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Abp T. Kondrusiewicz: The Exchange of Gifts: East-West

14 marca 2004 | 09:51 | Ⓒ Ⓟ

Mr. President,
Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, Brothers in priesthood, Friars and Nuns, Representatives of the State Government, religious, international, and social organisations, Brothers and Sisters, Ladies and Gentlemen!

1. I would like to thank the organisers of this important and timely Forum, taking place almost on the eve of the great expansion of the European Union, for their invitation.
I come from a place distant, yet not unfamiliar to European integration processes – from Russia. I come from a country that was not so long ago associated with totalitarianism, domination of Marxist-Leninist ideology and violation of human rights, including religious freedom. I come from a place that has seen over a dozen years of attempts to deal with the aftermath of the collapsed regime, both in political, social and economic life, and in the process of building a democracy.
The changes taking place in Russia in the course of the last 13 years have revealed the enormous extent of destruction caused by the totalitarian regime and the degree of moral corruption (poignantly expressed by the term “homo sovieticus”), and showed how much more effort is required in order to achieve a real democracy, and spiritual and economic growth. The old system collapsed, but the new one is yet to be established. The spiritual void resulting from 70 years of atheisation is conductive of the spread of corruption, contributes to the moral downfall and rise in crime rate, the plague of alcoholism and drug addiction; it aggravates the problem of broken families and the killing of unborn babies. Various forms of national extremism and social injustice that have emerged are accompanied by the increasing sense of loss, hopelessness, pessimism, and nostalgia for the past.
On the one hand, the Russians have a great sense of national pride, on the other, they are tired by the ineffective reforms and they look upon the West and the uniting Europe with jealousy. Numerous other countries of the former Eastern block face similar problems.
It is for that reason that I regard the V Congress in Gniezno as particularly valid and useful both for the East and for the West. The first Forum of that kind took place over one thousand years ago and symbolised the admission of Poland to the family of European states. As it was with all the previous Forums at the tomb of St. Adalbert, this Congress should be a new inspiration for the entire continent, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Urals, and in the cultural sense to the Far East, to adopt the idea of building a Common Europe of the Spirit – a new geopolitical reality inspired anew by the Spirit in the third millennium.

2. It would be impossible to fathom One Europe of the Spirit without the mutually beneficial contacts and the exchange of gifts between the East and the West. It was clearly emphasized by the Second Vatican Council in the dogmatic constitution of the Church, which demonstrated the vitality of the Communion of the Church of Christ as the people of God. It is to that Church that all men are called and it has its roots among all nations united in the Holy Ghost. With that catholicity, the individual parts of the people of God contribute to other parts and to the Church their special gifts, so that the whole and its constituent parts may grow thanks to the mutual connectedness of everyone and the common effort to attain fullness in unity (cf. LG 13).
The Holy Father John Paul II, addressing on 5 June 1990 the participants in the consultation meeting before the First European Bishops Synod, said that there were two fundamental questions that arose in the new reality (cf. EZCh, p. 144, 151-152):
– The first concerns the past of the divided Europe and reads as follows: What gifts do the Churches of Western, Central and Eastern Europe offer to one another? What is the significance of the experience of the recent generations to the local Churches and the Catholic Church? What is their significance both in the context of the interdenominational and interreligious dialogue, and the dialogue with the world?
– The second question concerns the future: How should those mutual offerings be developed so that they may serve the mission of the Church in Europe and in the world?
Although the above questions are related to the themes of the First European Bishops Synod, which took place in 1991, they remain vital today despite the radical change in circumstances.

3. As the sign of the new times and the blessed sign of the exchange of gifts, we can today interpret the fact that in the last decade an increasing number of representatives of Central and Eastern Europe participated in the conferences and meetings of that kind. It is understandable, since the representatives of numerous countries of Central Europe always had better contacts with the West. The Church there was stronger and filled with the yearning to remain in the sphere of European culture and civilisation.
The situation in the Eastern European countries, and in Russia in particular, was different. An outstanding figure of Russian culture, the late Irina Ilovayskaya-Alberti, founder of “Русская мысль” (“Russian Thought”) in Paris, wrote as follows: The East, and especially Russia, could never afford such contacts with the West, and not just for political reasons. For there was a tendency to treat Russia as the country outside, or, at best, at the margins of the European family. The fault was often also on the part Russia, who steered its fate in that direction more than once. It is also true that circumstances of that kind were at the basis of numerous tragedies that befell that country. Perhaps it was the tragedy of the 20th century Russia, the most inhuman and apocalyptic in proportions, that mysteriously destroyed the walls separating her from the rest of Europe. The West should be aware of that fact: otherwise we would not have witnessed the now historical collapse of the Berlin Wall. The thoughts of Our Lord are not like ours (cf. Is 55, 8) and maybe one day we will understand the purpose of that suffering in God’s plan of salvation (cf. ХКЕ, pp. 115-116).
In that context, the participation of the representatives of the East and Russia in meetings such as this one is of seminal, decisive importance for Europe.

