by Chiara Dommarco
St. Petersburg (Agenzia Fides) - "God called us from the beginning, he called each of us by name, face to face. Despite our weaknesses". This is how Pope Francis expressed himself during his speech, made via streaming, on the occasion of the "Meeting of Russian Youth" (“Vserossijskaja Vstreča Molodëži”), the festival of Catholic youth in Russia, which is currently taking place in Saint Petersburg. Starting from the solicitude shown by Mary towards Elizabeth, the Pontiff expressed the desire that the Church be like a caring mother, showing young people the way of a concrete love, attentive to the needs of each one and which does not abandon anyone. "Please - he added – may the Church not be a customs office, where you select who passes and who does not". As announced by the organizers, the text of Pope Francis' reflection, delivered in Spanish and preceded by the testimonies of two young people, will be available from Saturday, August 26 on dedicated social channels. After the speech read by the Pope, the young people asked a number of questions to which the Pontiff answered in Italian. The responses on the value of vocation, on the value of diplomacy for the resolution of armed conflicts and on how to manage the difficulties that arise in marriages between Christians of different denominations were particularly articulated.
"The first vocation is the vocation to be Christians. We say that [the vocation, ed.] is there because of the pure mercy of God - said Pope Francis -, because he loves us as we are. And when a vocation is given to us – I am thinking of the vocation to marriage, the vocation to the priesthood, to so many vocations – there is not one which is better [than another, ed.]: we are all called freely. This is the most beautiful thing: God's love is free".
Asked by a young girl how, according to the Pontiff, diplomacy should be used to overcome the conflict in Ukraine, Francis replied: "Diplomacy advances following a path where unity is superior to conflict. Real diplomacy is not afraid of conflicts, but it does not underline them: it takes conflicts and, with conflicts, it moves forward, through dialogue and prayer. To understand the position of the other, but also limit mistakes. Diplomacy is not easy. Diplomats do so much good for humanity. It is not easy work, but it is very fruitful. And this, both with regard to the Ukrainian situation and with other countries. Diplomacy always builds, it does not destroy".
The question asked by a young bride on how to seek the truth in relation to God and theological questions in the vocation to marriage with a spouse belonging to a confession different from hers gave Pope Francis the opportunity to speak on a subject particularly felt by Christians in Russia, where marriages between Orthodox and Catholics are often celebrated: "Listen, everyone has their own religious tradition", declared the Pontiff, "whether Orthodox or Catholic, both are Christians". You are both Christians: go ahead, go ahead, respecting each other's traditions. Don't force the story. And then, along the way, maybe the Lord will show you or maybe not, but it's important to point out what's in common: "We are both Christians". And it gives you a way to live a beautiful Christian family. Go forward. Don't try to force things. Please don't ask everyone to follow their own tradition. Both traditions are beautiful and Christian. Please don't excommunicate one another. Start with marriage, you will see in life. I know marriages that are like that: not only between Catholics and Orthodox, but also between Christians of other confessions. And they go forward with good will, because they love the Lord. Sincerity is important, above all towards the Lord".
All five bishops of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia and Archbishop Giovanni d'Aniello, Apostolic Nuncio to the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan were present during the live broadcast, which took place at St. Catherine of Alexandria Catholic basilica in St. Petersburg.
The Russian Youth Meeting, which began on August 23, was conceived as a "continuous pilgrimage" which from Lisbon to Saint Petersburg, reaches each of the small Catholic communities scattered throughout the territory of the Russian Federation, so that no one, regardless of longitude, is left behind. Conceived, therefore, as a second stage of the recent World Youth Days in Lisbon, the Russian youth meeting brought together some 400 people, participants and organizers. A delegation of 18 Russians was also present in the Portuguese capital, led by Father Markus Nowotny, responsible for educational activities and bursar of the Catholic Seminary of Saint Petersburg: they were the ones who told those who could not leave for Portugal what they experienced in Lisbon.
At a historical moment when it is very difficult for the citizens of the Federation to travel to Europe, the Catholic Church of Russia responds to the needs of all its faithful, even those who will not be able to be present in Saint Petersburg. The third stage of the "endless pilgrimage" will in fact be a "widespread" stage: from Saint Petersburg, the participants will return to their own communities, scattered over the vast territory of the Russian Federation, to bear witness to what they have lived during the days of travel and, for the 18 who left, to also tell their experience at the beginning of August in Portugal. The experience of belonging to an ecclesial reality that goes beyond federal borders is certainly facilitated by occasions like this, especially if the participants are young Catholics who often do not have many opportunities in their daily lives to meet other people belonging to their own Christian denomination.
The Petersburg Days take place according to a program that is both rich and simple. Divided into groups of about thirty participants, welcomed in the different parishes and Catholic families of Saint Petersburg, a city which currently has eight Catholic places of worship, the young people are experiencing moments of reflection centered on the same Gospel quotation chosen by Pope Francis as the motto for WYD in Portugal: "Mary got up and went in haste" (Lk 1:39). To emphasize the link with the Gospel passage from which the theme is taken, the meeting began in the parish of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, with the opening Eucharistic liturgy and an introductory evening. The event began in the afternoon of August 23 with the registration of participants and the Eucharistic celebration, which is included daily in the program. Catecheses were organized yesterday morning and today, based on the material received from Lisbon, with the active participation of young people and a wide space for discussion, as happened during the synodal process at the parish level, when 82 working groups had been formed (see Fides, 4/7/2022). Yesterday evening, religious and laity, called to virginity or married life, offered participants a testimony on their vocation. This evening, Friday, August 25, the Taizè prayer is scheduled and tomorrow an evening of celebration. On August 27, the last day of the event, after a moment of general synthesis, the participants will take part in the closing Eucharistic liturgy, which will represent the starting point for the mission of witness in their own parishes and cities of origin. The young people, coming from the four dioceses of the ecclesiastical province of the Catholic Church in Russia and from 54 cities of the Federation, are accompanied during these intense days by the five bishops of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia, as well as by priests , religious and lay people engaged in youth ministry in the four dioceses.
The ecclesiastical province of the Catholic Church in Russia consists of the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow and its three suffragan dioceses: the diocese of St. Clement in Saratov, the diocese of St. Joseph in Irkutsk and the diocese of the Transfiguration in Novosibirsk. Catholics in the Russian Federation represent less than 1% of the total population, they are mostly small or very small communities, which sometimes see the presence of a priest only very rarely during the year.
There are no precise figures on the number of Catholics present in the Federation, but as Monsignor Paolo Pezzi, Archbishop of the Mother of God in Moscow, declared to RIA Novosti agency last July, the number of baptized Catholics is most likely less than one million. Moreover, due to the difficulties linked to the recent conflict, the presence of foreign Catholics, a not insignificant component of the total number of Catholic faithful of the Federation, has recently diminished. (Agenzia Fides, 25/8/2023)