Russia in the Year of Fatima

Victor Khroul, PhD, is an associate professor at Moscow State University, Journalism faculty. A Roman Catholic who grew up under the communist Soviet Union, he provided this interview about Russia today to Barb Ernster. It is published in our centennial issue, Fatima: 100 Years of Grace.

What happened in Russia at the end of the Cold War, and where is it today with regards to the promised conversion by Our Lady of Fatima?

In comparison to what we had 25 or 30 years ago, in 1989/1990, when people were not allowed to go to church and were persecuted, that is not happening today. Back then, if you went to the church, you would have to be ready to lose your work, or travel privileges, and so on. When very suddenly and unexpectedly that changed, and people who had never before experienced freedom of faith and other freedoms, were not able to use it properly; the concept of freedom was without responsibility. Therefore, we had a lot of battles and clashes, and in a couple of years it led to a situation where almost everything stopped functioning—including the drastic fall of the currency where people were unable to find jobs.

In this situation, naturally people seek God; they seek something supernatural in a life that makes no sense. They try to put God back, but who is God? It was difficult for people who had no knowledge of Christianity or any other religion. In the later 1990s, the Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches became strong enough to begin a re-evangelization of Russia, and the Fatima message about the conversion of Russia was the dominant message there. It arrived through two main channels: The first was through Roman Catholic priests preaching. The second was through thousands of bibles and spiritual literature that had been translated into Russian and was able to be delivered to the Soviet Union without any problems. Among these were books about Our Lady of Fatima. This affected especially those Christians whose parents and grandparents were Roman Catholic.

Then in 1997 Archbishop Kondrusiewicz of Moscow organized a pilgrimage of the Fatima statue throughout Russia. Every Roman Catholic parish was invited to host the Statue during the year. Many Orthodox churches also hosted, acknowledging this promise that Russia would be converted. One of the Russian priests had a wonderful idea to equip the pilgrimage with a book where pilgrims could write their impressions, prayers, and testimonies. This book is now a source of inspiration for many people, not just Catholics. It gives the objective picture of hundreds of people all over Russia from that time, and what the Fatima message means for Russia. I learned through this, that the promise of the conversion of Russia was not the promise to convert Russia into the Roman Catholic Rite. It was a promise to convert Russia to Christianity, to Christian values.

Right now, there is no push to become an atheistic country again, God is not the enemy, but it’s a push to ignorance of God, to secularism where God is nothing and we can ignore him. It is largely the message of the entertainment and mass media that is not part of traditional Russian culture, but that we have imported from the West after Perestroika. So the year of Fatima is a chance to bring back a values agenda to the public discourse.

What does the Fatima message mean to people in Russia today?

It means next to nothing here, unfortunately. Our Lady is listening to our prayers, but the fulfillment of the Fatima promises is still unfolding. It is the heavy work of mostly the Russian Orthodox Church, the dominant church in Russia, to make everything possible for the triumph of coming back to Christian values in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church does not reject the Fatima message, but simply does not recognize it; it is a story, one of possible theologies, nothing else.

In many churches in Russia 2017 is a special year, not because of 100 years of Fatima, but because its message is still very necessary to implement. It has been 100 years since the bloody revolution, when the Bolsheviks came to power and established the atheistic state, and the persecutions of Christians started. So it will be a special chance to remember the marches, to pray for them, and understand that their sacrifice was not for nothing. The Fatima message would give Catholics a chance for ecumenical initiatives toward their Orthodox brothers, toward all Christians, to renew the understanding of what the Christian way of life is and how to restore it, and the call for re-evangelization in Russia.

So, while the year of Fatima will be low profile, Bishop Kondrusiewicz (now the head of Bishops Conference in neighboring Belarus) has brought the Fatima statue to Belarus and is doing the same thing he did in Russia 20 years ago: the statue will visit all the Catholic parishes in the country.

What is the relationship between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in Russia?

