I hope my brother-in-law will forgive me any inaccuracies in recounting his explanation of the tarpon fishing technique proper to the Florida Everglades. Our conversation kept popping into my mind as I was reading this year's air travel book (for me): Adriano Roccucci, Stalin e il patriarca, Chiesa ortodossa e potere sovietico 1917-1958, Giulio Einaudi editore, 2011. I am very grateful to the author for gifting me this book, which examines the first 40 years of Communist repression of the Russian Orthodox Church. I don't know if I will finish it on my flight home to Kyiv in late May, but at some point I certainly will. When that time comes I will spare my readers an Italian book review in any case.
Tarpon fishing and Stalin's dealings with the Russian Orthodox Church, you ask? Yes, because a tarpon has a bony jaw and it is really hard to set a hook. You have to let them run with the hook without giving them too much slack, using your fingers to keep the tension in the line. Too much slack and you lose your trophy. My brother-in-law tells me it can really burn up your fingers. This sort of describes the Soviet turnabout during World War II, allowing the election of a patriarch and a measure of religious freedom just when you might say that Stalin was ready to "land" the last fragments of the institutional church. The thesis would be that the Party took the decision to harness the church's popularity as a patriotic force in the war effort against Hitler. Mention is made of a concession to the Allies, which seems to have helped sweeten the deal as well.
Be it known that I have no plans for tarpon fishing in the Everglades, nor am I really interested in what sold the "evil empire" on giving the institutional church some slack. Long-term, if the Soviets had been able, they would have decimated the church, making the North Koreans look like schoolboys, but that was not to be, thanks be to God. We must never forget Who is ultimately in charge, permitting but also providing in His own good time.
My point is another one which blends well with my Russell Shaw review and his notion that American civil society is and always has been inimical to the Catholic Church, that the hierarchical proponents of Americanism did the Catholic Church in America much more harm than good. You might say that the error was as inevitable as the yoke with which the Russian Orthodox Church has time and again saddled itself under czars, party secretaries, and even presidents. In one sense, however, the hierarchs and their theologizing about symphonia or coming of age in society are not what was ultimately decisive, either in America or in Russia. The folk sitting in the pews or standing outside the iconostasis were and are what counts. I say this today on Easter Sunday according to the Julian Calendar (in 2013 five weeks later than the Gregorian Calendar). Roccucci and most Byzantine hierarchs today would tell you that the folk are what block the harmonizing of the civil and religious calendars in the East. In Stalin's time, yes, but I am not so sure today.
I suspect that today's Russian is as deprived of his roots as is his American contemporary. He may still take his Easter basket to church to be blessed, but he'd do it on another day if need be. He may still have it harder in life than a conspicuous consumer on the other side of the Atlantic or Pacific, but no one is crowding him like they were in the 1920's and '30's; there's little chance he and all his neighbors together will stand up and shout, "This far and no further".... "Hands off my calendar!"
Custom and tradition thankfully keep us from the pains of the Babylonian Exile, but perhaps exile says more about our real life situation than costume, Easter eggs and lamb. It would be wrong to wish ourselves estranged from the society in which we live, but I think it right that we should understand where Christianity, where Catholicism stops and caos reigns... This far and no further, please God!
I've promised myself I will do more thinking about fostering a new Catholic subculture in the U.S. as called for by Russell Shaw. My fear is that for starters, there will be no escaping the hard choices which Tobit had to make in Nineveh, far from the Temple and his beloved homeland. Homeschooling and how many other hard choices at home? How much courage will it require of us?
PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI