Archbishop Ioan of Belgorod represents a new generation of bishop
Born in 1960 in Irkoutsk on Lake Baïkal, Archbishop Ioan is extremely active. For ten years he has been leading the department for mission of the Patriarchate. He is behind several spectacular initiatives: expeditions by “mobile chapel” or by train to isolated regions, to baptise hundreds of people and to start up the life of Church again in these places.
A night train journey brings you to this city of more than three hundred thousand inhabitants, located about thirty kilometres from Ukraine. This last week end in September they are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the diocesan missionary seminary, installed in an old traditional house. More than a hundred of young people are there in training. After the liturgy and the festive meal, the archbishop asks for the film on Taizé to be shown to the seminarians. Afterwards, Alexander and Igor take me on a tour of the parishes of the city: churches that have been restored or built recently in the outlying neighbourhoods and on the university campus.
The next day is the tenth anniversary of the Church of Goubkine. On the square in front of the church, we join the official celebration bringing together the people and the local authorities in an atmosphere of festival, with a large sound system, local television, speeches, choirs and children. The Metropolitan of Voronej, the Bishop of Koursk, the elected officials, the business leaders surround the archbishop who distributes praise and hands over a patriarchal diploma of merit to the helpers and benefactors in the construction of second greatest church in Russia after that of Christ Saviour in Moscow.
When the meal arrives, the archbishop invites everyone to share in a testimony on his work and his contribution to the life of the Church. The mayor explains: “We thank the Church for its support. Once a parish has been set up, when a priest has arrived and we have built the church, the relations between people start to change; the people open up” This is a good image of the co-operation that is possible today between Church, the authorities and those with economic responsibilities, in the service of the population and of national pride.
The publication of Foma: an Orthodox magazine for those who doubt
Publishing is one of the activities of the Church that is flourishing: introductions to the Christian Faith, spirituality, music recordings, catechesis in video, internet sites. Cheap reprints of old handbooks have given way to more original creations. The periodicals multiply.
It is in this media landscape that Foma stands out. Its print run is continually increasing; today it is 38000 copies, distributed throughout the country and beyond; it is available in bookstalls. Thanks to the professionalism and commitment of the editorial staff, politicians, personalities from the arts, academics, and Church leaders of various sensitivities appear together in each number. Clearly intended for a public still on the threshold of the Church, Foma wishes to propose Christianity as a reference in a language and form that are accessible. Their openness is not limited to Russian society but to the world, with investigations by journalists abroad and special numbers on Norway, Japan, Tunisia…
For more than two centuries Kolomna was the residence of the Patriarch of all Russias. The small city, two hours by bus from Moscow, has retained part of its ramparts and a series of old churches and five monasteries. It is there that about fifteen years ago Mother Ksenia, graduate of the Moscow faculty of journalism, founded a dynamic community of seventy sisters. They learn to drive, study theology in Moscow or singing at the local conservatory. They earn their living by work on the farm, the production of artistic porcelain, the sale of honey, and painting icons. They are in charge of an orphanage, and have just opened a medical dispensary; accommodate the pilgrims and visitors to the monastery.
Mother goes directly to fundamental questions: “Do you believe in fallen spirits? What is the soul according to you? How do you personally imagine holiness and how you endeavour to reach it?” She interrupts my explanations several times: “You have not answered the question! As long as you do not believe that the human heart is the battle field between God and the demons, you cannot move forward. Demons do not need a bodily appearance in order to manifest themselves to us: they can very well seize your will by communicating their ideas to you”.
She gives me three books she has written: Struggle against the passions, The foundations of faith and Conversations on the monastic life. “Read them, I will be happy to answer your questions afterwards. Then if you wish to continue, I can indicate to you a good spiritual father”.
These portraits illustrate the evolution and the forces at work in the Russian Orthodox Church. Society is evolving, becoming unified, and opening up; it resembles more and more society in the West. The state is reducing its social security cover and so people need to work more to pay for studies and to provide for daily needs. Individualism is gaining in the big cities; consumerism and the pursuit of leisure mobilize energies on the surface… Some drift into drugs or alcohol. Social problems and the rate of suicide are increasing.
The Orthodox Church has taken up the challenge of being the central, existential and moral reference of society. The state, conscious of the void, gives the church its support. Purified by decades of ordeal, it benefits from its very important authority. It has established a good relation with the army, the arts, the prisons, and the social services. The media are respectful and in general careful.
If the majority of people declare themselves to be believers, few are linked to the Church. The number of those who practise regularly is two to three percent. The young people readily build their own relation with God and are cautious towards the Church, as they are towards other institutions.
More and more priests recognize that it no longer possible to wait for the seekers of truth to ask good questions. It is necessary to break down the caricatures of a Church that is rich, paying court to those in power, and to go out to meet of people and society, in the media, the arts; to stimulate people’s questions, what they are longing for… In Iaroslav, the clergy formed a football team; elsewhere priests have set up a choir to sing the popular repertory of soviet times. Bishop Mark serves the tea himself to the parishioners after the liturgy. The morning sermons on television are appreciated by the housewives. Metropolitan Cyril does a television broadcast every Saturday. The Patriarch travels constantly throughout the country.
But as people become more and more aware that a new way forward has to be created, the threat of giddiness can be present. It is very tempting to seek an identity closed in on itself, in national, cultural or denominational assertion … Europe makes people uneasy: the excesses of Western society are dramatised, perceived as superficial, and weakened by the lack of spiritual roots and the absence of a common higher reference.
Friends, the young people who come to Taizé for several weeks in summer, repeat “You do not realize how much Taizé is important for us. We experience here the Kingdom of God, the joy of believing, the freedom in prayer, in communion… Young people can experience for themselves that being a believer is not alienation. The discovery that there are young Westerners who believe can be decisive for them.”
Far more than the spectacular restoration of a Church, the miracle to be recognized in Russia is the miracle of a humanity that has come through the great trial. The immense traumatism undergone in the twentieth century could not dissuade some from loving and from living for others. This is a society that has emerged from its ideological and political dead end without bloodshed. No people has endured as much suffering nor produced as many martyrs - ten times more than the whole of Christendom during the first three centuries.
One never wearies of listening to the poignant family stories. Each one can tell how their grandparents met, how they loved in dramatic circumstances, and each one can tell a story of the goodness that opened up a way of life.