The Church is Universal, but we still have this ethnically-based approach, and still feel some tensions when Russian people who were baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church want to join the Roman Catholic Church. Our Lady of Fatima shows that these tensions are senseless because the call to conversion is the call to conversion to Christian values. We had some missionaries here, priests who tried to make the interpretation of the Fatima message that all the Russians have to become Roman Catholics, and it was very presumptuous. The Holy Spirit breathes where He wants, so we can never say that if somebody is converting, receives Christ in his heart, he has to do it in the Universal Church. Yes, as a Roman Catholic, I would rejoice if all the Christians would unite with the Universal Church, but at the moment, it is not possible. What we have with our Orthodox brothers is a treasure and we have to respect that to build our future.

At the same time, a lot of good things are being done, like the call for the ban of abortion in Russia. The Patriarch of Moscow openly signed a petition for a complete ban of abortion. They’ve done a lot of work in helping young ladies in this difficult situation. There is some work being done in terms of social justice. It would benefit people to hear a more articulated message from the Church toward some unjust situations in Russia, and the Roman Catholic Church has a lot to offer; it has developed a lot of documents and apostolic letters that articulate these issues and provide the Christian view on difficult situations, and the Russian Orthodox could adopt them just to have as a point of reference for taking positions on these issues.

Was it significant, then, when this past year Pope Francis met with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in Cuba?

Yes, it was, even if it was problematic for some Catholics, particularly Greek Catholics. Still it sounds promising and I think it will be fruitful. The sign of hope would be some very concrete projects on the level of parishes, when Catholic parishes join with the Russian Orthodox parishes to prevent abortions, or to preach the Gospel together. This would be an example and a sign that this meeting was fruitful.

It would be fruitful for Catholics to feel more free in terms of evangelization. Because we have a very sensitive issue here, the question of the mission of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia, where the dominant church is Russian Orthodox. In very simple terms, the Roman Catholic approach is an evangelical one, you have to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. There must not be any limitation for preaching the Good News, and our laws do allow it. But the position of our Orthodox brothers is different. They consider Russia to be their so-called canonical territory, and therefore, any kind of preaching or missionary work on the part of the Roman Catholic Church is unwelcome in this territory. The official Vatican position on this is, ‘If you don’t like it, we won’t do it.’ So our preaching is limited to just inside the church walls, no missionary work at all. Having such a sensitive situation, we put a lot of hope in the meeting in Havana, Cuba, between the Pope and the Patriarch in order that the doors to missionary work in Russia can be opened without difficulties.

In your mind, was the act of consecration made by Pope John Paul II on March 25, 1984 complete, because many claim that Russia has not converted?

From the canonical point of view, it is complete, because it was done by the Pope with a very honest intention. I believe in it. And if there are any doubts, the fall of atheistic Communism and the change in Russia are the consequences of what John Paul II did.

I do not think that the conversion of Russia should be a presupposition of condition for what John Paul II did, because this act was intended, to my understanding, for Russia to get converted.

The process must be very long. In Russia, we had an atheistic state for seven decades, three generations. That is a very long time for the faith to be suppressed, enough to stop the transmission of faith to children and grandchildren. This should be taken into consideration when Russia is discussed. In other states, you suffer from a lot of secularization, from wars and other threats to the Church and the Christian faith, but you have never been prohibited from teaching your kids the Creed and prayers and so on. In Russia we had this for 70 years.

So, while the social foundation in Russia is still very atheistic, the deep roots of this culture are Christian, and any kind of Christian activity that occurs here I consider to be a miracle. It is a miracle of God, when, in the younger members of atheistic families, the faith is born in their hearts and they themselves ask for baptism. Can you imagine a 12 or 13 or 17-year-old comes into the Church and asks for baptism and their parents are against it? Every year around 120 people ask for baptism in the Roman Catholic Church in Moscow. I ask them why they decided to join the Catholic Church, as most of them are Russian in origin, and their reason is mostly culturally based: ‘I came here to listen to an organ concert and I understand it is something deeply spiritual.’ Or they read some literature or book. Even the names of these churches cause people to be curious. I belong to the Cathedral in Moscow, the Immaculate Conception of Mary Church, where classical organ concerts are held twice a week. So, the culture becomes the fruitful ground for vocations and conversions.

Therefore, I would say to those pessimistic people who say that Russia has not converted, be patient with us.

Copyright – World Apostolate of Fatima, USA.  This article was first published in our Centennial Issue of Soul Magazine, March 2017.

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