A prominent Russian Orthodox prelate in the United States says that the World Council of Churches is letting down its constituency in the Soviet Union.
Archbishop John Shahovskoy, a member of the WCC Central Committee, declared in an interview this month that persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church has increased since it became a member of the World Council in 1961.
He spoke as Archbishop of San Francisco and the Western United States of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America.
“The World Council should publicize what is going on by way of religious reprisals and restrictions,” said Archbishop John. “It should inform member churches and the Christian world of all the facts available to it, whether these facts concern Russia, Spain, or some other country.”
He declared that the non-Communist world ought not to be obliged to form its opinions of Soviet life on what it hears about Communist “showcases” such as Moscow and Leningrad.
“The World Council should publicly protest the Communist campaign against religion in the Soviet Union,” he added.
Archbishop John noted that public world opinion has already had a beneficial effect in some instances. He said that a seminary that the Communists threatened to dose was kept open when various media in the West aroused a storm of protest.
Up until now the World Council has never uttered any official disapproval of Communist efforts to suppress religious activity in the Soviet Union. It is understood that WCC leaders have attempted private negotiations in behalf of Soviet Christians, but no progress has been reported. These WCC leaders presumably feel that any overt gestures might be interpreted as politically motivated and might work adversely for representatives of the WCC constituency in Communist-held lands. Some observers feel, however, that failure of present strategy demands a new tack.
Archbishop John, who was born in Moscow, is heard in the Soviet Union each Sunday via Voice of America radio. The ten-minute broadcasts elicit letters regularly which tell of adverse conditions under which Christians must practice their faith.
A number of letters have told of continued closing of churches. One claimed that 2,000 churches have been closed within the past year. Another charged that 30,000 clergymen, monks, and nuns are imprisoned in a concentration camp near the Aral Sea.
Other letters from the Soviet Union indicate that only children under eighteen months may be christened, and then only when mother, father, godmother, and godfather give public consent and establish their legal identity for the public record.
Archbishop John described such practices as having the practical effect of ferreting out the Christian as a “marked man.”
He said his correspondence shows up other tactics aimed at reducing the scope of Christian assemblies and fellowship. Religious funeral services that would normally be held in a home in the village, for instance, are now allowed only in cemeteries, where a mere handful of friends can be expected to turn up. When a parishioner in a community apartment house wishes to have a priest visit he must first obtain the consent of all other tenants of the building.
Churches are no longer allowed to solicit funds or even to pass offering plates in the sanctuary, Archbishop John said. Instead, receptacles are to be placed at fixed points for spontaneous donations only. Churches must deposit all their funds, and are repeatedly pressured to invest in special bonds and to donate to such enterprises as theater construction. Priests receive salaries that are fixed at a low rate, and they are not permitted to draw higher wages regardless of how much income is received. Payments to choir leaders and singers are prohibited.
The bearded prelate also said that he had been advised of restrictions in the scheduling of church services—no later than 10 A.M. in the summer and no later than noon in the winter. One report told of a church that was closed for three months because a service had run fifteen minutes overtime.
Last Easter Sunday, according to information he received, guards were posted at the doors of some churches to turn away young people. Several disturbances resulted.
One letter he recently received told of an article in Izvestia which accused Western churchmen and newsmen of lying about church conditions in the Soviet Union. The letter said:
“If the foreign clergy and newspapers are coming to the defense of the Orthodox faith, and if they continue to fight for freedom of conscience, we bow to them and express gratitude because they give to us downtrodden the love of Jesus Christ which lifts up our spiritual forces.”
Archbishop John has been under direct attack in some Soviet publications for his Voice of America broadcasts. In June, Izvestia carried an article pointing out his former identity as a Russian prince—which is a fact—and doing so in a manner that depicts him as a servant of the American propaganda machine “with lies and provocation.”
A monograph by a professor in the Estonian Academy of Science debunked a Voice of America broadcast in which Archbishop John sought to promote the reconciliation of science and religion, contrary to the doctrine of atheistic evolution. The broadcast had included references to scientists who believe in a supernatural intelligence and design. The professor’s reply spoke of this use of the authority of science to support faith as a “naïve trick” employed by all who defend religion.
