The Russian Orthodox Church wants to 'form Christians worthy of the name'

New document titled "Principles of the activity of the diocesan missionary office". It is a missionary program that foresees "the creation of conditions for the active participation of the newly baptized in the life of the parish, and for their subsequent insertion".

May 23, 2018

By Vladimir Rozanskij
On May 14, the Synod of Russian Orthodox bishops approved an important document, titled "Principles of the activity of the diocesan missionary office". It is a vast and capillary project of evangelization, aimed mainly at the formation of lay faithful and their insertion into the life of the Church. In this way, the Patriarchate wants to free itself from the identification of religion with the "national sentiment" that has characterized these decades of post-Soviet religious renaissance, and find ways to form Christians worthy of the name.

The denomination of "Missionary Office" therefore summarizes all those pastoral dimensions related to formation, catechesis and re-evangelization of a people who have turned very superficially to atheism in the profession of faith, following the spirit of the time and political slogans. The missionary program no longer looks at territories still to be "conquered" by the orthodox faith, according to the classical meaning of the term, even though the preamble recalls that "missionary witness belongs to the very nature of the Church One, Holy , Universal (Sobornaja, the Russian word for Catholica) and Apostolic, and consists in the proclamation of the Good News to the whole world ".

In distinguishing "aims and objectives", the program actually envisages "the formation of those who, while baptized, do not participate fully in ecclesial life, and also those who, not being baptized, belong to the peoples who historically profess Orthodoxy" . The definition normally applied to "Orthodox faithful", in fact, applies substantially on an ethnic basis, which is why 80% of Russians are counted as children of the Orthodox Church, excluding ethnic groups that refer to other confessions and religions. Evidently, the bishops decided to overcome this purely formal approach, on which estimates that speak of a "religious renaissance" of the last thirty years have been based. Therefore, an intense pre-baptismal and post-baptismal catechesis is foreseen.

The second great objective of the "mission" is exquisitely defensive: "against the sectarian threat, against the neo-pagan threat, prevention of religious extremism and inter-confessional conflicts", reflecting rather the more radical ideal of "militant" Orthodoxy as a guardian of the true soul of the Russian people. Only "in some regions the missionary activity of the eparchies can be addressed to the pastoral care of the small indigenous peoples", according to a less traditional "ad gentes" approach in the Eastern Churches, compared to Catholics and Protestants.

In Russian history, in fact, there are some similarities with the Catholic expansion, for example, in the American or African continent, according to the times of the progressive colonization of the immense Siberian and Asian territory. The ancient kingdoms of the Mongol Khans, which in Europe and the Middle East had assumed the Muslim religion, did not leave specific religious heritage in the vast spaces of North Asia, where there are many ethnic groups still linked to paganism, or at most practicing forms of a simplified Buddhism. The, nineteenth century’s particularly intense policies of Russification almost completely erased the memory of those beliefs, if not in very small local dimensions. The explicitly Buddhist peoples, moreover, were not subject to forced conversion, so much so that an entire region of European Russia itself, Kalmykia, still maintains Buddhism as a "state religion".

In the mid-1800s an explicitly missionary Theological Academy was opened in Kazan, the ancient capital of the last Khanate Tatar, and still today the capital of the Federal Republic of Tatarstan. The aim was mainly to counter the spread of Islam, as well as the acquisition of greater knowledge of the other Eastern religious traditions of the territories of the Russian Empire. The result was really interesting, allowing the integration of Muslims in the Orthodox state that still today can be a model to be imitated in other parts of the world.

The danger of religious extremism referred to by the synodal document does not therefore refer mainly to "Islamic terrorism" as in Western countries, except for the most problematic areas of Chechnya and the Caucasus. The threats from which to defend Orthodoxy, according to the Patriarchate of Moscow, are today called Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientology, or some uncontrollable forms of Pentecostalism and Gospel Baptists, which the Russian Church considers particularly detrimental to the spiritual health of the population. Until recently, "Catholic proselytism" was also included among the list of enemies, in fact never really practiced by miniscule Russian Catholic communities, and which today the Patriarchate believes to have finally tamed.

The missionary program, to be developed in all the almost three hundred Orthodox eparchies, foresees "the creation of conditions for the active participation of the newly baptized in the life of the parish, and for their subsequent insertion", using a typical term of "religious renaissance" "Recently, the commissioning (votserkovlenie) of the neophytes. Special "missionary celebrations" are envisaged, to be combined with catechetical approaches: the Orthodox Byzantine rite, which is celebrated in the ancient Slavic-ecclesiastical language, is not very understandable for the faithful in general.

A proposal which has been of central interest to Patriarch Kirill is "the creation in the larger parishes, under the guidance of the priest or parish missionary (if any), of groups of volunteers to offer advice on parish life", in the manner of the catechists and the lay collaborators of Catholic parishes or evangelical communities, which are not traditional for Orthodoxy. Another important factor is "the formation of the clergy for missionary service", which is also necessary in the West, as Pope Francis himself insists. Another initiative similar to Catholic parishes are the "Sunday papers" and " Gospel groups ", to be studied in the current language, while the recommendation of "apologetic activity" to pay particular attention to "internet, televisions and press, for missionary purposes " is typically Russian.

The Russian Church therefore seeks to free itself from the suffocating state embrace, even if the document recommends "collaborating with the institutions and social gatherings that support the missionary purposes of the Church". True religious revival is not only the end of state atheism and its persecutions, but the growth in the faith of the people and of the entire people.--Asia News

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