The angels are in the details

gor0 009When I worked at the Charlotte Observer, a long, long time ago, one of the stars of the newsroom was a feature writer named Frye Gaillard. He's been writing books for years now, but it seems that one of his earlier works was a bit prophetic. I am referring to a little novel entitled "The Secret Diary of Mikhail Gorbachev," which pivoted, in part, on the idea that the last leader of the Soviet Union was (drum roll) a secret Christian.

Of course, there had been rumors, in large part because President Ronald Reagan was convinced that Gorbachev was hiding some kind of religious faith. Gorby had also made some public comments about his wife being the "true atheist" in the family, or words to that effect.

Now, there is a fascinating story breaking on the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, it seems that this is a story everywhere but in the elite American press. Here is the lede in The Times report by Richard Owen, with a Rome dateline:

Franciscan friars at Assisi have confirmed that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet President, is a Christian after he was seen praying at the tomb of St Francis.

Mr Gorbachev has long acknowledged that he was influenced by his grandmother, an Orthodox believer and is a a regular participant in peace conferences in the Umbrian town where St Francis is buried. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, has also turned to Orthodox Christianity and wears a cross round his neck.

Father Miroslavo Anuskevic, a Lithuanian priest at the Basilica of St Francis, said he had spotted Mr Gorbachev -- for years a professed Communist atheist -- praying anonymously "in silent meditation" for half an hour at the tomb of St Francis "with very Oriental intensity" with his eyes closed, alongside his daughter Irina.

This going to be a major shock for the old "Gorby is the Antichrist" crowd. Or maybe not. After all, it seems that Gorbachev has embraced an ancient, liturgical form of the faith.

But back to the news. This is one of those stories where the angels are in the details. Here is one example of that, which really hit home for me as an Orthodox Christian.

Mr Gorbachev's parents reportedly kept Orthodox icons hidden behind pictures of Stalin and Lenin, as did the parents of his late wife, Raisa, who were reportedly executed for the offence.

Father Anuskevic told La Stampa Mr Gorbachev had observed to him that "St Francis is for me the other Christ. His story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life. ... It was through St Francis that I came to the Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb. I feel very emotional to be in a place which is so important not only for the Catholic faith but for all humanity."

Now what this story lacks is an explicit quote from Gorbachev about his faith or his active involvement in a church. In fact, it is not clear whether he is Orthodox or, perhaps, a convert into Roman Catholicism. It is possible that he is in transition.

page0 blog entry260 2The language is very similar in several reports. Take, for example, the following section of Malcolm Moore's report in The Telegraph. These quotes come long after a lede that says that the former Soviet leader "has acknowledged his Christian faith for the first time."

"It was through St Francis that I arrived at the Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb," said Mr Gorbachev. "I feel very emotional to be here at such an important place not only for the Catholic faith, but for all humanity."

He also asked the monks for theological books to help him understand St Francis's life.

Father Miroslavo Anuskevic, who accompanied the former Soviet leader, said: "He was not recognised by any of the worshippers in the church, and silently meditated at the tomb for a while. He seemed a man deeply inspired by charity, and told me that he was involved in a project to help children with cancer.

"He talked a lot about Russia and said that even though the transition to democracy had been very important for the world, it was very painful for Russia. He said it was a country which has a great history, and also a great spirituality."

Stay tuned. We can, I am sure, look forward to a lengthy, detailed report in The New York Times.

We can hope. This seems like an important story to me.

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