Almost a year has passed since the beginning of the “special operation” in Ukraine. It has signaled a radical turning point for the Russian people, to whom I have been sent, as well as for the whole world. A line was crossed, a boundary that until yesterday was thought uncrossable. Years of precious labor at the human, social, and ecumenical level to rebuild a friendly relationship between the West and Russia rapidly went up in smoke. After two years of the pandemic, we are again put in front of -and this time even more dramatically- the fallenness of our humanity. The social and political equilibrium, in fact, is so fragile and unstable because it rests on the wounded freedom of man and therefore also on his pride, his thirst for power, his economic interests. On the surface, the city of Moscow is as full of lights as it was in the past: seemingly normal, the people always in a hurry, the streets and subways crowded so that you don’t realize that a few hundred kilometers away there is a conflict underway, if not for the problems caused by the sanctions, for a few stores of foreign companies that are completely dark and empty. However, at the same time, one is aware of a veil of heaviness and sadness in the people that you meet and who you talk to, even more serious after the partial draft was announced. The conflict entered powerfully into the home. It isn’t a far-off event, but makes itself present in the possibility of losing your life or those of your loved ones: for what cause?
Many families of the Italian community, of whom I am the chaplain, have decided to repatriate, some by personal choice, others necessitated by the closure of the offices where they work. Many Russian families have expatriated as well. With respect to last year, the number of students in the Italian school where I teach has decreased by 30%. Many, to avoid the risk of being called into combat, have decided to leave the country overnight.
On Sunday mornings I hear confessions in the cathedral, and it’s hard to find a penitent that doesn’t express the drama of the divisions and conflict in their families caused by the current situation. There are actually many families with ties to both fronts. A mother, after the announcement of the draft, presented herself in the sacristy asking me to help her son flee the country or to hide him. Another told me about her son’s depression caused by the solitude that he lives after he left to avoid being called to fight.
It is then that you look with even more tenderness at that place through which Christ makes you that which He wants you to be.
In front of all of these dramas, my sense of impotence emerges with all of its force. Who could respond to the pain, to the fear, to the anguish caused by the conflict that we’re living? It’s not rare that I am asked why I don’t leave. These questions are the reason that made me look in a new way at my vocation in the Fraternity of St. Charles and at the importance of our presence in Russia in this time in which darkness seems to dominate. The profound sense of impotence has become illuminated, and has been conquered by the new awareness of the immense gift that the Fraternity is for this land and the entire Earth: it is the place of a new humanity gained for Christ. It is this awareness at our roots, that pushed me and Archbishop Paolo Pezzi to celebrate the memorial of St. Charles Borromeo, that falls on November 4th, even in this situation. Once more, our desire to show the source of the charism that forms us prevailed, so that we invited my colleagues from school, the local clergy, and friends from the Italian community. The archbishop celebrated mass in the cathedral and then we listened to three witnesses from three different houses of mission in the world: Sister Annie Devlin from the house of the Missionaries in Grenoble, France; Fr. Ettore Ferrario from St Paul, Minnesota; and Fr. Romano Christen from Bonn, Germany. In this way, we wanted to show that the boundary of our fraternity was the entire Earth, that the passion for the glory of Christ makes you discover how valuable the life of every single person is. After the witnesses we served a nice buffet, and we sang together accompanied by the guitar of Bishop Paolo. Introducing the evening, I told our guests that I had realized in this time how drama, inevitable in life, becomes precious if it is received as a challenge to go to the bottom of the needs of our heart. In time, by God’s grace, we are rid of that hidden but present illusion that it is our own ability and our own strength that changes the world. It is in that moment that you begin to stutter with fear and trembling: “O Christ, if I wasn’t yours, I would feel myself a finite creature”, to use the expression of Sant Gregory Nazianzen. It is then that you look with even more tenderness at that place, which for me is the Fraternity of St. Charles and the movement of Communion and Liberation, through which Christ makes you that which He wants you to be. We discover that all we have and that all we are is in function of mission. Recognizing that we have no strength that comes from ourselves, we are therefore able to ask to be simply carried and determined by the grace of Christ.