4. From the perspective of the events of the past few decades, we can appreciate what a great blessing the exchange of offerings between the East and the West and between political, social, economic and Church institutions has been and still is.
The West extended a helping hand to the West in the introduction of market economy and in building democracy. Not all of those attempts have been successful. In a number of countries, particularly in Russia, we witness the reign of “savage capitalism”, the growth of mafia, the emergence of a new social group of very wealthy people, the so-called “New-Russians”, even though the income of a quarter of the society is below subsistence level. What we have here is an obvious case of social injustice.
The Church in Russia, persecuted for the past three generations, was in need of various forms of aid: from substantial and continuous financial support to the generous assistance in terms of spiritual and intellectual needs. Churches were torn down or closed, there was a dearth of priests, friars, and nuns, there was no religious or liturgical literature. We need only mention that before the October Revolution in 1917 there were over 250 parishes in Russia, while in late 30s of the 20th century there remained only two active Catholic churches – in Moscow and in Leningrad. In the space of 81 years, from 1918 to 1999 not a single Catholic priest could be prepared for receiving his holy orders. During the time of persecution not a single book was published, and their possession was subject to stern penalties. There was no place in the “enlightened communist future” for a “backward” religious person.
But then we have the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the people’s spring in autumn in Central Europe, that in 1991 results in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Back then, I left one country – the Soviet Union – for the European Bishops Synod and came back to another – Russia. The new situation presented the Church with a multitude of tasks, and as a first-hand participant and witness of those transformations I can say that she would not have managed without the assistance from the West. Today we need to express our gratitude and bow our heads to the Church in the West and in Central Europe for their solidarity and help.
What I mean by that are all forms of help that were offered. It was, first of all, the extensive financial support for the reconstruction of the reclaimed sacral buildings and the construction of new churches, as well as the “investment” in the formation of clergy and believers, the preparation and the publication of religious books, the development of mass media and charity operations. It is also the invaluable personal help, expressed in the work of priests and the testimony of consecrated life, and, most importantly, in ministry and formation. To give but one example – 90% of priests working in Russia today come from abroad, from 22 different countries of the world. Another form of help from which we constantly benefit is literature, liturgical ornaments, as well as all sorts of consultations and assistance in the organisation of conferences and expert training. It would be difficult to mention them all. For every need there was the willingness to help. We were offered a strong and reliable helping hand and I assure that that help was not wasted.
What, then, are the gifts offered to the West in the past and today by the Churches of the East? Let me quote the words of St. Peter the Apostle, who said to the lame man at the synagogue: I have no money at all, but I give you what I have: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth I order you to get up and walk (Acts 3, 6). In a similar vein, the Church in the East shares what it has. First of all, it is the testimony of keeping and preserving faith. It is the testimony as expressed in the Greek word martyr. So many lives were sacrificed in the name of faith. So many people were able, in inhuman conditions, to not only preserve their faith, but also to teach it to the younger generation, and that without temples, without priests, without catechisation and in the face of constant fear and oppression… Through all that they persevered. They persevered thanks to the fact that their families were strong in God, they were the veritable household churches, where Christian traditions were cultivated, where faith was taught and strengthened through simple folk services, rosaries, litanies and prayer.
When one visits the former exile camps in the Urals, Siberia, the North, Far East or Central Asia, one sees cemeteries with the graves of the members of the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Church, the Muslims, Jews, believers and non-believers, even their torturers all in one place. Mother Earth embraced them all. There, it is easier to understand that we are all children of one Creator and Earth is our common home. There, the representatives of all denominations – and I have witnessed that myself – ask themselves the fundamental question: what sense is there in divisions? The testimony of the East, and in particular the painful testimony of the oppressed, is both invaluable and ecumenical in character. Hence it is not by accident that the Holy Father John Paul II emphasizes that the most convincing ecumenism is that of the martyrs (cf. TMA 37). Visitors from the West, after only a few hours, often share with us the discovery that they have experienced the most wonderful retreat of their lives and that they have been spiritually uplifted.
The Catholic Church in the East, and, more precisely, in Russia, is often treated as Western. However, due to its location in the East it is too, in some sense – Eastern. As an overwhelming minority, it remains under the influence of the culture and religious practices of Orthodox brothers: the cult of icons and saints, Marian devotion, rich liturgy, cultivation of tradition, the devotion to priest’s or monk’s attire, the significance of fasting. Represented in that manner, the Catholic Church introduces the new (even though it derives from a forgotten tradition) current or Spirit for the Western Church. As the old Russian saying has it, the new is the old well forgotten. It is for that reason that an experience like that and the exchange of gifts is of primary ecumenical, and even interreligious significance.

