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Beautiful stories buried in shallow facts


By Christopher Lawrence Zugger
Syracuse University Press, 440 pages, $39.95


In these post-Soviet days, Russia and the reborn independent Eurasian states around it seem completely unrelated to the great Marxist machine that caused so much suffering. Meanwhile, as those who lived under Soviet oppression struggle to heal past wounds, the rest of us are happy to forget about the political experiment that caused such pain.

The memories and sufferings of persecutions long past still sting. The Polish Pope John Paul II is himself a hero of these times. He remembers. Despite the physical and political difficulties involved, his determination to visit Ukraine during his pontificate is just one more indication he will not allow the martyrs of Marxism to be completely forgotten.

Byzantine Catholic priest Christopher Lawrence Zugger also seeks to memorialize the sufferings of Catholics under the Soviet regime. In The Forgotten, Zugger provides an encyclopedic treatment of the fate of Catholicism under Bolshevism and Stalin. He covers a remarkable amount of ground, providing a little information about a lot of people, places and brands of Catholicism. He places special focus on the fate of Greek or Eastern Catholics who suffered persecution and martyrdom.

Zugger paints the Eastern Catholics as the Vatican’s stepchildren, persecuted by the Soviet Union and even by the crippled Russian Orthodox church, but forgotten by Rome. Greek or Eastern-rite Catholics came into existence after the Union of Brest, a city in Belarus, in 1596 when influential Eastern Orthodox bishops met with Roman Catholic bishops and declared union with Rome. Dissenting Orthodox bishops quickly cried foul, and the two sides excommunicated each other. Thus, history’s closest brush with an Orthodox-Catholic reunion became a bitter, long-running family feud.

Greek Catholics exist in the denominational cracks between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. They often follow a Byzantine liturgy and spiritual style, and some of their priests are married. The Roman hierarchy has condemned attempts at forced “Latinization,” but Latin suspicion of the Greek Catholics still exists. The Orthodox church always viewed Catholicism as a rival, and to them a Greek Catholicism that looks like Orthodoxy on the outside while proclaiming loyalty to Rome is simply a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

This book is obviously a labor of love. Zugger claims to have spent most of his adult life studying this problem, and this thick book is the result of 10 years collecting stories, historical facts, maps and pictures. The reader, though, is quickly overwhelmed by his zealous and wide-ranging research into the history and politics surrounding the suffering of Catholics under Soviet rule.

Unfortunately for Zugger, good histories of the Catholic church under Soviet oppression already exist, as do numerous histories of the oppressive Soviet policies regarding religion. Throughout the Cold War, armies of Ph.D. wannabes in Russian or Soviet Studies collected U.S. government grant money to write dissertations on the evils of the Soviet Union in every form. Thankfully, Zugger avoids Cold War rhetoric and finger-pointing at the Orthodox church leaders who made unsavory compromises with the Bolsheviks and Stalin for the sake of survival.

Despite his best intentions, Zugger provides a shallow chronology of historical facts, political policies and personages that buries some truly beautiful stories of faith and perseverance. The stories are there. You just have to hunt for them.

There is one particularly striking tale, of Third Order Dominican Mother Catherine. Mother Catherine and seven other nuns were arrested in March 1924 and sent to various prisons. Those women imprisoned together found ways to pursue theological and spiritual discipline. One nun even completed her novitiate in prison under the direction of an older sister. Mother Catherine was separated and sentenced to 10 years in prison. She was placed with common criminals but ended up winning such respect and affection that she was later moved to isolation.

Zugger rarely develops the personalities enough to elicit any feeling or understanding of what motivated these persons to make such sacrifices. This is, at best, a reference book from which might come more developed stories of the forgotten martyrs of this era. But Zugger hasn’t forgotten. And good for him.

Melissa Jones is a freelance writer with advanced degrees in religious studies and Russian history. Her e-mail address is jonesma@worldnet.att.net

National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001