In our Catholic tradition, we take over the pagan European feast celebrated at the beginning of winter, the dying of the European year on November 2.
I would have loved to celebrate the deceased loved ones of my fellow parishioners in Cleveland after Jesus’ Ascension rather than at the beginning of the summer in our southern hemisphere.
Fr Denis Power, who was the parish priest at Rosalie when I was his assistant priest there, taught me that a good liturgy should be one with the full active participation of the parishioners.
Certainly, in the Russian liturgy, there is active participation, with much bowing and the repetitive use of the sign of the cross.
There are no chairs or seats so the people remain standing during the long ceremony.
There were also many interruptions, when individuals went to light candles or moved forward to kiss beautifully restored and maintained sacred icons.
However, all this activity took place remotely from the main liturgical ceremony of their priests, much of which was conducted either behind a partially open or fully shut screen.
There, the priests either prayed or led the chant accompanied by a choir.
The people did not join in, either with the choir or with the priests.
The congregation remained at a distance for the whole ceremony.
I thought of Liturgy Brisbane director Fr Tom Elich whose initiative in renovating the parish church in Bulimba at the moment is to bring the main altar down from the back of the church into the centre so that the congregation would be more included in the liturgy.
For the Russian Orthodox spirituality, the part of the church in front of the screen in the main church symbolically belongs to earth.
Beyond the screen, inaccessible to the ordinary people, there is represented Heaven and Paradise.
It is a very mystical spirituality.
The Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood
I then visited the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.
It was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was murdered in 1881.
The outside of the church has six cupolas richly decorated with gilt, coloured stones and mosaics.
But it was the mosaics on the interior walls of the church that had their impact on me.
The walls and ceilings inside the church are completely covered in intricately detailed mosaics — the main pictures being biblical scenes or figures — but with very fine patterned borders setting off each picture and which cover more than 7500m within the walls.
The mosaics particularly highlighted Jesus’ own life and many of his parables.
I thought what a wonderful way for illiterate peasant people of the time to learn the stories of Jesus and his life.
I also thought in turn of the leadlight windows which were recently installed in our parish church in Cleveland telling the stories of the Last Supper and Our Lady Star of the Sea.
These were very tiny compared to the majestic mosaics of those I had seen in the Church of the Saviour on Spilt Blood.
What was surprising for me was the connection that the people of St Petersburg still felt towards the former Russian royalty.
Obviously, the Russian tsars had built a magnificent city to rival the great cities of Europe and perhaps there was still this pride in what they had created.
The guide who we had was both proud of the Tsar who had been martyred at the church and of his achievements for the city.
She also took pride in the practice of her Russian Orthodox religion.
The Communist rule of 60 years had not dented her loyalty to either the royal inheritance nor to her religion.
The church itself during the Communist era had been used as a storage place.
But in the short 30 years since the regime has ended, the city has been beautifully restored.
And it’s even more impressive that despite the fact that the church is a place of magnificent religious artwork, it is still in use as a church.
The Hermitage and Rembrandtís Prodigal Son
The final element for me of the spiritual journey in St Petersburg was to visit the Hermitage Palace museum with its enormous collection of major paintings and art works.
But the highlight was to stand in front of the painting of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt and contemplate its magnificence.
There is both kindness and relief on the face of the father.
There is the grasp of the son burying his face into his father’s chest.
You don’t see the face of the son just the gesture of holding close.
At his feet, one sandal has fallen off, exposing a muddy foot.
In the parable, the father is quick to put new sandals on his son’s feet.
Another key element of the painting are the two hands of the father – the right hand is portrayed as a feminine hand while the left is a masculine hand.
Genesis says that man is made in the image of God – both man and woman. This is Rembrandt’s effort to portray the teachings of Genesis.
The third figure is of the elder brother, standing sternly to the side, aloof, unmoved by the emotions of father and son.
There is the dark shading of Rembrandt’s painting but an extraordinary light on the father’s face.
It was a most moving moment, to see the most powerful parable of Jesus’ teaching portrayed by one of the greatest portrait painters of all time.
So, for a humble parish priest of Cleveland, it has been a wonderful spiritual journey, brief though it was, in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.
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