5. The experiences of the East are an invaluable lesson, both for the modern man and for future generations. They are, first and foremost, the testimony and the living proof of what happens to man when, in the name of the death of God, he builds a new society and creates a new man who is not supposed to be the image and the likeness of his Creator. Those experiences are very much valid both for the uniting Europe and for that part of it lying past the River Bug. (By no means am I alluding here to the new division of the continent).
The West, so it appears, is unwilling to accept that lesson. There is the tendency there to accept that course of action, but in a different way, namely the tendency to reject the perception of history as God’s Providence. Unfortunately, people in Central and Eastern European countries also tend to forget the not-so-distant past; they are fascinated by Western prosperity and liberalism, including morality. I was surprised when a girl from a former communist country, but a very Catholic country, stated on TV that young people today are only interested in money and sex. Could it be that people in the West and more and more people from the East have forgotten the lesson of the 20th century Calvary? Prosperity is never enough, for “human beings cannot live on bread alone” (cf. Mt 4, 4).

6. What future awaits the idea of the exchange of gifts and how can we develop it further? The experiences of the bygone era in terms of religion were most positive and valid. However, we cannot live on memories alone. We must go forward, recognising the words of Christ’s Spirit, reading the signs of the times and responding to them.
Lying ahead of us, the Churches and the communities of the East and the West, are great challenges that we must face together. By keeping watch and praying (cf. Mt 26, 41) we are to listen and recognise what God’s Spirit says to us in our time.
Church in the East resembles a man who survived clinical death. She lives on, although for further development and effective action she still requires comprehesive assistance. While she slowly begins to overcome the great difficulties related to the construction of new churches or the reconstruction of those that were reclaimed, what comes to the fore is the need to organise the regular ministerial work in all of its forms, as well as formative and charity work. We need the development of Catholic mass media, the interdenominational and interreligious dialogue, as well as the dialogue with the society.
By accepting help, the Church can grow and fulfil the mission laid out by Christ. However, it is necessary to respect and take into account the opinions and the mentality of the local Church in matters where there is no need to impose ready-made solutions that may be effective in the West, but are not always useful in the East. This is an issue of primary importance for ministerial, educational and ecumenical work. At present, the Churches of the East have a lot to say, and they are ready to exchange experiences or even to offer some help.
Both the West (in general) and the Church (in particular) should be aware of the fact that the building of democracy and the rebirth of spiritual and economic life on the ruins of communism in a society permeated by the “homo sovieticus” mentality is a long-term process. This is evidenced by the results of the recent Duma elections. The parliament with an exceptionally strong centre and weak left wing was left without the democrats, i.e. the right wing. An alarming conclusion comes to mind – how difficult it is going to be for the Duma to fulfil its tasks while observing the rules of democracy. A one-winged bird cannot take to the air! This is why one of the urgent issues is the assistance in building true democracy.
Rampant consumerism in the West, taken up by the East, leads to the popularisation of a new vision of man as “homo economicus”, which reduces him to one-dimensional functioning in the world. Without the reference to culture, religion and tradition, the new society becomes an increasingly individualistic and bondless one. The importunate appeal of advertising and globalisation present themselves as the new challenges, both to the old continent, and the young democracies.
In December last year, the European Constitution was not adopted. Doubtlessly, there are numerous objective reasons for that decision, most of them economical and political in nature. However, it is worthwhile to consider the question why the issue of referring to the Christian roots of Europe is so stubbornly rejected. There is even the tendency to abandon the reference to “invocatio Dei”. But, on the other hand, we know that a house cannot be built without foundations. A tree with its roots cut off withers away. History has known numerous civilisations and cultures that perished, while European culture constantly renewed and enriched itself through the dialogue with the Gospel – as John Paul II reminds us (cf. EZCh, p. 164-165). “There can be no doubt that the Christian faith belongs, in a radical and decisive way, to the foundations of European culture.” (EIE 108).
Painful experiences resulting from the violation of human rights, persecutions, growing laicisation, consumerism, the way of life denouncing the existence of God, judging God’s law according to the rules of democratic parliamentarism, as well as the deep crisis of moral values, should persuade the East and the West to cooperate even more extensively and exchange gifts according to the rules set in the Gospel of Christ. We trust that it will lead to the strengthening of solidarity and peace in the world, the promotion and implementation of globalisation in solidarity (cf. EIE 111-112); to respecting the rights of all human beings and all nations; to social justice, mutual respect and love, so that the whole continent is taken by the community of one Spirit, breathing with two lungs – the eastern and the western one, and sharing “one spirit and one heart” (cf. Acts 2, 32) that will shape the new face of Europe (cf. EIE 109) – as postulated by the great European, John Paul II in Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa – The Church in Europe.

Thank you for your attention.


LG – The Second Vatican Council. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium.
TMA – John Paul II. Apostolic Letter Tertio millenio adventie.
EIE – John Paul II. Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa.
EZCh – John Paul II. Europe United in Christ.
ХКЕ – Христианство и культура в Европе, II. Москва 1992.

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