During his visit to the Florence Parish of the Nativity of Christ and St Nicholas the Wonderworker from 14th-15th December 2019, Bishop Irenei of London and Western Europe welcomed participants to a special symposium held in the governmental centre of the Tuscany Region, honouring the heritage of Russian Orthodoxy in Florence on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the laying of the first stone of ‘the Russian Church’ in Florence.
Among those speaking at the Symposium were the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the Holy See, as well as the President of the Regional Council of the Tuscany Government, and a collection of noted scholars on Russian Orthodoxy in Italy.
Bishop Irenei welcomed participants on behalf of the Church and the Florence parish.
Welcome Remarks: A Royal Legacy and Martyric Hope
By Bishop Irenei of London and Western Europe
One hundred and twenty years ago the first stone was laid for what would become today’s ‘Russian Church of Florence’ — more properly the Russian Orthodox Church of the Nativity of Christ and St Nicholas the Wonderworker. One hundred twenty years in a city of ancient history: indeed, one of the rare places where a structure of this age might still be considered ‘young’.
But this Church has, since its foundation, borne testimony here of something much older than the sum of its years; and while it has become an organic part of the structure of this venerable city, this local place, it bears witness to something from afar off. Centuries and millennia collide under its domes, as do east and west — the world of ancient ‘Holy Rus’ and that of the west, met together in one extraordinary place.
Our Russian Church in Florence is a direct connection to the final days of the Russian Empire, with elements of its structure and various of its adornments donated by members of the Royal Family, including the Emperor himself, Tsar St Nicholas II. As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth and so much of the world was plunged into the atheistic yoke of communism, these royal leaders showed themselves to be more than this — to be royal martyrs, canonised in due course by our Church, bearing testimony even in the days of bloodshed and revolution of a faith grounded in the peace of God and a love that cannot be conquered by evil. Their testimony rings through today. It is almost precisely a century since their lives were taken from them in an act of cowardly political machination, at the advent of a period of the most intensive persecution the Church has ever known; but at the end of that century, the godless empire that killed the Royal Martyrs has fallen — but their church still stands.
“It is almost precisely a century since the Royal Martyrs’ lives were taken from them in an act of cowardly political machination, at the advent of a period of the most intensive persecution the Church has ever known; but at the end of that century, the godless empire that killed the Royal Martyrs has fallen — but their church still stands.”
In terms of its construction, our Church in Florence was barely completed when the Russian revolution took place. As is so often the case, the laying of the first stone often comes many years, even decades, before the final. Churches take time to complete. Their adornment is a process. Somehow it seems fitting that this process meant that this royally-endowed church was completed just as they royal family itself was to face such trauma. Perhaps by divine Providence, perhaps by simple hearts of real love, they knew that their legacy was not in their titles or palaces or earthly reigns, but in the Church they loved, and the witness it would bear into a world that is too often dark and cruel. They knew that there is a light that shines in the darkness, and ultimately, always, overcomes it.
One hundred and twenty years on from that first stone being laid, the world has changed in so many ways. Many advances have graced the community of mankind. We have walked on other worlds, harnessed the atom, cured diseases once thought incurable — the fruits of intellectual sciences and philosophical endeavours, many of which had origins and progenitors in this very city. Much has improved in the world. And yet there is still a darkness that finds its way through our human advances. There is profound suffering. There is still hunger. There is war, and apostasy, and confusion and, far too often, despair. And this is true not only of the world, but of the human heart. Man longs for goodness, for the peace that will transform him; and yet with sorrowful repetitiveness he repeats his errors, welcoming darkness into the inner recesses of his heart, growing cold towards his God, his brother, his own self, and his world.
These realities make clear that the mission of this Church has every bit as much value, and is just as necessary, today, as it was more than a century ago. Into the darkness, a light must be shined. Man, who constantly seeks to rely on himself, must be reminded — over and over again — that there is a higher power, God, Who is the real substance of his life and growth. In a world of ugliness, he must be shown beauty; indeed, it was one of our writers, who visited this place, F. Dostoyevsky, who famously noted, ‘Beauty will save the world’. In a world of false love, man must be shown what is truly worthy of love — and learn both to show real love, and to be loved, and be changed.
The domed structure of our Russian Orthodox temples is often called a ‘candle’ design, with its tall form capped by domes that are shaped like flames. How fitting, then, that in this city that has contributed so much to rational thought, to political theory and life, there has stood for over a century this ‘candle’ that bears its divine light into society. This was, surely, the intention of its imperial patrons. It is, without question, the intention of the Church that worships here each day. And so, at a little over a century old, she may in some human terms still be young, new; and yet she is far more ancient than the sum of her stones and icons and carvings. She brings to this city, this community, and this land a timeless and eternal truth, in tireless witness, and so we pray she will do until the end of time.