27 weary Russians stop in Baltimore on way to pray with pontiff


They had finally touched down at Dulles International Airport in Virginia by way of Ireland at 3 a.m. Sunday. Their Aeroflot plane was delayed 16 hours in Moscow and their polite cheerfulness barely masked jet lag.

But by yesterday morning, as they met with Archbishop William H. Keeler in the rectory garden at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 27 young Russian Roman Catholics on their way to Denver to pray with Pope John Paul II already knew that Baltimore differs from the movies' version of life in this country.

Their ages range from 16 to the early 30s. A few more women than men, most are university students. They were chosen to represent their Russian parishes at the Catholic world youth gathering Aug. 11-15 in Denver.

All are in America for the first time.

"Freedom" and "friendliness" were their strongest impressions of the United States so far, several said.

And several also acknowledged with laughter and careful English that they understood not all of the United States is like the places where they have spent their first hours here: a suburban Catholic parish in Ellicott City, the handsome Trinitarian retreat house north of Pikesville, the cathedral garden in Homeland.

"Of course, it is not like it is in the movies," said Kirill Gorbunov, a 20-year-old theology student at the University of the Humanities in Moscow. "People here are very friendly, very open. I like it," he said.

Olga Galetskaya, 30, completed her university studies in St. Petersburg, has taught chemistry, and now teaches English in Sochi on the Black Sea.

"From what I saw so far, America is very large, very rich, very VTC free, very friendly," she said.

"I feel at home," said Irrina Orleansky, 26, a Russian yeshiva graduate and convert from Judaism, who also teaches English. "It is what I expected. I have very close friends in California."

Ms. Orleansky is fascinated by gospel music and black Protestant worship in the United States, and her hosts on the staff of the Baltimore archdiocese have promised to introduce her to members of a local African-American congregation.

The Rev. Alexander Khmelnitsky, a Catholic priest in Moscow, accompanied the Russian group. He explained that ecumenism is still "a delicate problem" in his country, where the Russian Orthodox Church claims as many as 90 million adherents and the Latin -- or Roman -- Catholics number no more than 250,000, possibly as many as 64,000 of them in Moscow.

"We don't really know. The figures are meaningless," he said. But what is certain, he said, is that his church in Moscow has baptized about 500 adults in each of the last three years.

The best he could say of relations between the Catholic and Orthodox hierarchies, Father Khmelnitsky said, was that "the low point is behind us."

He himself did not become a Christian and a Catholic until 1980, the 51-year-old Dominican priest pointed out.

He credited his conversion to a group of Orthodox friends he began to meet with once a week at the age of 37.

He said his reasons for choosing Catholicism over Orthodoxy were theological and cultural. "For some reason, I could not feel at home in the Orthodox Church," he said.

After the Russians sang in English for Archbishop Keeler and his aides yesterday -- "We are one body, one body in Christ" -- Father Khmelnitsky told why they are making the journey to Denver: "The natural urge of the young to meet and communicate with their peers, to share their faith and their vision of life with others, their desire to let others know that we do exist."

Mr. Gorbunov added, "We have two main reasons -- the spiritual experience and certain material things, such as making friends and making connections."

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