MIKHAIL GORBACHEV'S scheduled visit with the pope in Rome today will be a test of the extent to which the Soviet Union is abandoning its oppression of religion and religious observance. Since the revolution of 1917, the church has been relegated to obscurity at the hands of communism in the Soviet Union. Lenin was scathingly critical of religion, and Soviet leaders since him have discouraged its practice, closing down churches and jailing clerics. Citizens who pursued their religious faith have been denied entry to good schools, frozen out of opportunities for advancement, barred from good jobs. For communism's atheistic hard-line purists, there is no God.
Under Mr. Gorbachev things have changed. There is certainly not religious freedom. Religious organizations must be registered and approved by the government. There are restrictions on the publishing of Bibles. Many Soviets are still nervous about public identification with religion. Some sects are singled out for discrimination. There is still harassment of Jews. Followers of Islam are often under official scrutiny.
But churches hitherto closed are now being reopened. More than 8,000 Russian Orthodox churches are open for worship, and though these amount to only some 15 per cent of the Russian Orthodox churches existing prior to the revolution, more are being opened at an increasing rate.
A new Sunday evening program on national television is bringing to Soviet citizens a cautiously approving view of religion. A Russian Orthodox clergyman urged viewers: ``Pause and tear yourself away from the conveyor belt of your factory, from the conveyor belt of our streets ... hear the silence that carries healing and creative force.''
Named ``Thoughts on the Eternal: Sunday Moral Sermon,'' the show is a respite for many from the harsh realities of life in the Soviet Union. The show's producer, Natalya G. Chernyshov told The New York Times: ``People cannot live only on negativism.'' She promises that a Muslim imam, a Jewish rabbi, and other spiritual leaders will soon appear on the show.
Gorbachev's scheduled meeting with the pope is itself a dramatic event. Key to their discussions will be the future of the Roman Catholic Church in the Ukraine. The Ukrainian Catholic Church has been outlawed for more than 40 years, placed forcibly under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. Just recently some 180,000 Ukrainians staged a massive demonstration against the ban, demanding reinstatement of their outlawed church. This was a striking indication of the continuing influence of their church, even under Soviet repression. The pope has been pressing for the Ukrainian Catholic Church's reinstatement.
Does the cautious relaxation of curbs against religion in the Soviet Union mean that the Communist Party is undergoing theological change, conceding the possibility that God exists? Is it part of the overall policy of glasnost, offering citizens more freedom of thought than they have enjoyed in a long time? Or is the relaxation a safety valve, a way in which citizens frustrated by the economics and politics of Soviet life can find nonviolent escape and solace?
Some observers believe that a bolder Gorbachev is willing to take a chance on careful observance of religion in the Soviet Union on grounds it is relatively harmless and may actually be helpful to his political cause.
Life for many ordinary Soviet citizens has for years been one of gray, monotonous humdrum, an endless battle with state control, political repression, an awesome bureaucracy, and continuing shortages of food and consumer goods. For many, vodka has provided an escape into alcoholic unconsciousness. Gorbachev has been cracking down on drunkenness, but the tedium and shortages of Soviet life remain. Might it be that he sees religion replacing vodka as a more welcome diversion from the harsh realities of Soviet existence?