For much of the twentieth century, Catholics around the world prayed after every Low Mass for the conversion of Russia.
Called the Leonine Prayers, originally they were conceived as a protection of the sovereignty of the Papal States, which were then under attack. This intention ended with the Lateran Treaty of 1929 but the prayers continued from that time for the conversion of Russia that had become an atheistic state bent on destroying religion.
The prayers included 3 Ave Marias, a Salve Regina, a versicle and response, a prayer for the conversion of sinners and the “exaltation of Holy Mother Church,” ending with the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. Pius X added the invocation “Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Have Mercy on Us.”
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Before the prayers were suppressed in 1965 just think of the billions of them offered for this intention? From little schoolgirls to Catholic heads of state to canonized saints, they all prayed for the conversion of Russia. Does any faithful Catholic think that the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 was not the result of these prayers?
The Cold War—World War III—ended bloodlessly. A murderous regime that had killed millions upon millions and enslaved many more and had tried to enchain the human spirit was toppled almost miraculously. There should have been a victorious parade up Fifth Avenue in New York.
But the work of the Spirit was not yet finished. Toppling the regime was only part of it. The other part was conversion. And what did we think that would look like?
Last summer I visited Russia for the first time. In recent years, I have come to work closely with the Russian government at the UN. They have come alive on issues related to life and family.
Additionally, I have been working with a movie producer to make a film about the remarkable achievements of the American ballerina Keenan Kampa who last year became the first American and only the third foreigner ever invited to join the most storied ballet troupe in history, the Mariinsky of St. Petersburg.
I believe I’ve seen a glimpse of the conversion of Russia.
Vladimir Yakunin, head of the Russian railroad and a long-time close associate of Vladimir Putin, a man sometime suggested as Putin’s successor, had sponsored a visit to Russia of the True Cross of St. Andrew.
The True Cross of St. Andrew was burned in the French Revolution. Before being consumed in toto, a Catholic priest snatched it from the flames. During the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul the Great, it was returned to the Greek Orthodox Church.
Yakunin, along with his wife who brought her husband to the faith, brought the True Cross to Russia. It was shown in Moscow only a stone’s throw from the Kremlin at Christ Our Savior Cathedral, a highly symbolic Church that was built by the Tsar to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon but that was razed by Stalin and then rebuilt under Putin.
On the day I was there, the faithful stood in the rain for five hours to venerate the cross—to kiss the glass—for about one second before Cathedral aides gently but firmly shoved them on their way. Five hours in the rain for one second of veneration. Meditate on that.
The True Cross of St. Andrew is important to the Russian faithful because he preached along the Black Sea and is said to have traveled up the Dnieper River to plant a cross in what is now the site of St. Andrew’s Church of Kiev.
Under the auspices of his St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation, Yakunin—who the Obama administration placed on the State Department list of those forbidden to do business in the U.S.—also sponsored a Russian tour of the Belt of Mary. Two million people are reported to have venerated that.
The Russians have long venerated the Mother of Jesus. One of religious and nationalistic symbols for Russians is Our Lady of Kazan, which rests in the Cathedral in St. Petersburg. This image is so important to the Russians that even wicked Stalin had it paraded around the walls of Leningrad to break the Nazi siege, which was then broken.
I bring up Yakunin deliberately. When I wrote about him a few years ago, a good friend of mine who worked in foreign policy for Vice President Cheney, refused to speak with me for six months. He is controversial. I bring him up to demonstrate the straightness of God’s crooked lines.
And what about Putin, another of God’s crooked lines?
It is clear that under his direction, the government has taken strong positions on life and family matters. Indeed, Russia is one of the leaders at the UN in rolling back anti-life language, in reforming the rapaciously pro-abortion treaty monitoring bodies, and in blocking the LGBT ascendancy.
Beyond politics, though, an American who is a bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia tells me—as is well known in Russia—Putin has a confessor he sees once a week.
Recall that when President George W. Bush met Putin for the first time Putin was wearing the cross he wore as a baby when his mother secretly baptized him. It was saved from a fire and given to Putin by his mother prior to his first trip to Israel. He has never taken it off. Putin buried both his mother and his father out of the Church in St. Petersburg where she baptized him.
