by Fr. David May.
The year 2010 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of the foundress of Madonna House, Catherine Doherty. Who would have thought, 25 years ago, that the directors general of her community would spend two weeks in her homeland, visiting both the capital of the Russian Federation, Moscow, and the home of our present Madonna House at Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia?
Who could have predicted that we would be able to do so with complete freedom of movement? Or that we would have had the privilege of meeting with fellow believers in churches and in homes to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection during the Easter Season? Yet that is precisely what happened.
Mark Schlingerman, Susanne Stubbs and I, accompanied by Marie Javora, who was coming over to help at MH Krasnoyarsk for a few weeks, departed from Ottawa on April 7 and arrived in Moscow the next day. Since Marie speaks Russian and has some familiarity with Moscow, she was our faithful guide.
We were met at the airport by a good friend of MH, Sasha Fedosov, who had arranged to find a taxi for us. Together we traveled from the airport to the Diocesan Curia downtown (a trip that took three hours due to heavy traffic!) where we were staying.
One of the first sights that greeted us there was the beautiful Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, newly restored since the fall of Communism in 1991.
The next morning the four of us were able to celebrate Mass together in the cathedral, and then after breakfast at the Curia, we headed into town to register (it is necessary to do so in each city one visits) and to begin our tour.
Marie had arranged that an old friend of Madonna House for many years, Volodia Erokhin, would meet us. He did so, and we took the metro to Red Square and the Kremlin.
The first thing we did at Red Square was to enter a very small chapel at the entrance. There a Russian Orthodox priest from one of the Moscow parishes was celebrating the Akathist, a long, beautiful series of hymns of praise to Our Lady, one that we at MH often sing at major feasts of Our Lady.
Apparently, prayer goes on in this chapel throughout the day. Volodia told us that this was among the first traditions to be restored to this location when the Soviet Union came to an end.
On that bright spring morning, we walked all around Red Square: by the tomb of Lenin (closed that day) and the huge state department store (we didn’t go in, thank God!), all in sight of the splendid St. Basil’s Cathedral.
After lunch at a university cafeteria nearby (wholesome Russian food, good price—cabbage and fish anyone?), we bought tickets for the "Churches of the Kremlin."
You probably know that the Kremlin was the seat of the Communist government for seventy years, but did you know that it is also the site of many churches once patronized by the czars? Now they are being restored.
For instance, there is the Cathedral of the Dormition, where we spent the most time. It overwhelms you with its icons from floor to ceiling, some quite ancient.
Near it is a small church called "The Deposition of the Robe of the Virgin," where we viewed some magnificent carvings—"primitive," simple, vibrant. Mark, who is a wood carver, was in ecstasy!
Volodia, had invited us to attend the Divine Liturgy in his parish, Sts. Cosmas and Damian. So the next morning we were up early to catch the metro and arrived just in time (8:30).
This is the parish in Moscow where many of the disciples of the martyred priest, Fr. Alexander Men, gather.
Fr. Men was an exceptional man, a Russian Orthodox of Jewish origin, who had an extraordinarily open spirit, encyclopedic knowledge, and a charism for drawing many people to the Faith. He was killed by the Communists in 1990, but his spirit of warmth, faith, hospitality and joy lives on in this parish.
We were made to feel most welcome and were able to fully enter into the Divine Liturgy, where we felt completely at home. Even the tones used for the hymns honoring the Resurrection on this Saturday in Bright Week were familiar to us.
I watched young people totally absorbed in every prayer, listening with great hunger to the words of the priest, Fr. Borisov. It was obvious that not all were familiar with every aspect of the Liturgy (such as how to properly receive Holy Communion), but that they were learning here and coming anew to the Faith. What a joy to witness this!
After the Liturgy itself, there was a procession with icons, hymns, and holy water around the square outside the church.
It was from a government building nearby that Vladimir Lenin had once addressed a crowd in this square with his message of hatred and revolution.
Now believers were free once again to proclaim, "Christ is risen; truly He is risen!’ in that same place.
It was deeply moving to be a part of this proclamation, and as I joined in, I thought of Catherine telling us of her hearing Lenin speak and of the evil power and hatred he was able to convey. Today the cleansing waters of Christ were washing away that hatred and vanquishing that power.
The next day was Mercy Sunday (or Thomas Sunday as it is known in the Byzantine tradition), and we all attended Mass in Russian at the Catholic cathedral. One couldn’t help but notice the full church, the number of families with children, the energetic and dedicated young men serving Mass.
This was also the day after the tragic plane crash in Smolensk that killed the president of Poland and many other Polish dignitaries. As the cathedral parish is mostly staffed by Polish religious communities, there was an air of poignancy to the celebrations that day.
But what was particularly moving was the response of the Russian government to the tragedy.
Not only had the government apologized to the Polish nation for the massacre at Katyn in World War II, but after the accident, a documentary of Polish origin was shown on Russian television, telling the whole nation for the first time the real story of the massacre.
The next day, Monday, was for Russia a national day of mourning in solidarity with the people of Poland. If one knows anything of the long and painful history of these two nations, one knows that this was a remarkable breakthrough and a hopeful beginning coming forth from terrible circumstances.
After Mass, our friends Alvina Voropoyeva and Sasha Fedosov met with us and we traveled together north of Moscow to the great Monastery of St. Sergius in the town of Sergius Posad.
We arrived around 3:30 in the afternoon. Here was and is one of the real centers of Orthodox life in Russia, one going back to the 14th century.
St. Sergius in some way exemplifies the very soul of the Russian people. He is known as one of the beloved "tender-hearted" saints—strong in faith, courageous and prophetic in his resistance to the Mongol invaders, a humble worker skilled with his hands, a man of deep and penetrating wisdom.
He remains a spiritual father to the Russian faithful, and many come on pilgrimage to this monastery, to venerate his relics, to pray in one of the beautiful chapels, and to hear the many bells that ring out the truth of Christ’s victory.
To pray there that day was to celebrate with our fellow believers the truth of that triumph.
Outside one of the chapels were photos from Communist days, photos which show jubilant atheists smashing the bells of the monastery to bits.
But in Russia now, whatever struggles with materialism remain, whatever the many problems and wounds resulting from seventy years of oppressive atheism, those days of infamy have now ended.
There is a measure of freedom and hope arising again, like the spring of holy water at the monastery, a spring that flows freely for all to take home with them, whatever amount they wish. It is as if Christ is saying to all: "Drink of the waters of faith…and live!"
to be continued
Part 2 will tell about the visit of our directors general to MH Russia in Krasnoyarsk.
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