In September, when I traveled to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to collect the stories featured in this week’s In Focus, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. I thought there was little that could take me by surprise.
After all, I spent years, in both college and graduate school, studying the Soviet Union. Later, I worked for Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese III, who had a front-row seat to the collapse of Soviet-style communism.
So, I’d heard the stories. I’d heard about the secret police and the underground Church. I’d heard about the persecution of Catholics. I also knew, at least in theory, the social and economic fruits of communism — the mistrust, the deceit, the decay and neglect.
But here I am, a month back from my travels, and I’m still trying to process all that I saw and learned.
It’s not that any of what I saw challenged what I had been taught. Instead, it’s like what I had been taught wasn’t enough. It didn’t do justice to just how pervasively evil that system was — how it could work its way deep down into a culture and into individual hearts, leaving wounds that even the passing of two decades can’t erase.
It also didn’t do justice to what was destroyed by communism — the richness and the depth of cultures shot through with the truths of the Incarnation, with the truths of the Catholic faith.
Walking through cities such as Bratislava, Slovakia, and Budapest, Hungary, was, at times, dizzying. These were cities built by Catholics and shaped by Catholics, and the art and architecture reflecting those sensibilities is everywhere. But so is the art and architecture of communism. Communism ripped its way through those cities and countless more, tearing down blocks of buildings to erect monuments to itself in cement and glass. Now, medieval cathedrals and Politburo-planned complexes stand side by side, two ideologies juxtaposed against one another in a riot of architectural confusion.
That visible tear in the fabric of Eastern Europe’s great Catholic cities speaks to a much greater tear in the souls of its people. Persecution, indoctrination, lies, fear, betrayal — all those things and more did their bit to lead people away from the Faith.
That was true in 1989, and it’s true now. There is still a hole in the soul of Eastern Europe, much as there are holes in its cityscapes. The beliefs and habits of communism once attempted to fill that hole. Now, the beliefs and habits of secular materialism are crowding in.
But, those who still believe aren’t giving up. They know there is only one thing that will fill the hole in the soul of their culture, and are trying mightily to restore what’s been lost.
This week’s In Focus tells their story — the story of those striving to rebuild the Church in Eastern Europe today. It’s a story of grace and hope in the midst of confusion. And, as the Church in the United States confronts its own challenges, from both government and culture, it’s a story that may hold a lesson for us as well.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.