HB Metropolitan Rastislav on the difficulties of confessing the Orthodox faith during communism and the importance of Religious Freedom today

Address by His Beatitude Rastislav, Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, delivered during the solemn session of the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church, 28 October 2017:

Difficulties of confessing the Orthodox faith during Communism and the Importance of Religious Freedom today

Your Holiness,

Your Beatitudes, Your Eminences and Your Graces, beloved brothers in Christ!

Rev. Georges Florovsky wrote in Volume II of his Collected Works very accurately that Christianity introduced a new social order in the first place. From its very beginning, it was not primarily a “doctrine” but exactly a “community”.

Beside a kerygma – a message that was necessary to spread in the world – and the Good News – the Gospel to be proclaimed and delivered to people – there was a “new community” – distinct, bearing no resemblance to anything else, continually growing and forming, grouping together more and more faithful. [FLOROVSKY, G.: Christianity and Culture, Belmont 1974, p 67.]

After its establishing in the Roman provinces, the community started to infiltrate into different levels, classes and institutions of the Roman Empire, which concluded with the Christianization of the Empire, together with its Emperor. In view of this, the fall of the Czarist Regime and the social changes that took place during the 1917 October Revolution in Russia could be considered the end of the Constantine Epoch. With the beginning of the new social order, the modern totalitarian movement – Communism – gained a power.

Today’s generation does not understand how Communism was at the culmination point of its ideological development. Those, born earlier, although with a certain nostalgia, remember the times of one party´s domination as well as the Marxist-Leninist philosophy in which everyone saw a project of a social equality rather than a totalitarian movement.

Today, almost no one reads the writings of Lenin or the resolutions of the Communist Party’s meetings, which talk about the struggle with religion and the Orthodox Church. The truth is, however, that in former Czarist Russia, where the status of the Orthodox Church was privileged, Lenin called for its complete destruction. Already in 1909, in his controversy “On the Relationship of the Working Class to Religion,” he wrote: “Religion is the opium of mankind – this Marx’s statement is the cornerstone of Marxism’s worldview on its relationship to religion.”

Before the revolution overthrew the old regime and Lenin became Russia’s new ruler, he tactically wrote that even the faithful might be the members of the Communist Party. However, as soon as they were able to seize the power in October 1917, the Bolsheviks issued a series of anti-church decrees in the spirit of wartime atheism. Patriarch Tikhon’s reaction was the anathema declaration over the Communist government. The local council of the Russian Orthodox Church, which took place in 1917, confirmed this anathema on Soviet power and government.

The Communists’ response was uncompromising and cruel. In one of the letters of the world proletariat leader, as Lenin was called, addressed to Felix Dzerzhinsky on May 1, 1919, we can read that it is necessary to “get done with the pops (priests) and religion as soon as possible. The pops, as counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs, they must be arrested and shot with no mercy. The churches must be taken or changed into warehouses …” So, the “red terror” that had not been experienced by Christianity since the era of pagan Roman Emperors, was resurrected.

This other face of a progressive ideology that, for effect, had been striving for a just society and social equality, should have remained hidden from the eyes of the trustful people in the Red Army-liberated countries until the Communists get into power. That was exactly the case when Communism spread like plague to the countries of South Eastern and Central Europe, including Czechoslovakia.

The Red Army’s victory over another ideology of evil-Nazism brought optimism to those who above all saw Communism as more just society and social equality. Unfortunately, such an optimism had captured many Orthodox believers in Balkan as well as in our country who after many centuries of oppression by Western Christianity, coupled with Feudalism and later Bourgeoisie and Imperialism, saw in Communism hope for a better life and a more righteous world.

I will not talk about the hellishness of the Communist Regime as an ideology that seeks material welfare without any spiritual content. I do not want to deal with the sad details of its pre-war and post-war histories full of blood and tiredness, political intrigues, processes and executions, the constant search for a class enemy, and, above all, the open or hidden persecution of the Orthodox Church.

I would like to touch in a few words the experience of our local Church during the Communist Regime in Czechoslovakia, which has noticeably marked its modern history.

Post-war psychosis in our countries led many Christians to servility against Communist state power, which used this psychological state of the faithful and from its part started riots among members of individual faiths in order to discredit the Christian Church as an institution and its subsequent liquidation.

The Czechoslovak Communist Regime in its struggle with the Roman Catholics who were the greatest threat being the most numerous from all Christian denominations did not hesitate to exploit the natural and gradual process of the return of the Uniates – Greek Catholics, to the Orthodox Church – a process that had begun much earlier, almost 100 years before the February 1948 Revolution in Czechoslovakia.

Already in the times of Austro-Hungarian domination, national awakeners in Bohemia and Slovakia increasingly looked towards Russia and the Slavic part of the Balkans, especially to Serbia and Montenegro, where they sought the roots of their own identity. This fact led the Austro-Hungarian authorities to intensify the fight against Pan-Slavism, which de facto, meant against the Orthodox Church. Beginning with Ľudovít Štúr and Václav Hanka to Adolf Dobriansk and with the Marmaros-Sighet process to the execution of the priest-martyr Maxim Sandowicz, there has been only one way of cross – the path of desire for its own identity and the authentic Church.

