“I follow no leader but Christ and join in communion with none but your blessedness [Pope Damasus I], that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that this is the rock on which the Church has been built. Whoever eats the Lamb outside this house is profane. Anyone who is not in the ark of Noah will perish when the flood prevails.”
—St. Jerome, Letters 15:2 [A.D. 396]
One of the nice things about being on break and off from work for a week is having time to waste. Exhibit #1: trading an hour of my time on the couch watching a young British man build a cabin in the woods out of shipping pallets with his dad…one nail and plank at a time. No words, just sawing and hammering. My son loved it. I couldn’t believe I watched the whole thing from start to finish (6.5 million ws on YouTube).
The rabbit hole that is YouTube then suggested to me a documentary about a woman who lived in the taiga of the Russian wilderness as a hermit for seventy years. A film crew spent two days traveling by river to document her life. One of four children, she had been living alone for the past twenty-seven years after the last of her family died. Her mother starved to death in the sixties. The woman’s name was Agafia.
She would not accept bags of flour that had a barcode, because barcodes were a sign of the Beast. “Worldly life is frightening,” she says. “If Christians sing worldly songs, they’re doomed to eternal suffering. Same for music. Everyone who enjoys dancing creates infamy.”
OK, this was kind of interesting. She seemed of sound mind, yet she lived in some of the harshest conditions on Earth, alone, as a sixty-nine-year-old woman, with a large tumor on her breast, surviving on potatoes and turnips, fish from the stream, bread, and bark. Her hands were gnarly from chopping down trees and stripping branches for the goats, starting fires with flint and tinder, and carrying pails of water.
But I didn’t understand her faith. She was obviously a Christian believer, and I just assumed she was Russian Orthodox.
“My father’s ancestors were true Christian believers. Ever since Prince Vladimir brought Christianity to Russian lands, our faith has been passed from generation to generation.”
That faith, I learned later as the film progressed, was the faith of the “Old Believers” or “Old Ritualists,” which can be understood only in a historical context.
In the 17th century, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Nikon, desired to unify the liturgical discrepancies between the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches and made heavy-handed (and, arguably, sloppy) ecclesiastical reforms. Old Believers, as they identified themselves, rejected the reforms and clung tightly to what they saw as the original expression of the true Faith. Agafia describes this perspective in the film
Christ died on the cross for the whole world. He descended into Hell to free the righteous. But Patriarch Nikon went back to Hell to confer with Satan. So he introduced new laws. He was … the ultimate Satanist. He abolished the two-fingered sign of the cross handed down to us by Christ himself, changed books and church dogma, exterminated all our priests. They tortured Old Believers and imprisoned them.
The State, backing the reforms, anathematized the old rites and books and those who still used them. Old Believers were arrested and executed, and those who fled went to Lithuania, Ukraine, and Romania. Others, like Agafia’s family, stayed in Russia and hid in the Siberian wilderness to escape persecution.
Agafia seemed to belong to the more extreme and ascetic Bezpopovtsy grouping of Old Believers, who were largely priestless (in contrast to the more moderate conservative Popovtsy faction) and believed the world had fallen into the hands of the Antichrist. “Only those Christians who hold on to the true faith of Christ, commit good deeds, repent, and pray to the Lord for forgiveness will receive God’s mercy,” Agafia tells the camera crew, filming her praying the Psalms in her dark and crowded cabin. This passing on of a faith in isolation, sans priests or ecclesiastical lineage, seems to be the Orthodox equivalent of the Kakure Kirishitan in Japan, who were also forced into isolation due to persecution in the 17th century and who emerged with a deformed faith barely recognizable to Catholicism:
With their Scripture forgotten, no real creed, and no catalogue of doctrines, the practice of this religion has evolved into a narrow fidelity to ancestral rituals
“This is the only thing they have — the ceremony,” Whelan said. “That becomes their dogma. You have to do it right, you have to say the prayers right, or it won’t have power. In the absence of other things that other traditions have, this becomes the thing you’ve got to be true to.”
“I do think that they are religious men in their own way,” she said, that their prayers are directed toward God.
A tiny Catholic Church on Narushima attracts a small congregation, but the Kakure Kirishitan priests are not interested in joining it. Although they probably understand intellectually the relationship between Kakure Kirishitan and the Catholic Church, Catholicism to them remains and removed. …
In the last two priests the universal religious struggle between the conservative and the liberal [shows]. One priest, in being correct to the past, is blind to the realities around him. The other, attempting to make the ritual relevant to those who don’t truly understand the tradition, makes compromises that dilute the best of what had been preserved.
