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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pope Speaks to Moscow's Catholics

APJohn Paul II speaking to the congregation at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception by video link with the Vatican on Saturday.
Paying a virtual visit to Moscow's Cathedral of Immaculate Conception on Saturday evening, Pope John Paul II turned a pan-European prayer service into an emotional rally for Russia's small Catholic community.

When at the end of the service, which linked congregations in seven cities by video, the pope addressed his Russian flock in Russian, he had to wait about 10 minutes for the ovation in Moscow to subside.

"In the name of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, always stay close to each other in faith and serve the Gospel," the pope said. His brief speech in Russian was largely drowned out by an Italian translation, but its impact was not diminished.

Two men unrolled a sign that said "We are waiting in Moscow," and the congregation of more than 1,000 people, many with tears in their eyes, began clapping and chanting: "Wai-ting in Mo-scow!"

The Russian Orthodox Church, which has prevented John Paul from making a long-hoped-for visit to Russia, was less than happy about the pope's appearance, virtual or not, in the Moscow cathedral.

"We regard it as an invasion of Russia," NTV television showed Patriarch Alexy II as saying Saturday. The patriarch has accused the Catholic Church of trying to expand its influence in Russia and stealing souls that traditionally belong to the Orthodox Church.

The timing of the video linkup aggravated the tensions between the two churches, coming just a few weeks after the Vatican elevated the Roman Catholic Church's presence in Russia by establishing four full-fledged dioceses.

Angered by the action, the Moscow Patriarchate suspended its contacts with the Vatican, which had just begun to show the first signs of improvement. In such a context, the pope's virtual visit was seen as an unwavering sign of support for Russia's estimated 600,000 Catholics.

"It is such a holiday!" said Anzhelika Marchuk, 18, a construction student. "For the first time, we mean something in Europe. Until today, they knew nothing of the Catholic community in Russia."

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, who was elevated last month to the rank of metropolitan, was overcome with emotion after the video conference, which he described as a " holy night."

"In our quite difficult situation, the appearance of the Holy Father -- at least virtually -- signifies his moral support for us," Kondrusiewicz said. "Again and again, O Holy Father, thank you!"

The service began at 7 p.m. with a Mass for the unity of Europe's Christians, presided over by Kondrusiewicz. Shortly before 8 p.m., the linkup with the Vatican's audience hall began, also beamed to Catholics in Athens, Budapest, Strasbourg, Valencia and Vienna. Students and professors from several countries read scriptures and shared their religious experiences.

Anatoly Zotov, a Moscow State University professor of Western philosophy, told the international audience how participation in a Vatican-sponsored conference two years ago helped him overcome a pessimistic view of what he saw as human civilization's pending catastrophe. As a result, he asked to be baptized in the Catholic Church.

At around 9 p.m. Moscow time, the pope, seated on a podium on wheels, was rolled into the Vatican hall to international cheers and applause, and a recitation of the rosary began.

In each country, priests and students took turns reciting the Hail Mary 10 times in Latin, with the congregations answering in the local language. The recitations were intertwined with prayers for students, youth and a common Europe and lasted until after 10 p.m., when the pope's greetings in different languages transformed the service into a cheerful rally.

Artur Zaitsev, a construction worker from the town of Vladimir, said that although all of his ancestors except one grandmother were Orthodox, it was a desire to sort out the differences between the two churches that drew him to a Catholic church. "I was driven by a desire to figure out the differences and realized there are few," Zaitsev said. "One day, these two confessions will unify."

It is people like Zaitsev whom the Orthodox Church views as its "stolen flock." As a result, they feel isolated from the rest of the Catholic world and antagonized in Russia by Orthodox opposition to their existence.

"There is an impression that we are like in a fortress here, like outcasts," Zaitsev said after the service. "Today's linkup has shed the light of hope for us. Now we know that they know of us."

Two details surrounding Saturday's event help explain the complicated nature of the relationship between the two churches, which share many aspects of doctrine and tradition, but which too often were on opposing sides of historical battles.

Patriarch Alexy made his televised comments after a Kremlin service Saturday morning to commemorate Saint Patriarch Germogen, who led the Russian Orthodox Church during the "time of troubles" in the early 17th century, when Russia was invaded by Catholic Poland and the future of the country -- whether it would be Orthodox or Catholic, an independent state or a vassal state of Poland -- was uncertain. Letters that Patriarch Germogen sent from his prison cell helped feed the national resistance, which eventually drove out the Poles and established the Romanov dynasty. Germogen did not live to see it: He starved to death in his cell in 1612 and is still revered as a martyr.

At the same time, the image of Mary before which John Paul led the international service on Saturday is the same image before which Orthodox students pray for more successful learning. The dark wooden sculpture known in the Western tradition as Madonna of Loreto can be seen in Russian churches depicted on icons known as Our Lady of Increased Intelligence.