“We took it as a sign…”

The Russian Orthodox have set up a vehicle to work with Catholics, Protestants and others to promote traditional Christian values in Europe. It’s name: The St. Gregory Foundation

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Moscow


The Founding

“We were on Mt. Athos on the 11th of August this year, three months ago, and we went to the monastery where are kept the holy remains of St. Gregory Nazianzus the Theologian,” Leonid Sevastianov, a young Russian friend, said to me.

“The archbishop called me to his side, and together we venerated the relics.”

Leonid was referring to Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, 42, the head of the External Relations Department of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“Just at that precise moment, my cellphone rang. It was Moscow calling. A government official informed me that the St. Gregory Foundation had been registered that morning. Just at that moment! We took it as a sign…”

What Will It Mean?

Since the end of communism in 1991, for 18 years, many Catholic groups have tried to help the persecuted Russian Orthodox Church re-emerge from the catacombs. These groups. like Aid to the Church in Need, based in Koenigstein, Germany, Renovabis and Misereor, the charitable foundations of the German bishops, gave many millions of dollars to support Russian Orthodox clergy in a period when the Russian Orthodox Church was attempting to get “back on its feet” after 70 years of repression.

Now, the Russian Orthodox Church is back on its feet. It’s beginning to stretch its legs, and starting to move. But it doesn’t want to run this race alone.

Remembering the Communist time, and the two decades since, the Russians say they are prepared to work together with those who did not forget them in times of persecution and suffering. But what type of work?

Seeing the predicament of modern Russia, where divorce rates are high and the abandonment of children a national tragedy, where financial corruption is eating away at the country’s social fabric and limiting the chances for Russia to transition from totalitarianism to a more open and free society, the Russian Orthodox Church is developing a two-fold strategy: to renew the Church internally, and to engage the wider society externally, confronting the great human and social problems Russia faces.

On both fronts, but particularly on the second, Archbishop Hilarion and Sevastianov have told me, the Russian Orthodox have now decided to engage with Catholics, and others, in a collaboration which can be compared to an actual alliance against the great social evils of our day, not only in Russia, but also throughout Europe and the world.

Therefore, with the spiritual blessing of Patriarch Kirill (photo meeting Pope Benedict XVI, before Kirill was elected Patriarch early this year) Archbishop Hilarion, working with a team of young Orthodox clergy and laymen, decided to found the St. Gregory Nazianzus Foundation in order to work together with Catholics and others in the West, to support traditional spiritual values in Russia, but also throughout the world,

St. Greory was a theologian in the 300s, well before the division of the Church into East and West, and so is venerated both by the Catholics and by the Orthodox. He is a Father of the Church for all Christians.

The co-founders of this new foundation are Archbishop Hilarion and Vadim Yakunin, one of the wealthiest businessmen in Russia.

Yakunin has made a personal commitment to support the spiritual and social vision articulated by Patriarch Kirill.

Other wealthy Russians are also prepared to support this Foundation. But participation by Americans and Western Europeans would also be very much appreciated.

Hilarion and Yakunin have chosen Sevastianov to head up the foundation.

Sevastianov, 31, was born in Rostov-on-Don, a Cossack region, into a family of Russian Old Believers. He studied at the Gregorian University in Rome from 1999 to 2002 (he speaks Italian fluently), and at Georgetown University in Wshington DC from 2002 to 2004 (he also speaks English fluently).

(Photo, from a Russian television program aired today in Moscow. Sevastianov, asked to be a panelist on the program, is the younger man on the right; I was able to watch a rebroadcast of the program with Sevastianov today).

“We want to try to attract the attention of religious believers, in Russia and abroad, who believe in traditional Christian values, and who want to contribute to making society more just and more moral,” Sevastianov told me.

“We want to promote the idea of the unity between the West and Russia on the basis of common Christian roots. We believe in this alliance among traditional Christian countries, and we believe we need to talk with one voice in the face of secularism and a false ‘liberalism,’ and we believe that, with a united voice, we can be a strong force against the radical secular world which has become dominant in our societies.

“We believe traditional Christian values are the basis for a more just, prosperous, open and free society, and we can find an example of this at the beginning of the 20th century, when leading Russian Old Believers, the most traditional wing of Russian Orthoxy, like Pavel Ryabushinsky and Savva Timofeyevich Morozov attempted to reform Russian society.” (Here are links to articles about these two men: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pavel_Ryabushinsky and https://wapedia.mobi/en/Savva_Timofeyevich_Morozov)

As evening fell, Sevastianov drove me to the train station, so I could catch the night train to Kazan.We drove past the high walls of the Kremlin.

“There is St. Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square beyond it,” he said. “Quick, take a photograph.

“St. Basil’s is the heart of Russia, and from here Christianity will rise once again in the world.” He paused for asecond, and turned to me. “Don’t you Catholics have this prophecy about Russia?”

So I took the photo. Here it is.

Then we hastened on to the station. The train for Kazan leaves at 10:08…

“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)

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