars, of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Rachmaninoff, of Lenin and Stalin, and now of Putin and Medvedev, the Russia which was Russia, and then was the USSR for 70 years, and is now Russia once again.

As children in America, we were given a double image of Russia: Russia the communist stronghold, where God was prohibited as “the opiate of the people” and religious believers were persecuted and sent to work camps to freeze and die; and Russia as the “House of Mary,” the nation with more chapels dedicated to the Mother of God than all the other countries in the world put together, the nation therefore cherished by Mary, the nation whose soul and spirit would one day return to faith, and in so doing, bring a time of peace to the whole world. And this, I was told as a boy, was part of the meaning of the mysterious message of Fatima, which we were told was a message from Mary herself, to little children, chosen to hear it because their elders no longer had ears to hear.

And so I always wished to visit here, to see for myself, if there was faith in this country, and, if so, of what kind.

A Walk in Moscow at Midnight

I traveled to Russia with a colleague, Daniel Schmidt of the Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We landed in Moscow a little after noon today, made our way through the airport passport control, and were met by a driver sent to pick us up by Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev (photo), 42, the “Foreign Minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church, our host. The driver’s name was Raphael.

Raphael took us to the Danilovsky Monastery, where we are the guests of the Russian Orthodox Church — a Church which dates to the year 988 AD, when Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity, and which since that year has been one of the constituent elements of the Russian identity and soul. (I am writing now, at four in the morning, from the lobby of the monastery hotel.)

After resting an hour, we were picked up by an old friend, Leonid Sevastianov, one of Alfeyev’s assistants, and brought to a restaurant where we had dinner with Archbishop Hilarion, Leonid, Alexei Puzakov, the conductor of the Tretyakov Gallery choir, and Vadim Yakunin, a benefactor of the Russian Orthodox Church, and a co-founder with Alfeyev of the St. Gregory Foundation, set up to support Russian Orthodox cultural and religious activity, sometimes in conjunction with Roman Catholics — one of the reasons I am here.

Alfeyev has been quite busy for half a year, since his nomination in April to his post, head of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has made him the second most prominent figure in the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy after Patriarch Kirill himself. Alfeyev was in Rome in September to meet with Pope Benedict XVI. He will be traveling to France this weekend, then to China next week, then to other countries.

“I spend 80% of my time now on the road,” he tells me.

I have worked with Alfeyev in recent years to bring concerts of Russian Orthodox music to Rome, Washington, New York, and Boston. The music, composed by Alfeyev himself and performed by Russian orchestras and choirs, includes a Passion According to St. Matthew — an extremely moving interpretation of Christ’s Passion — and a Christmas Oratorio — an astonishingly joyous celebration of Christ’s birth. (In fact, we have DVDs of these concerts available for purchase from our website.)

The goal of this “concert work” was to try to help to “bridge the gap” between Catholics and the Orthodox by means of cultural collaboration, in the hope of hastening the time of closer doctrinal and ecclesial relations between Catholics and the Orthodox worldwide.

And a second reason for my visit to Moscow, in addition to discussing future collaboration with the St. Gregory Foundation, is to attend another Russian concert here tomorrow night.

Meeting with Benedict

Our dinner passed quickly. I asked Alfeyev how his meeting with the Pope had gone. “Very well,” he said.

“I had been told that we would only have perhaps ten minutes together, but the meeting went on for one hour,” Alfeyev said. “We spoke in English. The Pope speaks perfect English.”

Alfeyev also speaks excellent English, as he studied theology and Church history for four years at Oxford in England.

Here is a very brief but interesting link, worth visiting, of a YouTube video showing moments of Alfeyev’s meeting with Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer palace, on September 18, just seven weeks ago:

Benedict XVI receives Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcigMHM8914

As for the content of that meeting, Hilarion said he could not reveal particulars.

But Interfax has reported that “Archbishop Hilarion highlighted the importance of mutual testimony by Orthodox and Catholic believers of traditional Christian values before the secular world. He noted the identical views of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches on such matters as family, maternity, demographic crisis, euthanasia, and many other ethical problems.”

In short, what Hilarion is working on is a worldwide “alliance” between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.

And that is another reason I am in Moscow: because I am persuaded that the Pope’s recent decision to offer “ordinariates” to Anglicans as a way to return to union with Rome may presage an offer to the Orthodox Churches of equally historic importance.

The Icon of Kazan

Hilarion has often spoken of the suffering of believers under the rule of the Soviet regime.

Just three days ago, on November 8, 2009, Hilarion was in the Russian city of Mtsensk (photo) to bring there the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God found by a German soldier in the ruined house in 1943 and returned to the Russian Orthodox Church this year.