The year 1918 and the constitution of Czechoslovakia brought much greater religious freedom, which helped consolidate Orthodoxy in Czechoslovakia. Already existing process of returning back to Orthodoxy, intensified by the movement in the United States and Canada among emigration, almost exclusively the former Uniates from the poorest regions of Eastern Slovakia, who began to return to the Orthodox Church, together with the return of the Orthodox Czechs from Volyn province and numerous Russian migrants after the Bolshevik Revolution greatly strengthened the position of Orthodoxy in Central Europe.

If we add to this a national revivalism among the Roman Catholics in Bohemia, which led to the creation of a so-called Czechoslovak Church, the part of the faithful of which later accepted the Orthodoxy, the prognosis of the development of the Orthodox Church in Bohemia and Slovakia were more than favourable. However, the Second World War came to an end, and the Orthodox Church in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was outlawed. Execution of St. Bishop-martyr Gorazd and his closest associates greatly weakened the position of Orthodoxy in Bohemia.

In Slovakia, where until 1948 the return of entire church parishes from the Union to the Orthodox Church in a natural and nonviolent manner, the communist state power in 1950 produced a so-called Presov´s Council, which “abolished” the Greek-Catholic Church and the former Uniates, regardless of their opinion, became “Orthodox” “during the night”. This irreparably damaged and stopped the naturally ongoing process and, at the same time, the firm foundations of the “feeling of injustice” and of the mutual hostility between the Greek Catholics and the Orthodox in the near future have been laid.

The Communist regime ingeniously used social issues in promoting its decisions in the religious sphere. The liturgies and masses on weekdays and sometimes even on Sundays and holidays had to end before work began. Orthodox believers were forced to move to a new, state – Gregorian calendar, which also implied the celebration of Pascha. Former Greek-Catholic clergy – professors, who formally accepted Orthodoxy but were forever imprisoned in Western scholastic categories, lectured at the Orthodox Theological Faculty.

All this stagnation, artificially nourished and supported by the state power, brought the bitter fruits in the so-called reforming year of 1968 in the form of the “restoration” of the Greek-Catholic Church in Slovakia. At the beginning, there were only verbal skirmishes among the believers in the parishes, which, however, very soon grew into physical attacks and battles, many times with a very sad end.

Nevertheless, Communist state power forced the Orthodox and the Greek Catholics into a so-called Common Use of the churches what for the next two decades remained the source of countless conflicts and provocations. However, it was during this difficult period that a conscious return to the Church Fathers tradition of the Orthodox theology as well as gradual purification of local liturgical expressions and the fundamental revival of spiritual life has occurred at the Orthodox Theological Faculty and then in our wider ecclesiastic environment.

The fall of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia at the end of 1989 brought painful but definitive resolution of the long-standing problems and the provisional arrangements between the Orthodox and the Greek Catholics and normalized the tense relations between them through a so-called property-legal settlement under a state supervision.

In practice, it meant that almost all the Churches and the church buildings owned by the Orthodox Church were handed over to the Greek Catholics, and the Orthodox believers were forced to build new churches and parish houses with some financial support from the state.

Although the state secretaries disappeared from a church life, the new challenges and problems appeared with the restoration of freedom, for which were not ready, in particular, those born earlier. The doors of the schools and institutions, prisons and barracks, hospitals, and other institutions were reopened for the Church and the priests. It seemed that the newly acquired freedom was a cure-all for all the difficulties and problems. It turned out, however, that a more responsible challenge and a more complex test than persecution was presented into the church life.

Nowadays, many people understand the freedom of man absolutely differently from the Christian understanding. It is no longer the moral choice freedom and the ideal that lies in the keeping of the clear and unambiguous moral standards. Falsely understood freedom – liberalism, in which all is allowed now, I dare to say, is a greater challenge for Christianity than Communism was.

Consumerism – this is the reality of today. And only God knows what regulations will be set in some decades by the children who grow up today in incomplete or broken families and whose conscience is shaped by very individual, if any, moral principles.

Another major challenge today for the Orthodox Church is migration and radical Islamism. I do not want to compare Islamism and Communism as ideologies. There are many differences between them but what they share is their violent totalitarianism. We are convinced about it by what is happening today in the Middle East.

In recent years, things are so frightening that it is hard to find a parallel to them in the history of the world. Even more, we should ask God for the precious gift of peace and freedom for the whole world and try to help through prayers and deeds all those whom war and persecution deprived of the roof over their heads and banished them out of their homes.

The living more than a two-thousand-year experience of the Christian Church proves that the force of arms cannot stop evil – it only can be stopped by the holy life. It is proved not only by an inimitable example of the Christians of the Roman Empire who, through their lives, forced Roman Emperors to legalize Christianity more than 1,700 years ago by the Milan Edict, but also by the personal heroism of a myriad of the new martyrs from the recent bishops, priests, monks and the laymen of our Orthodox Churches who suffered much from the perverse Communist regime, and who often had to lay down their lives for their faith in Christ.

The fact that their sacrifice was not pointless is proved by the many blessed fruits that it has brought. One of them is our present Christian freedom. Let us not forget their love and self-sacrifice, nor why this invaluable gift of freedom has been given to us. “Let us put away all the harlotry and sin that seeks to overcome us, and endure in the run that we have before us, looking up to the Originator and Creator of our faith Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1). To Him, “the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, honour and glory forever and ever” (1 Timothy 1:17).

Archbishop of Presov,
Metropolitan of the Czech Lands and Slovakia

Photography: Robert Nicolae / Basilica.ro

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