Pope Benedict XV welcomed the fall of Tsar Nicholas II. He believed it would win Russia for Catholicism. Little did he know how wrong he was.
The February Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar was received with great joy by Catholics. It was believed that Catholicism would be treated equally with Orthodoxy. Kieranski’s government reinstated the former bishop of Vilna, Baron Edward von der Ropp, and granted him the bishopric of Mogilev. The Jesuits, who had been expelled in 1820 by Alexander I. The government also agreed to convene a local episcopal synod.
Therefore, it is not surprising the joy that reigned in the church authorities. Bishop Jan Cieplak, suffragan of Mogilev, raised prayers of thanksgiving and urged the faithful to do the same. The Ordinary of Tiraspol, Bishop Josef Kessler, called for prayers for the new government and its prosperity. Vatican has for years dreamed of “conquering” Russia. Now an opportunity has arisen to fulfill the prediction.
Back in the 19th century, a French monk prophesied: “The revolution will open the gates to the Church in Russia. The Russian colossus will convulse. It is necessary to remain on the alert. On the fields swept by the winds of revolution, we will erect a true cross.
The introduction of the planned reforms was interrupted by another revolution. This one was not to be so kind to religion.
Opium for the people
Lenin in 1900 wrote in “On the Relation of the Workers’ Party to Religion”:
“Religion is one of the varieties of spiritual oppression which everywhere chokes the masses of the people, overwhelmed by perpetual work on others, by poverty and loneliness. (. ) He who works and suffers misery all his life, religion teaches humility and patience in earthly life, comforting him with the hope of reward in heaven. And to those who live by other people’s labor, religion teaches them charity in earthly life, offering them a very cheap justification for their entire existence as exploiters and selling them affordable tickets to heavenly happiness. Religion is the opium of the people. Religion is a kind of spiritual booze in which the slaves of capital drown their human face, their claims to even a little dignified human life.”
For this reason, although he allowed freedom of religion, his first steps on the question of religion were concerned with limiting the influence of the institutional church. And these were considerable. The priests, exerting pressure on a superstitious and illiterate people, subjugated them in every aspect of life. The Church Among other things, the church had control over education.
Indoctrination began at an early age – already at school, which was generally considered unnecessary. Among peasants, the opinion prevailed that “it’s not worth teaching a child much, because it’s unnecessary for a peasant in the countryside, because it won’t give bread anyway”.. Ignorance was even praised: “he who wears out in writing, will get his chest pressed to hell”.
If it came to education, its task was clearly defined: “Among the first tasks of the school is to lead the pupils to know and perform all the duties which every Christian-Catholic should know and perform”. – wrote Boleslaw Baranowski, a member of the Pedagogical Society.
Bolsheviks wanted to curb this influence and start forming the society on their model.
Decrees against the Church
One of the first decrees issued by the Bolsheviks was the decree “On land”, based on which, among others, the churches were deprived of their rights to property. And these were huge properties. The Catholic Church owned vineyards, fields, forests, distilleries, inns. Only in the diocese of Mogilev the authorities seized property worth 12 million rubles. In addition, a huge amount of money in the bank was seized – 8,173,548 rubles and 79 kopecks. It is true that the accelerating inflation reduced the purchasing value of money, but the amounts were still dizzying.
A month and a half later, the decree “On transferring the matter of education and training from the clerical department to the People’s Educational Commissariat” deprived the Church of the right to teach, which also meant cutting off subsidies from the Ministry of National Education, which accounted for a significant percentage of Catholic priests’ income.
Subsequent decrees annulled church weddings, recognizing only civil weddings, and ordered the transfer of metric books to civil registry offices. In January 1918 year the ordinaries in the army were abolished. Church and church property was transferred to military stores. Chaplains were allowed to stay in barracks on condition that they pay for their own maintenance.
In February 1918, the decree on “Separation of Church and State and School from Church” completely restricted the influence of church hierarchs on education and state institutions. Shortly thereafter, a rule was implemented that citizens could use buildings for religious purposes on the basis of an agreement between the authorities and a group of at least 20 believers.
