Before his death in March 1991, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre received a letter from some Catholics from Moscow begging him to help preserve Catholic Tradition in Russia. When, finally, the Eastern Block crumbled and opened its borders to the West, the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) began to develop other missions in Eastern Europe rather quickly (Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia), but somehow Russia became virtually the last on the list of “things to do.”
Missionary Work in Russia
Traditional Catholic missionary work in Russia compounds the difficulties found in other Eastern countries. Besides being the very heart of the former atheistic Soviet Union, most Russians are nominally Orthodox, and therefore, staunchly anti-Catholic. Also consider this difficulty: how could the SSPX begin to try and explain to the Russian people that outside of the Catholic Church there is no salvation, and yet, because of the modernist crisis, they should support the Society and disobey the pope?
Because of these and other practical difficulties, progress in our missionary work has been very slow over the two decades that we have been present in the country. After offering holy Mass in hotel rooms and apartments for years, we are finally renting small chapels in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. Although they are only provisional, they certainly give us the stability needed to further solidify our missionary work. Unfortunately, because of our limited forces, we are only able to visit these chapels twice a month. It is the absolute bare minimum needed to keep these missions alive. However, God willing, this year will see the ordination of our first Russian priest, bringing much hope for the future of Tradition in Russia.
Many in the West currently have a naive idea about Russian anti-liberalism, and a religious rebirth of Russia. However, they should not forget that Russia is still filled with statues of Vladimir Lenin and other communist “heroes,” while subways and streets are still named after KGB murderers. The Soviet Union has not been publicly repudiated, and it is still used to strengthen Russian nationalism. Compared to Western liberalism, communism itself appears quite “conservative,” but in my opinion, it is a little bit too romantic to see Russia as a new “Christian Conservative” political power, although it is undeniable that there are signs of improvement inside Russia.
Spiritually speaking, things are worse. Atheistic communism has had a terribly enduring negative effect on the minds of most Russians. Religion is something still very foreign, strange, or simply an object of intellectual curiosity. Orthodox practice has gone down to less than 5% of the population. As for Catholicism, the situation in Russia is similar to the Catholic situation in other former Soviet countries because of having been virtually isolated from the West for about one hundred years. Of course, the ideas of Vatican II and the post-conciliar liturgical reforms were known in all Eastern Europe, but the Church was in no hurry to implement these changes because it was too busy simply trying to survive in an atheistic and godless environment.
SSPX’s Apostolate in Russia
About 95% of our faithful are converts from either atheism or from Russian Orthodoxy. That means that most of them received no Catholic upbringing or formation. The Latin Catholic Church itself was always something very foreign for all of them. Try to understand that Catholicism has had little success in Russia for hundreds and hundreds of years. It is very difficult for us to understand the common Russian person’s ideas about the priesthood, religion, and prayer. For example, being in Russia all of their life, Russians are used to priests always having beards, long hair, and a wife.
Also, during the Orthodox liturgy they only stand, and they sing everything. There is no silence. Therefore, many of them found it very difficult to kneel and pray or to even be still and quiet during prayer. I found one group of our faithful standing in Church while praying the Rosary. I was certainly not used to seeing that! Basic things that we take for granted are very different for them. But Russians come from a very different religious background. That is not to say that they practiced their Orthodox faith regularly (because very few actually attend the Divine Liturgy every Sunday), but just by being Russians they are surrounded by Orthodox culture, films, art etc., and this permeates their ideas about religion.
Most of our faithful are good people who are intellectual converts who understand theology and history better than most priests, but because of a lack of Catholic upbringing, they require a lot of training of the will and basic education on how to pray. It is certainly a unique apostolate, and our priests have to know their theology very well, but also be very merciful and patient because there can be a lot of misunderstandings and disappointments.
Divine Providence blessed our two Russian missions with the visit of Bishop Bernard Fellay, our Superior General, in November 2017. He visited both St. Petersburg, and then traveled to Moscow where he participated in a two-day Conference organized by the Society and the Fatima Center in Moscow. The Conference was purposefully organized for the 100th anniversary of the apparitions in Fatima.
Truly Russia holds a special place in the Immaculate Heart of Mary and therefore, it is a blessing that Providence gives us this opportunity to work in this spiritually ravaged land. The Church has tried to help souls in need here, but the Orthodox or the communists have prevented it for centuries. Now the door is much more open for the Church. Now, we can actually do something in Russia, and so therefore we must! In my opinion, if you look at Russian history, it is one of the greatest opportunities for the Catholic Church to work in Russia. Unfortunately, the modernists and ecumenists are also now freely working in Russian and with many more priests and resources than the SSPX. That means that they are filling the minds of Catholics and Russians with a new Catholicism. That is why our little mission is so vital.
Fr. Pezzutti, born in Columbus, Ohio, was ordained in Winona in 2010, and exercised his apostolate primarily in Lithuania and Russia. He is presently prior in Kaunas, Lithuania.