Cross Meets Kremlin

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Of all the events that have shaken the Soviet bloc in 1989, none is more fraught with history -- or more implausible -- than the polite encounter that will take place this week in Vatican City. There, in the spacious ceremonial library of the 16th century Apostolic Palace, the czar of world atheism, Mikhail Gorbachev, will visit the Vicar of Christ, Pope John Paul II. Before delivering formal speeches in the presence of their entourages, the two East Europeans will sit down alone to chat in Russian without interpreters.

The moment will be electric, and not only because John Paul helped inflame the fervor for freedom in his Polish homeland that has swept like brush fire across Eastern Europe. Beyond that, the meeting of the two men symbolizes the end of the 20th century's most dramatic spiritual war, a conflict in which the seemingly irresistible force of Communism battered against the immovable object of Christianity.

Until recently, the battalions of Marxism seemed to have the upper hand over the soldiers of the Cross. In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Lenin had pledged toleration but delivered terror. "Russia turned crimson with the blood of martyrs," says Father Gleb Yakunin, Russian Orthodoxy's bravest agitator for religious freedom. In the Bolsheviks' first five years in power, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were cut down by the red sickle. Stalin greatly accelerated the terror, and by the end of Khrushchev's rule, liquidations of clergy reached an estimated 50,000. After World War II, fierce but generally less bloody persecution spread into the Ukraine and the new Soviet bloc, affecting millions of Roman Catholics and Protestants as well as Orthodox.

The violence did not cease with Stalin's death in 1953. In 1981 Pope John Paul barely escaped assassination. It is believed in the highest circles of the Vatican that Gorbachev's Kremlin predecessors were the masterminds, though the Soviets deny this. The reason for the attack, claims a ranking official of the Holy See, was that the Polish Pope refused to accept the division of Europe into East and West. "The East bloc," says this official, "realized he was a destabilizing factor."

That he was. While Gorbachev's hands-off policy was the immediate cause of the chain reaction of liberation that has swept through Eastern Europe in the past few months, John Paul deserves much of the longer-range credit. His triumphant tour of Poland in 1979, says a Polish bishop, altered the "mentality of fear, the fear of police and tanks, of losing your job, of $ not getting promoted, of being thrown out of school, of failing to get a passport. People learned that if they ceased to fear the system, the system was helpless." Thus was born Solidarity, backed by the church and led by such friends of the Pope as Lech Walesa and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who subsequently became the Soviet bloc's first Christian Prime Minister.

But the Pope's vision stretched far beyond Poland. Just before he ascended the throne of Peter in 1978, Karol Wojtyla had confided to some German bishops an astonishing prediction of European Communism's inevitable demise. As an ideology, said the onetime philosophy professor, Communism had nothing more to say and stood for nothing except the perpetuation of power. As an economic system, it had failed utterly. During the Pope's 1979 visit to Orthodoxy's Ecumenical Patriarch in Turkey, a papal adviser told TIME's Wilton Wynn that John Paul urgently hoped to bring Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church together. Reason: the Pope was convinced that Communism faced inevitable collapse and that Soviet bloc nations would turn to Christianity to fill the void.

Though talk of Communism's collapse seemed like wishful thinking at that time, John Paul based his uncanny prediction on a keen sense of moral and historical dynamics, and also on personal experience. Unlike other leaders in the West, he knew what it was like to live under a Marxist regime day by day. Through the 1980s his speeches hammered home the concept of a Europe reunited from the Atlantic to the Urals and inspired by Christian faith. John Paul marked 1988's millennium of Ukrainian and Russian Christendom by evoking Europeans' "desire that barriers should be broken down."

If those barriers have really begun to topple, it is largely owing to the political reforms Gorbachev has inspired throughout the East bloc. In the process, the Soviet leader has let Christians start rebuilding their devastated institutions. Gorbachev is not motivated by religious belief, though he was baptized into Orthodoxy by his grandparents, and his mother remains a faithful churchgoer. His aims are temporal and pragmatic: he hopes to harness the force of Christianity in the fight against his country's moral decay, seen in growing drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, sloth and a 50% divorce rate. Says Russian Orthodoxy's Metropolitan Pitirim: "Everyone has realized that failures in the economy and politics are a result of ethical violations. We want a renewed sense of spiritual values."

