Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Catholic Persecution in Czarist Russia: The Forgotten Part II


In my last post, which was my first post commenting on the book titled, 'The Forgotten', I covered a brief history of early Christianity in Russia, which started out as being Catholic, yet slowly drifted into schism with Constantinople. Next the book moves on to cover the persecution of the Catholic Church in Czarist Russia. Before the author approaches this topic, he looks at the Catholic Church as it appeared in 1914, when the Blessed Mother appeared to peasants at a Greek Catholic chapel near Hrushiv, which is now in present day Ukraine. The Blessed Mother warned the peasants of future wars and the danger of Russia becoming Godless. Little is mentioned of this apparition, which preceded Fatima by three years. What followed was one of the most Godless persecutions of the Catholic faith to be carried out in the modern age. But before this persecution, it is interesting to note how bad the Catholic faith was persecuted by the Czarist regimes which came before the Bolshevik revolution. In 1913 the Russian empire numbered around 5 million Catholics, despite the persecutions it endured for hundreds of years prior.


 The author moves to cover many of the earlier episodes of persecution by the Russian government, such as those by Peter the Great who reigned between 1682-1745. For example, when he went into the Catholic monastery in Polotsk and threw the Sacred Host on the floor and murdered a Basilian Catholic monk who was trying to retrieve the Host. Peter made sure that the Catholic monastery was looted, relics destroyed and their bodies burned to prevent veneration. In 1719 the Jesuits were expelled, and Empress Anna who ruled between 1730 and 1740 enforced a severe persecution of the Catholics where many were imprisoned or stripped of their property. In 1747 the Capuchins were kicked out as well for making efforts at unity with the Armenians. I was surprised to learn that even Catherine the Great restricted the Catholic Church to only nine parishes for the entire country, and carried out persecutions and forced conversions to Orthodoxy. Catherine attacked the Greek Catholic Church in Kiev by shutting down monasteries and forced many to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. The author says that 8 million Catholics and 9000 parishes were eventually brought under Orthodox subjection! As areas like Poland and Lithuania came under Russian rule, more Catholics also came under persecution, since those areas were largely Catholic. Poland was not a nation in those times and was divided between Russian, German and Austrian rule.

Nicholas I later promoted a more idealistic national ideal for a one Church, one Czar, one Nation enterprise. Catholic schools were forced to close or convert to secular Russian schools. Since Catholicism was strong in Poland, the teaching of the Polish language was actually banned in Russia. These types of persecutions continued on until the Bolshevik revolution, waxing and waning depending who was in power at the time, seeing somewhat of a reprieve between 1890 and 1914. But for the most part, on the eve of the revolution, many Catholic religious orders had been shut down or silenced and many Catholic churches were closed. For example, in 1913 the Russian Greek Catholic Church in Saint Petersburg was forcibly shut down. One point is certain, the Russian people had taken a nationalist view on religion. Even though there had been Eastern Catholics in Russia since Christianity had taken hold centuries before, Catholicism largely became to be identified with the Western Polish culture. Despite these persecutions the Catholic population still numbered 5 million in 1913.

From around 1890 to 1914 both Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy saw a resurgence in Russia and both experienced renewal, however the Orthodox Church remained largely viewed as a State religion. As a result of this, during this time many Orthodox were converted to Latin Catholicism. Since the Greek Catholic Churches had already been extinguished in many areas, the Latin Catholics gained many converts. This however caused more problems because the Latin Catholic influence became more noticeable and identifiable with the West. This unfortunately gave a Western flavor to Catholicism, which was not well accepted by the Russian culture. If the Greek Catholics had not been so persecuted earlier, Catholicism may not have been so identified by many as being Western in character.

Despite Latin influence however Catholics did retain many Eastern practices such as having prayer corners in their homes where they prayed with icons, candles and prayer books. The rosary however did become a widely practiced prayer, which was took hold because of Western influence, and the practice of the rosary by persecuted Catholics became very popular. The author points out that many practices varied according to ethnicity, and popular processions were allowed such as the Feast of Corpus Christi, which would later be outlawed after the Revolution. Frequent communion, which was promoted by Pope Pius X was largely unknown by Catholics in Russia, and it was virtually impossible for many Catholics at the time to practice. I found it quite surprising that the Sacrament of Confirmation was virtually outlawed, and most Catholics never received the Sacrament because of government opposition to the Catholic bishops.

The persecution of the Catholic Church for centuries before the Bolsheviks came into power is perhaps a warning of what happens when the true Church is subverted in a country. As the Catholic faith is extinguished, the anti-Christ attitude only gets worse. The Catholic Church had up until the Revolution fought to remain in existence in Russia, despite the war waged against her on many fronts. What followed this first age of persecution in Russia however would take persecution in Russia to a whole new level. Not even Orthodoxy would be spared this time around. Before the Revolution, Orthodoxy had been closely allied with the State, and therefore was able to retain a huge presence among the Russian population. But the persecutions against Catholics that Orthodoxy at times went along with would soon catch up to them.

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