The Russian face of mercy

February 9, 2016 in Year of Mercy


As Francis, Bishop of Rome, and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia prepare to meet on Friday, 12th of February in Havana, Cuba, Tom Casey SJ reflects on the Russian Face of Mercy with the inspiration of acclaimed Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

This Friday, for the first time in history, the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the spiritual leader of Russian Orthodoxy are due to meet. It has taken almost a thousand years for this encounter to take place, and thank God it has finally come to fruition. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI longed for this day, but were unable to bring about.  But now it is unfolding under the new Bishop of Rome.

As we contemplate closer links with the Russian Orthodox Church, we need to grow in respect for these praiseworthy Christians, and to be grateful for everything they have endured to keep the torch of their faith burning so brightly.  This historic encounter takes place during this Holy Year of Mercy announced by Francis in the document “The Face of Mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus).  We can learn a lot about the extraordinary face of mercy from the Russian people, who have suffered enormously throughout history, and especially over the course of the 20th century.

The celebrated Russian poet Anna Akhmatova experienced the suffering of the Stalinist terror first hand. Officially denounced, reduced to poverty, and with her son imprisoned for years in a forced labour camp, Akhmatova wrote the harrowing masterpiece Requiem. Through the eyes of brave women, it tells the story of Russian suffering in those seemingly endless years. These women were the mothers and wives and sisters and daughters who stood forever outside faceless prisons, hoping, often in vain, for news of their loved ones, or even for one last sight of them before internal exile or execution.

Anna herself stood in line alongside countless other women. One day someone in the crowd recognized her as the great poet, Anna Akhmatova. A sliver of hope surged in the poor woman, and she pleaded with Anna to write about this terrible experience, so that the suffering of all these women and their loved ones wouldn’t sink without trace into the faceless depths of Soviet misery. And when Anna promised that she would be a witness to this low-point of history, the woman was so heartened that we’re told:

“Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”

When history finally comes to an end, we will stand before faces like this, and we will be judged by whether or not our actions will have brought a smile to distraught lips or have managed to thaw frozen eyes.

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