Pilgrims to Rome on their tours of the great papal basilicas invariably find their way to Santa Maria Maggiore, which in the Borghese chapel houses the image of the Virgin known as Salus Populi Romani – said to have reached Rome from Crete in the year 590 during the pontificate of Pope Gregory the Great, up to the present it is perhaps the most popular Marian image of the city, and one of the few that the tradition attributes to the Evangelist Luke. The great basilica, said to have been built on the site of a miraculous snow-fall that took place on August 5th, 352, enjoys extra territorial status as a Vatican exclave surrounded by the Italian state.
Across the square in front of the basilica, however, are two institutions that have played an important role in the history of the Catholic church in the twentieth and now the twenty-first century. One of them is the Pontifical Oriental Institute, established by Pope Benedict XV with the Motu proprio Orientis Catholici issued on October 15th, 1917, with the intention of creating a Roman center for the study of the theological tradition of the eastern Churches. The timing proved to be providential, as the collapse of the Russian and Ottoman empire reconfigured the cultural and political landscape of Eastern Europe, bringing about new challenges that no one could have foreseen even a few years before. Indeed, the Bolshevik revolution would take place a few weeks after the official foundation of the institute, ensuring that the relationship between the Catholic and the Orthodox churches would change forever. The Orientale, as the institute is known today, is now in a consortium together with the Gregorian University and the Biblicum, and continues to be run by the Society of Jesus.
At the corner of the same block, the Russicum houses around thirty students from a variety of countries and backgrounds, most of whom are students at the Orientale, but also at other Roman institutions of theological education. Established by Pope Pius XI in 1929, its initial goal was to house seminarians who had fled the Soviet Union because of the religious persecutions of the Bolshevik regime. The hope was to create a center that could train missionary priests who would return to Russia, reestablish the Catholic hierarchy, and spread the Catholic faith. Many are familiar with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church, which is the largest Eastern-rite Catholic church in the world. The Russicum – which in a curious historical twist was built with financial contributions sent by faithful all over the world to honor the canonization of St Therese of Lisieux- was trying to foster a specifically Russian Greek-Catholic tradition – a numerically very small reality that had begun to appear during the years immediately preceding World War One, and that unfortunately would be brutally extinguished during the following decades. Many priests and nuns would perish in the Gulags, and the Catholic hierarchy in the country would be entirely wiped out. Even after a limited measure of religious freedom was reestablished in Russia after 1991 and Latin-rite Catholic were given back many of their pre-revolutionary properties, the Holy See chose not to reestablish a Russian Greek Catholic hierarchy and presence in the territories of the Russian federation. As a result, Russian Eastern-rite Catholicism continues to be a very small reality both in the Russian federation and in the West – readers from the San Francisco Bay Area may be familiar with Our Lady of Fatima church in San Francisco.
In its heyday before the Second World War and for a few decades after that, the Russicum was a beehive of activity, offering its own courses in addition to those of the Orientale, and had its own chapel that offered a regular schedule of services. Its connections with Russia and the fact that many of its early graduates had been sent on secret missions to the Soviet Union ensured that the place had a reputation as a hotbed of espionage and intrigue. In 1988, the Italian director Pasquale Squitieri even shot a B-movie called Russicum: The Days of the Devil -known in English with the more subdued title The Third Solution– where the institute is the center of an improbable international espionage plot connected to a papal journey to Moscow. To this day, the Russicum continues to enjoy extra-territorial status and Italian police is not allowed to enter the premises, but in its corridors one is more likely to meet Slovak or Ukrainian seminarians or American Patristic scholars than FBI or KGB agents.
Squeezed between the Orientale and the Russicum, and serving both institutions, is the Church of Sant’Antonio Abate. Built as a Latin-rite church and abandoned after the late 19th century, Sant’Antonio is now the only church in Rome that regularly offers the liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom in Church-Slavonic – or actually, a curious mixture of Church-Slavonic and Italian- as opposed to Ukrainian, Ruthenian, or other Slavic vernaculars used by Eastern-rite Catholics. The liturgy is accompanied by a highly professional choir singing Slavonic chant, allowing worshippers to fully experience the Russian spiritual tradition. Relics of some Eastern Catholic martyrs – such as Saint Theodore Romzha (1911-1947), a Ruthenian Catholic bishop assassinated by the Russian secret services and canonized by John Paul II in 2001- are also housed in the church. It is only appropriate that the church should also retain old Renaissance frescos showing Saint Antony interacting with various demons in the Egyptian desert. Saint Antony was one of the first ascetics of Eastern Christianity, and his legacy is the common patrimony of the Western and the Eastern Churches.
It is difficult to foresee the role that the Russicum will play in the future, especially now that the relationship between Russia and the West is at a historical low because of the war in Ukraine. However, visitors to Rome who attend liturgy at Sant’Antonio Abate can have a foretaste of the longed-for union of what John Paul II called the two lungs of the church – offering a prayer ut unum sint.