Like churches in other parts of the world, the Orthodox Church in Russia has struggled to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The question became particularly intense at the end of the Great Fast. Even though Church and state authorities had called on people to remain home, many devout believers, even some who recognized the dangers of the virus, openly or quietly resisted. Tragically, Passion Week led to the widespread infection of priests and monastics. The Church now faces a theological crisis. How is it to respond to traditional notions, sometimes promoted by hierarchs themselves, that holy things and places protect and even heal believers from disease?
When we lived in Russia several years ago, my wife called Orthodox worship a “contact sport.” She meant not only that Orthodox fully engage their bodies as they venerate holy things and receive the eucharist, but also that parishes in large cities can be so crowded on a Sunday or feast day that one literally has to push one’s way inside. Often she or I had no room to cross ourselves or bow without hitting the person in front of us. But inevitably a determined babushka would elbow her way between us to reach an icon and light a candle to the one and only saint who could reliably answer her prayers.
Interactions among priests and lay people in Russia are equally intimate. If a priest walks out of the altar into the nave, devout believers rush up to him and put out their hands for a blessing. With men, the priest may also share three kisses on the cheeks. During confession, a believer whispers into a priest’s ear—and breathes into his face.
At the end of March, Patriarch Kirill asked believers to emulate St. Mary of Egypt by making their homes a “desert” in which to retreat and pray. Priests would continue to serve the liturgy, but without parishioners. A few days later, President Putin asked Russians to shelter in place. The head priest of Moscow’s Church of Cosmas and Damian, which promotes the legacy of Fr. Aleksandr Men’, stated that his parishioners trusted his judgment about closing the parish. In another prominent parish, St. Nicholas in Kuznetsakh, the head priest (who is also rector of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University), retreated to his dacha, and when an assistant priest fell ill with the virus, the parish suspended services altogether. Other parishes, however, viewed the threat more skeptically, or some believers came to services anyway, and priests were reluctant to turn them away.
Passion Week and Pascha (April 19) became a tragic turning point. Soon, Fr. Aleksandr Shargunov, well known in conservative circles (in the 1990s, he vigorously promoted the canonization and cult of Nicholas II), fell seriously ill. A couple of weeks later, Fr. Dmitrii Smirnov, another active promoter of conservative causes (including unquestioning submission of women to male authority), contracted the virus and was hospitalized.
Infections soared in several of the Church’s largest and most renowned monasteries. At the beginning of Passion Week, the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, already closed to the public, canceled services altogether, so many of its members were sick. Five days after Pascha, with infections soaring among its sisters, the Holy Trinity-St. Seraphim Convent in Diveevo, Russia’s largest women’s monastery, closed.
The Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra north of Moscow, where the Moscow Theological Seminary and Academy are located, stopped receiving pilgrims on April 6. But a week later, on Holy Monday, aggressive crowds gathered outside the monastery’s massive iron gates and demanded admission. Seeking to avoid a scandalous confrontation, the abbot yielded to their demand but pleaded that they observe hygienic measures. A week after Pascha, the rector of the Academy wrote an open letter to the faithful:
“The infections are spreading among those who have risked the most, those who have not fled from the people, those who have humbly offered themselves as a sacrifice to the virus, in the faint hope that ill parishioners would stay home. . . . The pestilence began on Holy Friday. Our most gifted priests fell ill, several seriously. The abbot got sick, I got sick, as did the monastery’s elders. On Passion Friday, somehow fittingly, we were nailed to the cross. And below us, also somehow fittingly, a crowd was demanding a miracle. No miracle took place. They accuse us of abandoning them. That’s just not true. We could answer in one way alone: by falling ill ourselves, so that people would see our suffering and take pity on those bishops, priests, and choir members who were still healthy. As we see servants of the Church die painfully and from suffocation, we silently ask our parishioners: have pity on us. Have pity on people still alive, still healthy. Have pity on doctors, dying in service. Who will give you spiritual direction, who will commune you or offer you healing, who will delight you with wonderful church singing, if half of us die and the other half is incapacitated because of damaged lungs? It is we priests and servants of the church who have fallen ill more than any. But the Lord declares, ‘I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.’”
COVID-19 has exposed painful divisions in the Russian Orthodox Church. After Pascha, one group of believers circulated a petition asking Patriarch Kirill to take action against priests who continue to ignore hygienic measures. A related group began collecting and posting the names of clerics and monastics who have fallen to the virus. But other groups have accused the Patriarch of submitting too quickly to secular authorities. In late April, the Diocese of Yekaterinburg suspended a renegade priest who labelled state and Church measures as satanic. A few days later, Patriarch Kirill suspended Deacon Andrei Kuraev, who has regularly criticized the Church for failing to engage science and society; Kuraev had publicly insulted the memory of a hierarch who had died of the virus.
But the debate is finally theological, not political. The Russian faithful inhabit a world of holy things and places: holy springs and wells, miracle-working icons and relics, holy elders and gravesites. They make pilgrimage to parishes and monasteries that are renowned for their holy things and their powers of healing. The COVID-19 crisis forces the question: have the faithful erred in their judgments? Has the Church failed? Just how does holiness manifest itself in a fallen world?
John P. Burgess is James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.