All the while, Lenin believed that the faithful could not be hit, as they had been hoodwinked by the priests. He argued that it was still necessary to limit their influence and to be careful with the people:
“Especially during the Easter season, we must recommend that instead of exposing religious falsehood, it is imperative to avoid hurting religious feelings,” – he wrote in a circular.
Benedict XV recognized that such a position nevertheless offered a chance to draw the Russians to the side of Catholicism. He was reassured by Bishop Ropp, who believed that the Russians had never been so close to Catholicism. Bishop Jan Cieplak and his vicar general, Konstanty Budkiewicz, were of a similar opinion.
Vatican in a quandary
Vatican diplomats were constantly in talks to regain control of church property in Russia. Lenin, for the moment, had more important problems than talks with the Church – the Allied intervention was underway, the white troops were conducting successful offensives. The struggle against the institution of the Church receded into the background.
Meanwhile, it became most important to the hierarchy that the faithful, not they, should sign agreements with the authorities. Ropp, through the German foreign ministry, asked the Vatican if it could allow this. The Holy See agreed, on the condition, however, that the local parish priest must give his permission for the signing of the contract.
Benedict XV and the apostolic nuncio in Poland In the early 1980s, the Russian bishops, Bishop Achille Ratti and Lithuania, were convinced that Bolshevism would soon collapse and the Orthodox faithful would convert to Catholicism. They made the same mistake as the aristocracy – the poorly educated peasantry was interested in politics and political games were something completely abstract for them.
The blame for this lay with the nobles and the Church, more interested in enforcing feudal duties than in educating the poor. This is why the promises of the Bolsheviks hit a fertile ground. Millions of poor, illiterate peasants, suffering from hunger, would gladly lay hands on the estates of the rich.
Meanwhile, the hierarchs tried to navigate the shoals of revolutionary law and maintain their influence. Especially financially. Catholic bishops fought mainly against requisitions. Bishop Cieplak sent subsequent letters in which he protested against the transfer of church property to any council.
At that time, the Orthodox Patriarch Tikhon called on the Bolsheviks: “Come to your senses, madmen! Stop your bloodbaths. What you are doing is the work of Satan.” The Roman Church evidently did not know how to proceed. This was evidenced by the arrest of Bishop Ropp.
In April 1919 Cheka arrested Bishop Ropp on a charge of collaboration with the Polish authorities. It was probably because Bishop Ropp had been metropolitan of Vilnius and the Polish Army had just occupied the city. The faithful of Mogilev began protests against the arrest of the hierarch. About 10 thousand people took to the streets.
Vatican diplomats also began attempts to free Ropp. Ratti handed over a diplomatic note to the Bolsheviks, in which he noted that Ropp “is a subject of the Pope with whom Russia is not at war.” The Polish citizenship of the bishop did not interfere at all.
The Reds eventually released Ropp, and he came to Warsaw. He soon began his ministry in Lublin, and as a parish church he was given an Orthodox church that had been taken away from the Orthodox, which from then on served as the pro-cathedral of the Catholic archbishops of Mogilev.
In the Vatican, Ropp’s release was considered the first great success in relations with the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, in Russia, the scales of victory were tipping in favor of the Reds. Most of the Western Allied troops were about to be evacuated. Whites were more concerned with the struggle for internal influence than with the Communists. The peasantry was increasingly sympathetic to the Reds and looted churches and manors themselves.
Meanwhile, the bishops believed that all signs in earth and heaven pointed to Lenin’s downfall, and that Ropp’s extradition was “a show of goodwill by Mr. Chicherin” and proof of the weakness of the new government. This was to be confirmed by the provisions of the Treaty of Brest, which, among other things, guaranteed Poles freedom of religion. Again, the Catholic press has trumpeted a great success.
However, looking at Benedict XV’s plans and the Fatima prophecy, saying that if the Pope consecrates Russia to Mary, “Russia will be converted and there will be peace,” the Vatican has failed miserably. The Holy See is not very eager to boast about events in Russia during the civil war and revolution. To this day, most of the documents concerning contact with the Bolsheviks have remained secret. Mere mortals do not have access to them.
Soon, what could be expected happened. The Bolsheviks did not keep their word, and Lenin and Stalin almost completely eliminated Christianity from the lives of their citizens. They replaced it with another religion, where they themselves became objects of worship.