Why Cathedral Square?

There is a Cathedral Square in every city. At least in Europe. At least in every pre-revolutionary Russian city  – and some of the newer cities in the country, where a cathedral has been built in the past 20 years. It’s a city square adjacent to the main church – the place, where the Church meets the public. It is, in fact, the public square.

It is the square, to which solemn processions march from time to time from the church. It is the square, from which, on rarer occasions, barbarian crowds burst into the church, destroying the holies, arresting and killing priests and laymen. Sometimes, there is a rally in the Cathedral Square – or, nowadays, in its virtual equivalent – the media or the blogosphere. Very often, the Cathedral Square serves also as a marketplace. A theatrical performance, or an art exhibit can also take place in this big anteroom of the Church – and the arguments would probably be inevitable on whether this kind of art is fitting to be displayed near the church, to say nothing of being inside it.

There is usually a government building somewhere in the Cathedral Square, because there is rarely a relationship between the Church and the Public without a role for the Prince. In most cases, we are dealing with the triangle of the Government, the Church and the Public meeting in the Cathedral Square.

All of these issues are highly controversial everywhere. But they are of a particular interest in Russia and other post-Soviet states, where the world’s most brutal and violent secularization has been followed in the past 20-plus years by a remarkable case of what has come to be known as religious revival. One can see it as a particular case of a broader global trend usually described as de-secularization, or post-secular society.

For someone who has been a religion reporter for over 15 years, the ways in which religion and society meet and interact is perhaps the most fascinating thing on earth. And I plan to write about it in this blog, Cathedral Square. Some days it will be news,  some – comment on the news, and on other days it will be a guest posting, or occasionally just some rambling.

If you say to someone “Cathedral Square” – which square comes to mind first? Most likely, the Piazza San Pietro in Rome.  There, Bernini’s genius and the Papal authority once erected the amazing colonnade, as if stretching out the Church’s embrace of the world and using some of the best calculations and illusions baroque could offer to structure this space between the Church and the world. Don’t we all know that this colonnade is oval-shaped in order to seem circular and divergent in order to seem parallel?

Yet for the purposes of this blog, it would be wrong to take just St. Peter’s Square as the Cathedral Square because it was built in a theocratic Papal state, which cannot be viewed in terms of the modern secular states most of us live in. To continue the metaphor, for the purposes of this blog, one should take Piazza San Pietro together with the Via della Conciliazione – the broad avenue leading to the opening of Bernini’s colonnade and thus connecting the Vatican State with the State of Italy. That Conciliation Street, as most of us also know, was built by the Mussolini government after the Lateran Accords of 1929 ended the nearly 60-year-old standoff between the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian State, which took over Rome and what remained of the Papal States in 1870, after which the popes declared themselves “prisoners of the Vatican”. Only the Mussolini government and the Pope Pius XI reached the accords, in which the sovereignty of the Vatican City-State was recognized, a Concordat between the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian government was signed, and the Holy See was indemnified to a degree for the loss of territory. That was what the Via della Concilizaione was to symbolize.


I say this, because we often forget how recent the raging conflicts between the Church and the state were in countries considered “civilized” and how these symbolic battles continue to be fought. Remember the court battle for the removal of crosses from Italian schools, in which the Russian Orthodox Church supported the Roman Catholic Church in defending Christianity’s rights in the increasingly de-Christianising (or, as they like to say, post-Christianising) Europe?

You may have guessed that I am writing so much about Rome because I have just returned from the Eternal City. Indeed, for full disclosure, I went there just two weeks ago on a pilgrimage with a group from my Russian Orthodox parish in Moscow. But it doesn’t mean that this blog will be confined solely to Christian subjects. Russia is a country of Orthodox Christian tradition with a significant historical presence of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Protestants, Armenians, Roman Catholics, Old Believers, a variety of homegrown and imported religious movements, where every once in a while someone declares himself a new incarnation of God or, as was recently reported, begins worshipping Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as a new incarnation of Apostle Paul. It is a country of widespread pagan mentality – suffice to see all the superstitions and healers’ ads. Moreover, Russia is a country of some of the strongest atheist heritage – a phenomenon that becomes increasingly evident after years of religious revival as the dominant trend. Last but not least, it is a secular state, where the Constitution declares the American-type total separation of Church and state, but the tradition is completely different, hence many conflicts in this field in the public square.

A typical Cathedral Square in Russia still has a Lenin statue on it and in most cases is named after the Bolshevik atheist and persecutor of the Church (for comparison, how about a statue of Diocletian next to nearly every church in Europe?) But the once mutilated cathedral in this Russian square is more or less restored to its old glory. That is the case, for example, in the town of Tarusa, 130 kilometers south of Moscow, where I have a dacha. The beheaded, without the dome and belfry, St. Peter and Paul Cathedral there – a far cry from its Roman namesakes –was the House of Young Pioneers, when I was a child. An art exhibit once held in the House of Pioneers eventually developed, due to Tarusa’s special artistic flavor, into an Art Gallery, which got its own totally unimpressive building in the 1970s attached to the former cathedral. What a lucky development that was! When two years ago the restored cathedral was being re-consecrated, the procession had to go around both the church and the art gallery – there is no passage between them. But in many of Russia’s cities today, we see symbolically loaded property disputes between the Church and the museums established in church buildings during the Soviet times. This blog is unlikely to escape the subject.

Yet, I am obviously still under the impression of that recent trip to Rome. We arrived there on May 2, the day after the Beatification ceremonies for the late Pope John Paul II. The city was still full of Roman Catholic pilgrims who came for the occasion – in addition to all the tourists that are flocking the enchanting city in May, when it is not too hot yet. The beatification posters were all over St. Peter Square. But they were all over Rome too. John Paul II looked at us from every other lamp post, nearly every bus and from the walls of many buildings. I don’t speak Italian, unfortunately, so couldn’t  read the quotes on most of these posters. But I could understand the inscription Comune di Roma and Roma Capitale. Imagine, I thought, what a noise would have arisen here if the City of Moscow had paid for – and marked with its symbol –posters all over the city marking the canonization of another Russian Orthodox saint or some other major church-related event! It would be considered illegal, anti-democratic, a violation of the rights of Muslims, other non-Christians, atheists, and all the people of good will. It would be condemned as a destruction of the inter-ethnic and inter-religious peace in Russia, threatening the very fabric of our society. Would it really? It would be exactly the kind of situation that I would be covering in this blog.

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