Hilarion on Noember 8 told the story of the icon and its return to Russia. “I received the Mtsensk icon from the German Catholics, and today you are receiving it to return it to the place of its abiding. May this holy icon remind us of the tragic past of our Fatherland and be, at the same time, a source of solace, joy, and hope for a better tomorrow. Let us pray to the Mother of God beseeching Her to protect our homeland from any evil and lead us to the Heavenly Fatherland. Take this icon, Vladyka, and may it keep the flock entrusted to your care.”

No doubt, Catholics in Russia have also suffered greatly, and I have mentioned this to Hilarion on a number of occasions.

It is my conviction that the shared suffering of Catholics and Orthodox will soon persuade us that we have more in common than what separates us.

Interview with Hilarion

Here is an interview I did with Hilarion four years ago, on the day Pope Benedict was enthroned as Pope, April 24, 2005. The interview sets forth Hilarion’s vision for this Catholic-Orthodox “alliance.”

What are your hopes for the new pontificate?

Hilarion: As a Russian Orthodox bishop, I hope, first of all, that the new pontificate will be marked by a breakthrough in relations between the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Churches, and that a meeting of the Pope of Rome with the Patriarch of Moscow does take place. This meeting must be preceded by concrete steps in the direction of a better mutual understanding, and by careful elaboration of a common position on major dividing issues.

I hope, next, that there will be a general amelioration in the relations between the Catholic Church and the world Orthodoxy, and that the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission resumes its work after a five-year pause, or that a new commission for bilateral dialogue is formed in order to discuss Uniatism, primacy and other theological and ecclesiological questions which still divide our churches.

As far as the Catholic Church as such is concerned, I hope that it will continue to preserve its traditional social and moral teaching without surrendering to pressures from the ‘progressive’ groups that demand the ordination of women, the approval of the so-called ‘same-sex marriages,’ abortion, contraception, euthanasia, etc. There is no doubt that Benedict XVI, who has already made his positions on these issues clear, will continue to oppose such groups, which exist both within the Catholic Church and outside it.

I also hope that the Catholic Church will continue to combat liberalism, secularism and relativism both in Europe and outside it. Just two days before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, the then Cardinal Ratzinger addressed his fellow cardinals with a sermon which, according to some journalists, broke like a thunderclap. ‘We are moving,’ he said, toward ‘a dictatorship of relativism… that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one’s own ego and one’s own desires as the final measure.’ A sermon on the eve of the conclave was meant to be programmatic, and it is clear that the war against relativism which Cardinal Ratzinger declared did not scare the other cardinals: on the contrary, by electing him as Pope they expressed their readiness to join him in this noble, but extremely painful and difficult combat.

In order for this combat to be more inclusive, I have recently suggested that a European Catholic-Orthodox Alliance be formed. This alliance may enable European Catholics and Orthodox to fight together against secularism, liberalism and relativism prevailing in modern Europe, may help them to speak with one voice in addressing secular society, may provide for them an ample space where they will discuss modern issues and come to common positions. The social and ethical teachings of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are extremely close, in many cases practically identical. I have had a chance to compare the ‘Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,’ published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2004, with the ‘Bases of the Social Doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church,’ approved by the Bishops’ Council of the Moscow Patriarchate in 2000. There are so many striking similarities and so little difference. Why, then, should we not be able to reveal our unity on all these major issues urbi et orbi?

How does this proposed alliance differ from the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission that you have already mentioned?

Hilarion: It is meant to be something completely different. The commission must be concentrated on what divides us, while the alliance should explore, clarify and then publicly announce the things on which we are united. The commission will be concentrated on the matters of doctrine and ecclesiology, while the alliance should be centred on social and moral issues. The commission will continue the internal Catholic-Orthodox debate, which has already lasted for many centuries, while the alliance should enable us, without necessarily overcoming our internal problems, to form a common front to defend Christianity as such against everything that may challenge it now or in the future.

I was the sole representative of the Moscow Patriarchate at the last session of the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission, which took place in Baltimore in 2000, and I remember how difficult the discussion on the issue of Uniatism was. There was so much frustration, disappointment and bitterness on both sides that not only no agreement was reached, but even the decision on whether the work of the commission would ever be resumed was not taken.

Even if resumed, the work of the Joint Commission will not be an easy one and is likely to continue for many years to come. My fear, however, is that by concentrating exclusively on the dividing issues, such as Uniatism, proselytism and primacy, we are likely to lose precious time that could be used for a common witness to the secularized world. Europe, in particular, has so rapidly dechristianized that urgent action is needed in order to save it from losing its centuries-old Christian identity.

This is precisely why I propose that, parallel to and independently from the Joint Commission, a European Catholic-Orthodox Alliance should be formed in order for the official representatives of the two churches to be able to elaborate a common position, in particular, on all major social and ethical issues. The two churches can speak with one voice, and there can be a united Catholic-Orthodox response to the challenges of secularism, liberalism and relativism. If necessary, some other issues of mutual interest could be a subject of discussion within the framework of the alliance with the view of presenting a unified position on them.