Gorbachev has also grasped the fact that political and economic survival depends upon the goodwill of the Soviet people, among whom Christians have always far outnumbered Communists. Gorbachev, moreover, needs the cooperation of the West, observes Father Mark, a reform-minded Orthodox priest in Moscow, who considers Gorbachev's program within the U.S.S.R. "a result of foreign policy necessity." More than any of the 18 summit meetings between Soviet leaders and U.S. Presidents, Gorbachev's pilgrimage to the papal library will make his nation a respectable participant in world discourse.

The road to this week's Vatican meeting was paved by 212 decades of subtle diplomatic maneuvers. Beginning with John XXIII's papacy and the Second Vatican Council, the Vatican's master diplomat, Agostino Casaroli, pursued church Ostpolitik that sought openings in Eastern Europe in return for a more conciliatory stance toward Communism. But neither that strategy nor John Paul II's more hard-nosed approach achieved much before Gorbachev took power.

The big breakthrough came when the Pope boldly dispatched Casaroli, by now Vatican Secretary of State, and seven other Cardinals to Moscow last year to celebrate the Christian millennium. Casaroli managed a 90-minute meeting with Gorbachev and handed him a three-page letter plus a memo from John Paul listing complaints about treatment of Catholics. Gorbachev responded directly to several of the Pope's requests. Last year Lithuania's two leading bishops were returned to head dioceses after a combined 53 years of internal exile, and the cathedral in Vilnius, previously used as an art museum, was restored for worship. This year the Belorussian republic got its first bishop in 63 years. That paved the way for Archbishop Angelo Sodano, who oversees the Vatican's foreign relations, to make the arrangements for Gorbachev's historic visit to the Holy See.

These concessions to Catholicism are only part of Gorbachev's religious liberalization. Television is broadcasting worship services, and religious art is openly displayed. Last month the Orthodox Eucharist was celebrated in the 15th century Assumption Cathedral, inside the Kremlin, for the first time since 1918.

Most important, 3,000 new churches have opened in the past nine months. However, Russian Orthodoxy's current 10,000 churches are a far cry from the 18,000 that existed when Stalin died, and just a fraction of the 54,000 before the Bolshevik Revolution. Ever since World War II, when Stalin fostered a , revival of Orthodoxy in order to enlist its support in the war effort, the Kremlin's policy has been not to liquidate the church but to infiltrate and control it. For that reason, the Soviet regime has always preferred docile Russian-led Orthodox and Protestant churches to Catholicism, which is more independent and led by a feisty Pope in Rome.

But the battle for religious freedom is not yet won. The Supreme Soviet has still not taken up a long-anticipated revision of the repressive religious statute instituted by Stalin in 1929. There is no certainty whether, or when, parliament will scrap the hated law, which subjects all church activities to Communist control and forbids parish education. Nor, given the history of the U.S.S.R., is there certainty that rights proclaimed in speeches and laws will be honored by bureaucrats.

Many of the gains made by the Soviet Union's 70 million Christians have also been enjoyed by the estimated 74 million Christians who live in the six satellite nations. Poland's Communists "have realized that unleashing conflict with the church has been a mistake throughout the past 45 years," says Alojzy Orszulik, the Polish bishops' spokesman. The nation, which remains 95% Catholic, this year became the first in the Soviet bloc to enact a law restoring all basic rights to the churches. Diplomatic relations with the Holy See were established in July. Hungary, also rapidly liberalizing, is 60% Catholic and has sizable Lutheran and Reformed churches. The regime is rewriting the religious-control laws, has abolished the repressive state Office for Church Affairs and, after talks last week at the Vatican, has indicated that diplomatic relations will be re-established. The Pope is due to visit Hungary in 1991.