Before the Marxist regime, the Russian Orthodox Church was supported by the government and was officially and externally strong, but internally weak. Archbishop John says candidly: “We were indirectly responsible for the rise of a false religion.”
Appeal For Renewal
The young people of Yonkers, a pleasant and prosperous Hudson River community just north of New York City, are overwhelmingly the beneficiaries of all that the affluent society supplies. In mid-August city officials disclosed that 100 youths of upper middle-class families had become narcotics addicts, and 800 others were occasional users. Some had turned to crime to support their habit. Their ages were fourteen to twenty-two.
Details were grim and shaking: some teen-age girls made trips to Times Square to get money by prostitution; boys made trips to Harlem to obtain marijuana and heroin. Five children, left with servants while their parents went off to Europe, were found to be addicted when the parents came back from vacation. The narcotics scourge had spread through Yonkers in less than a year.
“The frightening thing about it is that only 2 per cent of those who are hooked can ever be cured,” said Captain Frank E. Vescio, acting chief of police. The best means known to psychiatry and medicine cure a scant 5 per cent of addicts.
In the face of such facts, what could be done? To one Roman Catholic priest, Msgr. Edward M. Betowski, it seemed the time had come to call a black fast, a severe form of penance that has all but disappeared from Western Catholicism.
“More parks, more playgrounds, more dances,” Msgr. Betowski told New York Times reporter Joseph Lelyveld, “none of them have worked. What did our Lord say, do you remember? There are some devils that are not driven out except by prayer and by fasting.”
That Sunday morning at all Masses, the 78-year-old pastor stood in his pulpit and pleaded with his 1,500 parishioners.
“My dear friends,” he said, “I am an old priest. In a very short time I must go to Judgment to answer for the spiritual condition of this parish.… I implore you from the bottom of my heart, of your own free will, to join with me in prayer and fasting out of love for sinners, but most of all out of love for Jesus Christ who suffered hunger and thirst and death itself on the Cross for us all.”
The appeal for voluntary total abstinence from food and water from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M. struck home. When fast day came, 400 persons jammed the Church for the 6 A.M. Mass and a score stood at the back.
The Roman Catholic Church of Christ the King is a weathered, brown-shingled wooden structure in the style of an English country church. Huge shade trees rise high above its peaked roof and bell tower. Msgr. Betowski, an aristocratic and scholarly priest who had taught homiletics in a Roman seminary for twenty-five years, has been pastor for a decade.
At vesper time that day, as the fast drew to a close, the stooped old priest, leaning his weight on his cane, took little half-steps down the center aisle of the church, past 380 parishioners in thirty rows of pews. After kneeling in front of the altar and touching his bald head to the second step, he rose. Then for fifty-eight minutes, without using notes, he poured out a moving and eloquent address on the need for spiritual renewal.
Vandals had gone out on Palisade Avenue behind the church by night and had painted “WELCOME TO JUNKIE’S PARADISE” in large block letters from curb to curb.
Narcotics addiction, Msgr. Betowski said, is basically a spiritual problem calling for a spiritual answer. He described the classic trilogy of evil influence—the world (“society organized apart from God”), the flesh (“our fallen human nature with its downward pull”), and the devil. “One may reasonably suspect the work of the devil in ruining the lives of so many boys and girls,” he declared. “If the devil can convince us that he does not exist, then that is his greatest triumph,” he warned.
“We must call on the Divine Physician, Jesus Christ. His diagnosis—you recall it, prayer and fasting. As he told his disciples—it’s the Word of God, it’s Scripture. There has been an emphasis lately on Scripture.”
Three United Presbyterian leaders paid a visit to Pope Paul VI at the Vatican last month. Their twenty-minute audience, marked by “very real cordiality,” ended with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
Meeting with the pontiff were Dr. Edler G. Hawkins, moderator; Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, stated clerk; and Richard I. Davis, lay chairman of the United Presbyterian Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations.
Hawkins said the discussion centered primarily on race problems and the ecumenical movement. The Pope, he said, noted that the racial issue is “universal, with implications beyond any specific country.”
“On the personal level,” said Hawkins, “the Pope expressed pleasure at my election, as a Negro, to the post of moderator.” Hawkins is the first member of his race to hold the office.
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