Why should Protestants be excluded from your proposed alliance?

Hilarion: In the struggle against relativism the Roman Catholic Church takes an uncompromising stand, but by doing so it further distances itself from Protestants, whose positions are in most cases much more in tune with modern developments. Protestants are, therefore, rather unlikely allies in this struggle. Moreover, there already exist many forums, organizations and agencies promoting the dialogue between Catholics and Protestants on social issues. There are also Protestant-Orthodox forums, such as the Conference of European Churches. What is almost entirely lacking in Europe is any space for a Catholic-Orthodox dialogue on social and ethical issues, while this dialogue would be so timely and so vital.

The rationale behind my proposal is the following: our churches are on their way to unity, but one has to be realistic and understand that it will probably take decades, if not centuries, before this unity is realized. In the meantime we desperately need to address the world with a united voice. Without being one Church, can we act as one Church? Can we present ourselves to the outside world as a unified structure, as an alliance? I am convinced that we can, and that by doing so we may become much stronger.

Why, then, a European alliance and not a world alliance?

Hilarion: Firstly, because I believe that it is in Europe that the most deadly battles between Christianity and relativism are going to take place in the nearest future. It is in Europe that the onslaught of militant secularism against religion takes the most aggressive forms. It is Europe that most obsessively denies its Christian heritage. It is in Europe that crucifixes are taken away from schools, religious symbols are banned from public places, and Christianity becomes an object of constant criticism, outrage and mockery. It is in Europe that a profound demographic crisis affected Christian population, threatening its very survival. Not that these processes do not take place in other parts of the world, but it is in Europe that they become so stunningly evident.

Secondly, in Europe there is a certain numerical balance between Catholics and Orthodox: 280 million of the former against 210 million of the latter. In some other parts of the world (like, for example, South America) the former outnumber the latter to such a degree that no dialogue on an equal footing is feasible.

How, in concrete terms, do you see such an alliance organized? Who should take the initiative? Who will take part? What kind of structure do you envisage?

Hilarion: It would be ideal if the initiative comes from the top, e.g., from the Pontiff, or from the leadership of the Orthodox Churches, or it could be a joint initiative. The important thing is that it should be an official proposal, and that the official representatives of the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches take part. There are already quite a number of ‘grass-root’ initiatives, various discussion groups on the level of clergy and laity, but until something is done on the official level, I do not think we may speak about any type of real alliance.

As far as the structure is concerned, it should be developed by the Churches themselves. The Catholic side may consist, for example, of representatives of the European Bishops’ Conferences, while the Orthodox side may consist of the representatives of all Local Autocephalous Churches that are present in Europe. ComECE emerges as the most obvious partner to the Orthodox, if such a structure is taken as a basis. One also has to define whether we are speaking about the EU or about Europe in general. I would personally advocate the latter option, in which case ComECE may be enlarged by representatives of the Bishops’ Conferences from non-EU countries.

Another type of structure is when the Catholic side consists of those people nominated by the Curia, while the Orthodox of those nominated by each Local Church. This was precisely how the Joint Commission was formed and this, I believe, was one of the reasons for its failure. A model based on local participation seems to me to be more appropriate.

I also believe that the Oriental Orthodox Churches should from the very beginning be a part of the alliance on behalf of the Orthodox family. There is no Eucharistic communion between the Eastern and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, but their spirituality and ethos, as well as their social and moral teachings are quite identical. Moreover, in an ecumenical context the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches have already proved to be able to act as one Orthodox family.

Suppose such an alliance is formed, what issues should it address?
Hilarion: Apart from the issues of militant secularism, liberalism and relativism, which I already listed, it should, in my view, concentrate on various aspects of family and sexual ethics, as well as on bioethical questions. The Catholic Church has already made its official position on family, marriage, abortion, contraception, euthanasia, cloning etc. known to the world, so have some Orthodox Churches, notably the Russian Orthodox Church in its ‘Bases of the Social Conception.’ But where is a united position?

I believe that the modern battle between traditional Christianity (by which I mean primarily the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches) on the one hand and secularism, liberalism and relativism on the other is primarily centered round the question of values. It is not a theological argument, because it is not the existence of God that is debated: it is the existence of an absolute moral norm, on which human life should be founded, that is put into question. The contest has an anthropological character, and it is the present and future of humanity that is at stake.

By defending life, marriage and procreation, by struggling against legalization of contraception, abortion and euthanasia, against recognition of homosexual unions as equal to marital ones, against libertinage in all forms, Catholics and Orthodox are engaged in a battle for survival of the European civilization, of European peoples, of Europe as such. Let us unite our efforts and form a common front of traditional Christianity in order to protect Europe from being irrevocably devoured by secularism, liberalism and relativism.

