Just over 450 years ago, in the faraway land of Russia, a synod was held which, inter alia, upheld a series of far-reaching liturgical reforms which noticeably altered the articulation and practice of liturgical piety in the Russian Orthodox Church. More than a few marginal adjustments, the liturgical reforms instituted by Patriarch Nikon (who, ironically enough, was deposed at the 1666 synod in question) was immediately noticeable to clerics and laity alike, particularly during the penitential season of Great Lent which, arguably, the reforms hit the hardest. The synod also took the disconcerting step of flagrantly nullifying the decrees of an earlier gathering—the 1551 Stoglavy Synod—which had upheld the integrity and orthodoxy of Russia’s liturgical rite—a rite which differed in noticeable ways from Greek usage as it had solidified by the 17th Century. The rest, as they say, is history.
Within a decade or two, the Russian Orthodox Church was fractured into officially approved believers under the Moscow Patriarchate and so-called Old Believers (or Old Ritualists) who refused to acquiesce to the Patriarchate’s liturgical reforms, even though it meant losing the priesthood. The heavy hand of the Russian secular authorities ensured that no bishops joined the “Raskol” or schism, and many of the priests who held to the Russian Old Rite were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. While relations between Old Believers and the mainline Russian Church have improved over the past century to the point where both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia count Old Believers among their membership, the dark legacy of the Russian Church schism still hangs in the air, centuries later.
At the time of the schism, many Old Believers held to an apocalyptic view of the liturgical reform, arguing without irony that altering Slavonic grammar and the number of prostrations performed during the Prayer of St. Ephraim at Lent amounted to losing the Orthodox Faith. Even today, there are Old Believers who maintain that we are still living in the time of antichrist where God has deprived his followers of all of the sacraments save Baptism. Of course, the end of history has yet to come; Christ has not returned in glory; and life continues on. But still, the Old Believer air is thick with eschatological expectation or, at the very least, a powerful sense that God is not done exacting revenge on those who have apparently betrayed Him.
Maybe there is no perfect parallel in the Roman Catholic Church to this phenomenon, though that could change in a hurry. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Apparitions at Fatima and it is not an exaggeration to say that there are more than a few Catholics who believe that a moment of great reckoning is coming. Some, in fact, are longing for it, fed up as they have become with the authorities in Rome and the laxity rampant throughout the Universal Church. Others are holding to a more positive outlook. Instead of expecting impending destruction they hope that the Blessed Virgin’s promise, namely that her Immaculate Heart will triumph, shall be fulfilled. At that point a period of renewal will occur in the Church, with the troubling developments of the past 50 years being swept away so that the Church can once again fulfill her divine mission in the world.
It is easy to draw superficial comparisons between the upsetting developments which occurred in the Russian Orthodox Church during the 17th century and what the Catholic Church has had to endure during the 20th (and well on into the 21st). In fact, that’s what I just did above, albeit with a wee bit of discretion. What is more fascinating to consider is how different “these days” are from “those days.” Traditional Catholics, understandably upset by the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms and doctrinal confusion, have opted to stand up against the prevailing chaos, though only to limited degrees. Getting some shade thrown at you for Tweeting against Mother Theresa’s canonization is a far cry from getting torched at the stake for refusing to change how you make the Sign of the Cross. While traditional Catholics are eager to speak of “persecution,” “injustice,” and “struggle,” very little of that is found during the present situation because even those who wish to eradicate tradition do so not with an axe, but a limp wrist. And for that, traditionalists should probably be grateful.