For almost 30 years now, initially at the request of the then Holy Father, now Pope Saint John Paul II, and subsequently of his successors, ACN has been committed to supporting and promoting dialogue in Russia with the Orthodox Church. Over the intervening years many joint initiatives have been developed, in which both Catholics and Orthodox have worked side by side, seeking joint solutions to the problems of the modern world.
The historic meeting between Pope Francis and the Moscow Patriarch Kirill in 2016 lent further impetus to this engagement, and today a joint ecumenical working party, initiated by ACN, aims to translate the important issues from the joint declaration of the two Church leaders into concrete projects.
One such major issue was the improvement in the pastoral support of those suffering from addiction. For experience has shown that addicts often experience a great need for a real relationship with God, and both Churches have found that they can help each other through an exchange of experiences, and also in the basic and ongoing training of their priests in relation to this important issue.
One outstanding pioneer of such work on behalf of addicts is the Orthodox priest Sergij Belkov, who back in 1996 first established a rehab centre for drug addicts which aims to address the whole person, including the spiritual dimension. The centre is in Sapjornoe, in Karelia, around 65 miles (100 km) from Saint Petersburg and close to the Finnish border. It was already clear to Father Sergij that addiction was less a matter of a medical or sociological problem, but far rather a kind of spiritual sickness, which requires a spiritual and pastoral response.
Before becoming a priest, Father Sergij was for many years a senior police Commissioner with the murder squad. He was dealing daily with the evil that enslaves people and makes them capable of unspeakable crimes. His experience had also taught him that every kind of evil starts with something small. „Before someone commits real crimes and breaks the law, he begins by breaking moral laws“, he explains. Taking drugs is likewise often the beginning of a much deeper involvement in evil and criminality.
In 1992, when he was ordained to the priesthood, he again and again found that addicts were coming to him for confession, and eventually he felt called to do something for these people. His centre in Sapjornoje was the first such Orthodox rehab centre of its kind in Russia. His remarkable success rate of around 75% permanently rehabilitated was a vindication of Father Sergij and his approach and was praised and copied all over the country and beyond. For in other such rehab centres generally only a relatively small proportion of addicts remain „clean“ for good, while most sooner or later fall back into addiction.
His centre is structured like a large family. Life is organised along semi-monastic lines, with a strict rhythm of prayer and work, obedience, observance of fast days and reception of the sacraments – all these things play an important role in the healing process. The young men come to him after a physical detox in a hospital under medical supervision, and are each given an individual duty to perform. In doing this they are able to recover their sense of dignity and learn to assume responsibility. Many of them work on the farm, rearing pigs and poultry, or in the vegetable garden, while others learn a trade such as carpenter, joiner, roofer or bricklayer. The church that serves the centre was built in 1999 by former addicts with their own hands. There is also a workshop where candles and hosts (Prosphora) for the Orthodox liturgy are produced. In this way, psychologically and physically strengthened and healed, the young men are eventually able to return and take their place in society, plying a trade and establishing families of their own. And there are even a number of spiritual vocations among the former addicts. ACN has been supporting this excellent initiative right from the start, including for such things as setting up the workshops.
But the number of young men who come seeking help continues to grow, however. So now there is a need to extend the building. And additional rooms are also needed for counselling sessions with priests and psychologists, as well as guestrooms with ensuite facilities for visiting family members, and other rooms besides. ACN is proposing a contribution of 29,800 Euros towards the cost of these extensions.