Russian Orthodox Church Failing to Reach Youth

Void Left by the Fall of Communism

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MOSCOW, DEC. 22, 2000 ( «What are we supposed to believe in?» asks Natasha, a student teacher in Tver, a run-down provincial town between Moscow and St. Petersburg. «In the past our young people had the party, and its youth movements — the Pioneers, the Komsomol. It was all rubbish, maybe, but at least it was there.» In its latest issue, The Economist notes Russia is suffering a crisis of faith. According to the magazine, 94% of Russians aged 18-29 do not go to church.

The youth live in a moral and spiritual vacuum set up by the atheist Communist regime (which prevented their education in the faith) and its collapse (which left nothing behind to fill the gap). The article notes that Western imports are trying to bridge the gap — the Scouts, for instance are blossoming. However, the obvious entity to reach out to these youths, the Russian Orthodox Church, has been strangely reticent in dealing with them.

Since 1988, the number of Orthodox parishes has nearly trebled to 19,000; the number of seminaries has increased ninefold to 26; the number of monasteries has increased 25-fold to nearly 500, reported the Economist. But interest among the young in general later has fallen back, in some cases because they realised that the church offered hard, ascetical discipline rather than faddish, feel-good mysticism. The church in turn does not seem much interested in them, said the writer.

Naturally, there are exeptions. Several parishes have flourishing youth ministries. The general trend, however, speaks poorly of the penetration of the faith into the lives of young people. Religious books aimed at this age group rarely sell more than 5,000 copies across the entire nation.

The Russian Orthodox Church has been generally slow to modernize, continues the article, citing the fact that no modern Russian translation of the Bible has yet been authorized by the hierarchy. This is in part due to the dearth of scholars after the Communist era, but even more modest projects, like the translation of the Gospels, have met with resistance.

While the Orthodox Church stagnates among the young, various Protestant confessions, ranging from Methodists and Baptists to Pentecostals, are making great strides in reaching the young. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has made advances among the intellectuals of modern Russia, as many of its priests lived a more or less independent academic life during their struggle against Communism. The Eastern Rite Catholics in Ukraine, noted the Economist, have played a significant role in restoring academic life in that republic. Their seminary in Lviv educates hundreds of students, many of whom are not studying for the priesthood.

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