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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S., Russian Orthodox Forge Links

For many members of a delegation of Orthodox believers from the United States, a ceremony in which they would be given use of a Moscow church was something unimaginable until only recently.

"Even 10 years ago I didn't think any of this would happen," said Father Hilary Madison, an Orthodox priest from California, shortly after Patriarch Alexy II formally handed over the central Moscow structure. "When I came here in 1985, I had to wear civilian clothes. It was a whole different ball game."

Last week's ceremony at the Church of the Great Martyr Catherine marked another step closer in the relationship between the Orthodox Church in America and the Russian Orthodox Church. The North American church, with parishes in Canada and Mexico as well as the United States, was part of the Russian church until after the 1917 revolution. The church complex, located at 60 Ulitsa Bolshaya Ordynka, will be used by the American church's representation in Moscow both for religious services and for administrative purposes.

"This is a manifestation of the mutual love between the two churches," said Metropolitan Theodosius, the leader of the 1 million-member American church at the ceremony, which was attended by Moscow city leaders and U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering. "With this mutual love comes the realization of the interdependency that needs to be restored among all local Orthodox churches."

After the Russian Orthodox Church recognized the American organization as self-governing in 1970, relations between the two groups have steadily improved. Links were further strengthened in recent years as the Americans provided material and financial aid to the Russian church, which is the largest Orthodox body in the world.

Before the Soviet Union's demise, "it was difficult to maintain anything other than spiritual ties, because the church was controlled by the communist state," said Father Daniel Hubiak, who with the transfer of the church becomes its dean and liaison with the Russian Orthodox. "The government was not only suppressing the Russian Orthodox Church but trying to destroy it."

The service of thanksgiving held Dec. 7 for the opening of the church came three days after the canonization at the Kremlin of two Orthodox priests who served in the United States and were martyred under the Soviet regime. Because one of the saints, Archpriest John Kochurov, was from Chicago, many people in the 16-member American delegation were from that city. One Chicagoan, Colin Masica, said the American church could only benefit from the new ties.

The American church "needs to establish as close a relationship as possible with the Russian church and draw strength from it," said Masica, a professor of south Asian languages and literatures at the University of Chicago. "There is a vitality here, and I'm trying to fathom what it means and where it comes from."

Theologically, and in most aspects of the liturgy, Masica said the Russian and American churches have no differences, but each has faced different challenges since the post-1917 administrative separation.

"In America, the dangers of worldly prosperity are perhaps more of a threat to the church than oppression here ever was," said Masica, who made the trip to Moscow partly to see how the Russian church is adapting to its increased freedom. "This is also a kind of personal pilgrimage to try to find out what is going on here, and what it means for my own faith."

The Church of the Great Martyr Catherine will begin conducting English-language services after Jan. 1, said Hubiak, who had been holding Sunday services in English for between 30 and 40 people in the Belltower Church at the Danilovsky Monastery.

At the new location, Hubiak said, "We would like to start out by providing all the usual programs that a parish in the States would have -- Sunday school, adult discussions and lectures. And then we would probably get into some kind of humanitarian programs for the needy."