Russian experts Jiri Valenta and Leni Friedman Valenta, writing in the current issue of The National Interest tell us, “In our search for Putin’s soul, and through many interviews with Russian Orthodox clergy and believers throughout Russia, Europe and the Middle East, we’ve come to regard his embrace of religious orthodoxy as genuine.”
The Valentas consider rather than the “paranoid megalomaniac” he is portrayed as in the American press, he is more an “ambitious technocrat,” more than that, a “Christian autocrat.” He is not a democrat, like Andrei Sakharov, but more like the “anti-Bolshevik, religious-nationalist” Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Many will be appalled even to consider the sincerity of Putin’s religious beliefs. The proof of his insincerity is for all to see. They say Putin is merely using religious faith and social conservative politics to advance his imperialistic agenda. But, a well-placed Catholic living in Moscow tells me that Putin’s sincerity is not the most important thing. The most important thing is that Putin believes these are important for Russia, that it is important for Russians to practice the faith, to protect the unborn child, to block the LGBTs, and defend the faithful overseas.
And what of the Orthodox Church? It was greatly compromised during the Communist darkness so there is rebuilding to do. After all, attendance at the Orthodox Liturgy is still quite small. To their credit and with hope for the future they have a dynamic young bishop named Hilarion Alfeyev. Only 48, Metropolitan Hilarion is the head of external relations for the Church, the author of 600 articles and 40 books, possessing a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford, decidedly western in his outlook and quite friendly to the Catholic Church.
Fifteen years ago, he was the Orthodox representative to the reopening of the Catholic Cathedral in Moscow, what had been turned into an office building by the Reds. On behalf of the Orthodox Church, he warmly welcomed the reopening of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, still only one of two Catholic Churches in Moscow.
He has been to Rome many times and, working with Inside the Vatican founder Robert Moynihan and the conservative U.S.-based Bradley Foundation, has brought his orchestral works there, also to New York and Washington DC.
Last year, when Hilarion went to meet the new Pope as the official representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, he gave Francis an image of Our Lady of Humility, an obvious double message in addressing what separates East from West, the two lungs of the Church of Christ. The even more interesting thing about that gift and its giver is that Francis gave that exact gift to Pope Emeritus Benedict when they first met after Francis’ elevation. Hilarion was very pleased by this.
It is entirely possible that this western-looking polymath could end up as Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. After all, Hilarion’s boss, Patriarch Kirill, used to have Hilarion’s current job.
It is abundantly clear that Russia is profoundly important to the Catholic Church. There are the Leonine Prayers. But there is also Fatima. The Blessed Mother appeared in the era of the Russian Revolution, much concerned with atheistic Russia, and in her Second Secret asked for Russia to be consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Mary by the pope in communion with all the bishops of the world. According to Sister Lucia, one of the Fatima children, Pope St. John Paul the Great accomplished this on March 25, 1984. The Soviet Union folded a few years later. The video of John Paul II reading the prayers is quite dramatic.
It is unfortunate that the crises in Crimea and Ukraine have occurred. It is profoundly unfortunate for all those directly harmed in the war going on there now. There are grave injustices happening there, even as you read this. But the harm goes beyond the immediate and into opportunities now being missed.
In their National Interest piece the Valentas assert that Russia ought to be our partner in fighting ISIS, for instance. It is unclear that the Obama administration would really be interested in doing the hard things to make that happen, but if they did, they would find a experienced partner in the Russians.
The Russian government is outspoken in making the protection of Christians a foreign policy priority, while our own government has made LGBT ours. The Russians know the Islamist threat as well as any government in the world. They have fought radical Islam for decades, even centuries. The Russian government has offered citizenship to the Christians of Syria! The Russians have even made what appears to be a sincere move toward Israel.
None of this column should be read as an apology for Putin or his colleagues or the actions of his government. I agree with some and strongly disagree with others. The column should be read as a consideration that there are things going on in Russia that we certainly cannot understand by reading the New York Times and that we will not fully know until the General Judgment.
What we know is this. God writes straight with crooked lines and the devil hates such straightness. The devil rejoices in what divides us. Right now we are divided when we should be about His Father’s business, which includes the conversion of Russia and—while we’re at it—the conversion of America.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is Metropolitan Hilarion presenting Our Lady of Humility as a gift to Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 20, 2013. (Photo credit: L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO)