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Holy See–Soviet Union relations were marked by a long-standing persecution of the Roman Catholic Church by the Soviet Union. After a long period of resistance to atheistic propaganda beginning with Benedict XV and reaching a peak under Pius XII, the Holy See attempted to enter in a pragmatic dialogue with Soviet leaders during the papacies of John XXIII and Paul VI. In the 1990s, Pope John Paul II's diplomatic policies were cited as one of the principal factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Benedict XV

The end of World War I brought about the revolutionary development, which Benedict XV had foreseen in his first encyclical. With the Russian Revolution, the Vatican was faced with a new, so far unknown, situation. An ideology and government which rejected not only the Catholic Church but religion as a whole. “Some hope developed among the United Orthodox in the Ukraine and Armenia, but many of the representatives there disappeared or were jailed in the following years. Several Orthodox bishops from Omsk and Simbirsk wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict XV, as the Father of all Christianity, describing the murder of priests, the destruction of their churches and other persecutions in their areas.[1]

Pius XI

Worried by the persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union, Pius XI mandated Berlin nuncio Eugenio Pacelli to work secretly on diplomatic arrangements between the Vatican and the Soviet Union. Pacelli negotiated food shipments for Russia, and met with Soviet representatives including Foreign Minister Georgi Chicherin, who rejected any kind of religious education, the ordination of priests and bishops, but offered agreements without the points vital to the Vatican.[2] Despite Vatican pessimism and a lack of visible progress, Pacelli continued the secret negotiations, until Pius XI ordered them to be discontinued in 1927, because they generated no results and were dangerous to the Church, if made public.

The "harsh persecution short of total annihilation of the clergy, monks, and nuns and other people associated with the Church",[3] continued well into the 1930s. In addition to executing and exiling many clerics, monks and laymen, the confiscating of Church implements "for victims of famine" and the closing of churches were common.[4] Yet according to an official report based on the Census of 1936, some 55% of Soviet citizens identified themselves openly as religious, while others possibly concealed their belief.[4]

Conspiracy of silence is a term used during Pius XI's pontificate to describe the lack of reaction to the persecution of Christians by National Socialism and Communism in such countries as the Soviet Union, Mexico, Germany and Spain. In, 1937 the Pope issued the encyclical Divini Redemptoris, which was a condemnation of Communism and the Soviet regime." He did name a French Jesuit to go to the USSR and consecrate in secret Roman Catholic bishops. It was a failure, as most of them ended up in gulags or were otherwise killed by the communist regime.

Pius XII



The pontificate of Pius XII faced extraordinary problems. During the 1930s, the public protests and condemnations of his predecessors had not deterred the Soviet authorities to persecute all Christian Churches within the Soviet Union as hostile to Marxism-Leninism. The persecution of the Catholic Church was a part of an overall attempt to eradicate religion in the Soviet Union. In 1940, after Germany occupied the Western part of Poland, the Soviet Union annexed the Eastern part along with the Baltic Countries including predominantly Catholic Lithuania.

Two months after his election on May 12, 1939, in Singolari Animi, a papal letter to the Sacred Congregation of the Oriental Church, Pius XII reported again the persecutions of the Catholic faith in the Soviet Union. Three weeks later, while honouring the memory of Saint Vladimir on the 950th anniversary of his baptism, he welcomed Ruthenian priests and bishops and members of the Russian colony in Rome, and prayed for those who suffer in their country, awaiting with their tears the hour of the coming of the Lord. [14]

Persecution began at once, as large parts of Poland and the Baltic States were incorporated into the USSR. Almost immediately, the United Catholic Churches of Armenia, Ukraine and Ruthenia were attacked. While most Oriental Christians belong to an Orthodox Church, some like the Armenian Catholic Church, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Ruthenian Catholic Church, are united with Rome which allowed them to keep their own Oriental liturgy and Church laws.

After the war, the Russian Orthodox Church was given some freedom by the government of Joseph Stalin, but not the Orthodox Oriental Churches which was united with Rome. Leaders of the Othodox Oriental Churches faced intense pressure to break with Rome and unite with Moscow. Pope Pius addressed specifically the Ruthenian Catholic Church located in the Ukraine. The encyclical Orientales Omnes is a summary of the relations between the Uniated (Eastern) churches and Rome until the persecutions in 1945.[5] Some Ruthenians, resisting Polonisation, felt deserted by the Vatican and returned to the Russian Orthodox Church during the Pontificate of Pope Pius XI.

Eastern Europe

After the War, Soviet forces stationed in Poland and the Communist Party in increasing control of the Polish government, the Pope and the Polish episcopate anticipated persecution and communication problems with the Polish bishops, He therefore granted Facultas Specialis, special powers to August Cardinal Hlond in his dealings with the Church and state authorities. Hlond’s pastoral priority were the "former German territories", now assigned to Poland, and called Recovered Territories by the state, and Western Lands by the Church.[6]

On August 15 1945, one week after the Potsdam Conference he created facts by establishing Polish administrators in these areas. The new government, almost as expected, began its campaign against the Church by withdrawing from the concordat and expelling the Papal Nuncio and refusing to accept the appointments by Cardinal Hlond. The Vatican was accused of refusing to accept the authority of the new communist government and for breaking the concordat in the war years by appointing temporary German administrators in Polish territory.

The Decree against Communism is a 1949 Papal decree which excommunicates all Catholics collaborating in communist organizations. The Vatican, having been silent during the war on communist excesses, displayed a harder line on communism after 1945. The ruling followed suit to an earlier 1937 encyclical entitled Divini Redemptoris which was strongly critical of communism and its Christian variants.

Acerrimo Moerore (January 2, 1949) is an Apostolic Letter of Pope Pius XII to the Hungarian Episcopate after the jailing and torturing of József Cardinal Mindszenty. Decenium Dum Expletur is an Apostolic Letter of Pope Pius XII to the bishops of Poland about the suffering of the Polish People. Sacro Vergente is a 1952 Apostolic Letter of Pope Pius XII to all people of Russia in which he consecrates all the people of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Dum Maerenti Animo is a June 1956 Apostolic Letter of Pope Pius XII to the faithful in Eastern Europe regarding their persecutions and the persecutions of the Church. Veritatem Facientes (March 27, 1952) is an apostolic letter of Pope Pius XII to the Catholic faithful of Romania, protesting against their persecution and the virtual eradication of the Catholic Church in their country.

Luctuosissimi Eventus, issued October 28, 1956, is an encyclical of Pope Pius XII urging public prayers for peace and freedom for the people of Hungary. Laetamur Admodum issued November 1, 1956, concerns renewing his request for prayers for peace for Poland, Hungary, and the Middle East. Datis Nuperrime is a Papal encyclical of Pope Pius XII concerning the Soviet invasion of Hungary to suppress the Hungarian revolution of 1956.


During the brief papacy of John XXIII, there were attempts to reconcile with the Russian Orthodox Church in the hope of reducing tensions with the Soviet Union and contributing to peace in the world. The Second Vatican Council did not condemn Communism and did not even mention it, in what some have called a secret agreement between the Holy See and the Soviet Union (see Metz Accord). In Pacem in Terris, John XXIII also sought to prevent nuclear war and tried to improve relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. He began a policy of dialogue with Soviet leaders in order to seek conditions in which Eastern Catholics could find relief from persecution.

Paul VI

Pope Paul VI continued John XXIII's policy of dialogue with Soviet leaders in order to reduce persecutions against local Christians. His policy has been called Ostpolitik because it closely resembled similar policies that were being adopted by Western European nations. He received Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and USSR President Nikolai Podgorny in 1966 and 1967 in the Vatican. The situation of the Church in Poland, Hungary and Romania improved somewhat during his pontificate.[7]

John Paul II

John Paul II has been credited with being instrumental in bringing down communism in eastern Europe, by being the spiritual inspiration behind its downfall, and a catalyst for "a peaceful revolution" in Poland. Lech Wałęsa, the founder of the ‘Solidarity’ movement, credited John Paul II with giving Poles the courage to rise up. "The pope started this chain of events that led to the end of communism," Wałęsa said. "Before his pontificate, the world was divided into blocs. Nobody knew how to get rid of communism. "He simply said, ‘Do not be afraid, change the image of this land...’".

In December 1989, John Paul II met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Vatican and each expressed his respect and admiration for the other. Gorbachev once said ‘The collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II’. On John Paul's passing, Mikhail Gorbachev said: "Pope John Paul II's devotion to his followers is a remarkable example to all of us."[8]

In February 2004, Pope John Paul II was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize honouring his life's work in opposing Communist oppression and helping to reshape the world.[9]


  1. ^ Schmidlin III, 308
  2. ^ (Hansjakob Stehle, Die Ostpolitik des Vatikans, Piper, München, 1975, p.139-141
  3. ^ Riasanovsky 617
  4. ^ a b Riasanovsky 634
  5. ^ Giovannetti, 112
  6. ^ Micewski, 46
  7. ^ Franzen 427
  8. ^|title=Pope John Paul II and the Fall of the Berlin Wall
  9. ^|title=Bush, Pope, jailed Israeli among 2004 Nobel Peace Prize nominees


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