“Do you want to see my church?”

At the end of the evening, Hilarion asked us if we would like to go see his church, the Church of Our Lady, Joy of All Who Sorrow.

We said we would be delighted to go, though we were concerned that it might be too late, as it was almost midnight.

“It’s never too late to go to church,” Hilarion said.

And so we went through the streets of Moscow in the grey evening, and just before midnight reached his church. (Photo, Alfeyev this evening walking ahead of me toward his church.)

Alfeyev had to call the church guardian to open the gate for him, and we went in.

On these grounds, he wishes to construct an academy for theologians, a theological school for Russian Orthodoxy.

The location is remarkable, only about a five-minute walk from Red Square.

I asked Alfeyev to show me how far away it was, and we ducked around a corner. “There is St. Basil’s Cathedral,” he said, pointing to onion domes at the end of the street, in the gap between two rows of buildings. “Red Square is just there.”

I snapped a photo (see below) but it was dark so you can hardly see St. Basil’s, but it is there at the end of the street.

We then went inside the church.

Hilarion venerated an icon of Our Lady, Joy of All Who Sorrow, and invited us to do so as well. “This is a wonder-working icon,” he said. “It is one of the most famous of all Russia.”

In Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christianity, “Joy of all who Sorrow” (Russian: ???? ????????? ???????) is a title given to the Theotokos (Mary, the mother of Jesus). Many Orthodox parishes are named “Joy of all who Sorrow” and the specific commemoration of the Joy of all who Sorrow is on July 23, on Orthodox calendars.

Then Hilarion brought us to the choir, where I snapped a photo of him with Dan and Alexei Puzakov, the choir director (below) just as the clock struck twelve.

Outside, I took one more photo of Hilarion, before we left him. It was after midnight in Moscow.

Mary’s Sorrow

The sorrowful, grieving Mother of God was the subject of visions by some medieval mystics. One such mystic was Margery Kempe, a contemporary of Julian of Norwich.

One Palm Sunday in the early 1400s, when meditating in front of a crucifix during Mass, Margery saw the events leading to Christ’s crucifixion quite vividly.
“Then she beheld, in the sight of her soul, our blissful Lord Christ Jesus coming towards His Passion, and before He went, He knelt down and received His Mother’s blessing. Then she saw His Mother falling down in a swoon before her Son, saying to Him, ‘Alas, my dear son, how shall I suffer this sorrow, and have no joy in all this world but you alone? Ah, dear son, if you will die at any event, let me die before you, and let me never suffer this day of sorrow, for I may never bear this sorrow that I shall have for your death. I wish, son, that I might suffer death for you, so that you should not die — if man’s soul might so be saved. Now, dear son, if you have no pity for yourself, have pity on your mother, for you very well know that no man can comfort me in all this world but you alone.’

“Then Our Lord took up his mother in his arms and kissed her very sweetly, and said to her, ‘Ah, blessed mother, be cheered and comforted, for I have very often told you that I must suffer death, or else no man would be saved, or ever come to bliss. And mother, it is my Father’s will that it be so, and therefore, I pray you, let it be your will also, for my death shall turn for me to great worship, and to great joy and profit for you and all mankind who shall trust in my Passion, and act in accordance with it.

“And therefore, blessed Mother, you must remain here after me, for in you shall rest all the faith of Holy Church, and by your faith Holy Church shall increase in her faith. And therefore I pray you, beloved Mother, cease from your sorrowing, for I will not leave you comfortless. I shall leave John, my cousin, here with you to comfort you instead of me; I shall send my holy angels to comfort you on earth; and I shall comfort you in your soul myself, for mother, you well know I have promised you the bliss of heaven, and that you are sure of.”

Prayer to Mary

O dolorous Mother, take pity upon us who are cast about by the storm of our many sins, extend unto Christ the Lord thy hands that received God, plead our cause before His goodness, asking pardon of our sins, a devout and peaceful life, a happy Christian end and a good defence at His dread judgment seat; so that, saved through thy most effective prayers unto Him, we may inherit the bliss of Paradise and with all the saints sing the glory of the most honourable and majestic name of the Holy Trinity. Amen.

“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)

A Talk by Dr. Robert Moynihan on CD

“The Motu Proprio: Why the Latin Mass? Why Now?”

In order to understand the motu proprio one must understand the history of the Mass. Dr. Moynihan gives a 2000 year history of the Mass in 60 minutes, which is clear and easy to understand. Dr. Moynihan’s explanation covers many questions, like:

– How does the motu proprio overcome some of the confusion since Vatican II?
– Is this the start of the Benedictine Reform?
– The mind of Pope Benedict: How can the Church restore the sense of the presence of God in the Liturgy?

Click here to order

To subscribe to the print edition of the magazine, click here

Facebook Comments