IN this Christmas season, 1989, the Christian churches occupy a role in the life of nations unprecedented in recent times. Pope John Paul receives President Mikhail Gorbachev and the head of the Roman Catholic Church is invited to visit communist Soviet Russia. Mr. Gorbachev promises him greater freedom for religious expression. Reportedly the Soviet leader also gives assurances that he would lift Stalin-era restrictions on the Ukrainian church.
A Roman Catholic layman is installed as prime minister in Poland, culminating the efforts to overturn communist rule in which the church played a leading role.
In East Germany, the Lutheran churches are the rallying points for the protest marches and the Evangelical Lutheran students are in the forefront of those pressing for reform. Churches have been similar centers of support for reformers in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
Communist leaders long recognized the threat to their rule of a strong religious faith. They sought to suppress and, where that was not possible, to control the churches. In the Soviet Union many were desecrated or turned into museums. Stalin asked with contempt, ``How many divisions has the Pope?'' In Eastern Europe, young people were discouraged from studying for the priesthood or the ministry. In Romania, ancient monasteries have been cut off and isolated with their aging monks and nuns. Yet when the regimes began to collapse, the institutions within society that were most ready to assist in change were the Christian churches. In no country, despite such measures and strong efforts at anti-religious education, were the churches totally suppressed. And in nations such as Poland where the church represented not only the faith but also the nationalism of a people, the communist regime was forced to coexist.
In recent days, in each land, priests and pastors have kept alive a faith through years of suppression and, more recently, have provided spiritual counseling and encouragement and church properties as sanctuaries for those seeking to organize protest movements. In societies where the ruling elite have lost touch with the people, the representatives of the churches maintain that touch. What is less clear is what the role of the churches as institutions will be in the reconstruction of political life in Eastern Europe.
Freedom will bring divisions, within the church as well as outside. Under less pressure, people will turn to more material objectives. New ideas and new approaches may well question the orthodoxy that often accompanies religion. And in the adversity that will inevitably occur following the collapse of one system and the building of another, some will lose faith in all institutions, including the churches. Already there are reports that more liberal elements in Solidarity in Poland are seeking to diminish the close ties between Solidarity and the church because Catholic leaders are considered too conservative.
In another region, in South Africa, the Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, was in the forefront of protests against apartheid earlier this year. As the government in Pretoria shows a more permissive attitude toward the African National Congress, the role of Archbishop Tutu and other activist clergymen may become less central to the political struggle. Less is heard today - at least abroad - of the role of Jaime Sin, the Catholic Cardinal of Manila, who played a major role in the coming to power of President Cory Aquino.
The churches can, in areas of bitter political strife, find themselves both divided and in the middle of the struggle. This has happened to the Catholic Church in Central America where activist priests, close to the poorest of the population, identify with opponents of the traditional governments. The killers of the six Jesuits in El Salvador have still not been brought to light, yet assumptions are probably valid that their concern with the education and welfare of the less advantaged in that country was deeply resented by more conservative elements.
Perhaps Christianity, a religion founded in the crucifixion of Jesus and nurtured in the persecutions of the Roman Empire, thrives on adversity. Nowhere today do people seem as ready to declare and identify with their faith as in the lands where it has been under the greatest pressure. The churches will probably not retain the central role they have played during this period of communist collapse, but millions of this generation in Eastern Europe will long remember the vital role churches played in restoring their freedoms.