The surging crowds that toppled Czechoslovakia's rulers last week were inspired by, among others, Frantisek Cardinal Tomasek, 90, who has become an increasingly militant proponent of change. The ousted Jakes regime, which had permitted the appointment of six new Catholic bishops, only two weeks ago concluded a round of talks at the Vatican. In East Germany, the bloc's only predominantly Protestant state, this year's pro-democracy movement emerged from small church gatherings that, through the 1980s, criticized the Communists' handling of foreign policy, disarmament and the environment. A bishops' statement read from every pulpit Sept. 10 detailed "long overdue" changes. Most of the mass rallies and marches since then have gathered at Protestant churches.

As in the U.S.S.R., the dominant Orthodox Church has been subservient to the regimes in both Bulgaria and Rumania, remaining mute when the leaderships closed churches and repressed clergy. Rumania's huge Eastern Rite Catholic community has forcibly lived underground since 1948.

The most contentious religious problem within the Soviet Union concerns the 4 million or so Catholics in the western Ukraine, whose plight is a key agenda item in this week's talks between Gorbachev and the Pope. Friendlier contacts, and a papal visit to the U.S.S.R., cannot occur unless this, the world's largest underground religious community, is restored. Under Stalin, all Ukrainian Catholic bishops were imprisoned and a fraudulent 1946 synod dissolved their jurisdictions, handing over 4,100 churches to Russian Orthodoxy. The majority of the Catholic priests rejected the takeover and either were arrested or went into hiding.

Decades later, ten bishops and an unknown number of priests are still functioning. "They deny us the right to praise our God openly," says Catholicism's Metropolitan Vladimir, 83, who faithfully celebrates clandestine Masses daily on a makeshift altar in his tiny Lvov apartment. Last September more than 100,000 demonstrators wound their way through Lvov to the St. Yuri Cathedral, one of the former Catholic churches currently operated by the Orthodox. Subsequently, Ukrainians in Lvov and elsewhere have retaken control of some Orthodox church buildings.

Rebirth of the Ukrainian churches may stir the sort of nationalist fervor that is inextricably linked with religion. Along with economic failure, this unrest poses the gravest of threats to Gorbachev's regime. Yet Gorbachev apparently calculates that the movement will be safer aboveground and in contact with a Pope who preaches against political violence. The major reason that Gorbachev has not done more for the Ukrainian Catholics has been pressure from the Russian Orthodoxy, which stands to lose half its flock in some regions.

Once the Ukrainian problem is resolved, assuming the Gorbachev-inspired liberalization continues, the Roman Pontiff can pursue his overarching vision of reunion with the whole of Eastern Orthodoxy. The churches of the East and West are like "two lungs of a single body," John Paul is fond of saying. Religious negotiations have made surprisingly brisk progress on the ecclesiastical and theological bases for union.

Until very recently, the Russian Orthodox Church would probably have vetoed reunification under pressure from the Kremlin. Now, with the Communists less inclined to interfere, the idea of unity seems more feasible. The main Orthodox fear, observes one Vatican official, is that "we are too powerful and centralized." But in the end, he speculates, the authority of the papacy will not be an "insurmountable problem." According to this analysis, "the church could revert to the 1st millennium model, a communion of churches with greater autonomy," instead of the centralized church structure of the past 1,000 years. That is an astonishing scenario coming from a high-ranking official of the Holy See.

The second aspect of the Pope's vision, a revival of Christianity as Marxism recedes, is as problematic as the goal of church reunion. But John Paul is not the only person to foresee such a momentous development. Alexander Ogorodnikov, the Orthodox dissident whose Christian Democratic Union was the first non-Communist political party to request official recognition, predicts a "second Christianization" of Russia.

Father Franc Rode of the Vatican's Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers says Westerners can barely comprehend the "horrible spiritual desert" that resulted when the Bolsheviks turned atheism into a political ideology, attempting to expunge God from the human soul. "This entire experiment," he asserts, "is now proving to have been a dismal failure, one of the most horrible in man's history." If that experiment is in fact nearing its end, then much of the credit can be claimed by two improbable allies: Mikhail Gorbachev and John Paul II.