In a largely Protestantized country like the United States, it may be hard to understand the interconnectedness of ritual and dogma that the Eastern church has always held, that church rituals had from the beginning represented and symbolized doctrinal truth. Old Believers felt that such seemingly innocuous changes as using three fingers instead of two to make the sign of the Cross, or translations that altered pronunciation, struck at the heart of their faith, and they would rather go to their death than deny Christ, who is Truth itself. The famous personification of this in the Surikov painting of the exiling of Boyaryna Morozova (considered a martyr-saint among Old Believers), being carried away by sled while holding up the iconic “two fingers” in defiance.
I found the history of the Orthodox Church in Russia interesting, as I wasn’t super-familiar with this period in history. We tend to get tunnel vision as Westerners and Americans and Catholics, so it’s good, I think, to peek out from time to time to get some perspective. What I saw in this documentary, as peculiar and specifically geo-religious as it appeared to be, tended to reinforce the general anthropological struggles of religion and religious expression: conservative versus progressive, traditional versus reformed, true versus schismatic believers. It happens in all the world religions: Sunnis and Shias in Islam, Orthodox and Reformed Judaism. Buddhists of the Mahayana school use the pejorative term “Hinayana” (“Lesser Vehicle”) to describe Theravada (Traditional) Buddhism, a term Theravada Buddhists would find offensive.
In our own Church, we have a pope whom some regard as an Antichrist and not validly elected. The issues of today are different from yet similar to the struggles of Agafia and her family: sedevacantists who believe there has not been a validly elected pope since Pope Pius XII was elected in 1958 due to the embracing of the heresy of modernism.
We have heard of the “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholicism that reflects this heresy of modernism and botched, sloppy, jarring roll-out of universal liturgical reforms for the world to see being in contrast to the actual documents of the Second Vatican Council. Catholics would call sedevacantists schismatic on the grounds that they do not accept the authority of the pope. No authority means no Catholicism.
A sedevacantist may counter that the Church forfeited that authority in its embrace of heresy, and the seat of Peter being vacant is a sign of the times for true believers. They did not leave the Church; the Church left them. They are willing to suffer and endure in defense of what they see as the Old Faith, the True Faith, before it was corrupted.
So these things are nothing new. Bad popes are nothing new, and schism is nothing new. Desires for an authentic orthodox expression of faith and reforms of reforms as a way of getting to the “heart of things” apart from ritual and dogma (Protestantism) is nothing new. It can be viewed historically, yes. But for the believer (or, in some cases, for the new convert trying to navigate these choppy ecclesial waters), these are highly personal and important things. A believer like Boyaryna Morozova would rather be tortured and exiled to Siberia than use three fingers instead of two to make the sign of the cross, while another Christian believer might have no problem re-baptizing a new member of his congregation in accordance with his norms of belief.
I suspect that Agafia’s story is a mix of Russian fortitude, admirable stubbornness, dogmatic integrity, and religious fervor. For a foreigner watching from his computer screen thousands of miles away in the comfort of a heated and air-conditioned dwelling, it may be an anthropological curiosity.
But it also presents us with the questions: what is the true Faith? Are we willing to die, be exiled, live cut off from society, to preserve it? Does it really matter whether we use two fingers or three in rituals like the sign of the cross? Who has the authority to interpret Scripture, proclaim dogma, and excommunicate? What makes one Catholic?
For me, that last part is the one that isn’t a real struggle: you cannot be Catholic without the pope. You may be more austere in your penance, more sincere in your convictions, more virtuous in your service, and more astute in your apologetics. But if you don’t have the pope, you are on your own.
Pope Francis is not my kind of pope. I find his words and exhortations ambiguous and confusing. I’ve been critical of him in the past in my own little world of preference and influence. I don’t even doubt what I’m reading in Malachi Martin’s Windswept House about the smoke of Satan entering the Church, as Paul VI warned.
But who cares what I think or prefer? He is still my pope. I cannot separate my religious expression from subjection to his authority as universal head of the Church of Christ. To apostatize is not only to deny the Faith, but also to deny Christ. They are not separate, just as being Catholic and recognizing the pope as the head of the Church are not separable.
I have no real knowledge and no real virtue, no real suffering to my name, no beautiful liturgy to extol, and no real merit to bring before Christ when I meet Him at the Last Judgment. And I have no other ark to cling to in this life but the Church. I am adrift without her. So I will cling to that, pope and all.
“There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering.”
—Cyprian of Carthage, Letters 43:5 [A.D. 253]
Rob Marco is a married father of three. He holds a MA in Theology from Villanova University. He has appeared on EWTN’s “The Journey Home” and his writing has been featured at OnePeterFive, Catholic Stand, Catholic Education Resource Center, SpiritualDirection.com, Beauty So Ancient, and other Catholic publications. He blogs at Pater Familias.