Orthodox and Catholics in Russia are developing joint initiatives for the protection of life. In doing so, they are transforming shared beliefs into concrete programmes and responding to the appeal made by their church leaders. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is promoting this cooperation.
By Eva-Maria Kolmann
Question: The Foreign Office of the Moscow Patriarchate held an international seminar at the end of January, during which the Orthodox and Catholic churches jointly addressed the issue of abortion. You also took part as a representative of Aid to the Church in Need. What was it about?
Peter Humeniuk: Both churches share a deep anxiety in the face of the millionfold killing of unborn children. When Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow met in Havana one year ago, next to peace in the Middle East and the growing persecution of Christians, the protection of life was one of the most important issues to be included in the declaration the two leaders signed. The seminar in Moscow was thus a direct result of this historic meeting. After all, the document was not signed to become just another piece of paper, but to act as a guide for the future. It has to become manifest in the concrete life of the church and bear fruit. Basically, the seminar was about one thing: saving unborn children.
What does this mean in concrete terms?
PH: The protection of life is an issue on which the two churches completely agree, also in terms of theology. This makes it easy to take joint, concrete steps in the spirit of ecumenism. The seminar focused on analysing the situation, but also and particularly on finding solutions. The seminar was a platform for personal encounters and for an intense and constructive exchange of experiences. In many countries and over a long period of time, the Catholic church has gathered a wide range of experiences pertaining to the protection of life. Therefore, one of the invited speakers was a Catholic group from Milan that offers pregnancy counselling and has already saved almost 20,000 children since it came into existence. The Orthodox church in Russia would like to profit by these experiences, even though it has recently also launched numerous initiatives in its eparchies to help young women and girls in problematic situations say “yes” to their child. During the sessions, participants deliberated and reflected together, and role plays were used to vividly illustrate how a concrete counselling situation with an expectant mother in need could look like. Thus, the lively exchange of experiences was interspersed with deeply moving and sometimes sad moments. During this process, it was a great pleasure to see how fast friendships developed while working towards a common goal.
Why is this issue such an important one for the church in Russia at the moment?
PH: Unfortunately, abortion is very prevalent in Russia. This can be traced back to Soviet times, when many people considered abortion to be a sort of “normal” form of family planning. Unfortunately, this mentality is still deeply rooted in many people. The Orthodox church has always spoken out against abortion, of course, as did its Catholic sister Church. But now there is a growing awareness that concrete deeds and initiatives need to be developed to help the women. On the whole, the Russian people are beginning to become aware of this problem, because if nothing else, the demographic development in Russia – and, incidentally, also that of the Western world – has now become a wake-up call for many people and has given them something to think about.
Why did ACN, with you as its representative, attend the event?
PH: Our charity supports initiatives that deal with these types of questions. ACN has already been working for a quarter of a century to set up a dialogue with the Russian Orthodox church. Pope Saint John Paul II gave our founder Werenfried van Straaten this assignment in 1992. The unheard-of sacrifices the Orthodox church in Russia had to make during Soviet times gave rise to this request. After the political turnaround, the Orthodox church practically had to start at zero again. And that was the moment to initiate an “ecumenism of solidarity” on all levels to follow the “ecumenism of the martyrs” that had been lived as a matter of course by the Christians of various denominations in the Soviet camps and prisons.
We must not forget that the Second Vatican Council described the Orthodox church as a “sister Church”. Our charity already supported the underground Orthodox church during Soviet times. After the political turnaround and a thousand years of separation, it was finally possible to take joint steps: first, to reach out to the sister church through charitable deeds and then, finally, to embark upon mutual paths through joint activities.
And what do you think ACN’s role will be in the future?
PH: ACN has the privilege of being able to continue in this role as a sort of “bridge builder”. Trust has grown over decades of working together.
Up until this point, last year’s historic meeting between the pope and the patriarch of Moscow was the culmination of the joint path of the two churches. However, it was never intended to be the endpoint. On the contrary, it was the beginning of a new stage of the journey.
We are pleased that, as a consequence of and in continuation of this meeting, we are now able to work together with the Orthodox church in Russia in two areas in particular: our mission to help the suffering and persecuted Christians in the Middle East, especially in Syria, and in the area of the family, which also includes the protection of life. Both are fateful issues that our founder also carried close to his heart. Here we can combine several essential elements of our work and put them into service to foster a living ecumenism. When we try to find joint answers and solutions for the pressing questions of our times within the meaning of the gospel, and sit down together to do so, ecumenism happens practically by itself. This experience is an incentive for us to continue along this path.