John Kass

SOCHI, Russia -- About the only difficulty I've encountered here, wandering alone, far from the official Winter Olympics staging grounds, has been my inability to speak Russian.

Still, I'm able to communicate somewhat effectively, as I often do at home with our earthier elected officials, through use of broad pantomime, exaggerated facial expressions and voice inflection.

And every so often here in Russia, I find someone who speaks a bit of English.

Then I confuse them by speaking Chicago.

But after all the solitary exploring, I feel the need for crowds with common purpose and sport that spans the globe. There's skating and hockey to see, and skiing up in the mountains. And I'll see that in the coming days.

But there was just one more thing I had to do in Sochi, the port city about 40 minutes away by train from the Olympic compound and its "ring of steel."

I lit a candle in church.

The Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel sits on a hill overlooking the Black Sea. The Russian Orthodox house of worship is the oldest in the city, commissioned by a Russian noble in the late 1800s, after the long, bloody wars when the army of the czar drove the Muslims from the land.

And then, after the Russian Revolution, when the Communists decreed that religion was the opium of the people, priests all over the nation were tortured and killed or sent to the Gulag. Many churches were destroyed or, like this one, turned into warehouses. Christians were banned from the Communist Party.

A generation was frightened away from worship and subsequent generations were coerced. Children were born and grew old and were buried without ever hearing the ancient divine liturgy of St. John the Chrysostom sung in the churches of their grandfathers.

Many churches of Russia fell into ruin, but with the fall of communism, they are making a comeback, one of these being St. Michael the Archangel, perfectly restored in recent years. The Russian Orthodox comeback is difficult, with cultural clashes and terrible incidents such as the shooting Sunday that killed a nun and a worshipper in far eastern Russia.

But faith has survived in Russia.

I visited St. Michael on a warm sunny morning, with a moist breeze from the sea on my face as I climbed the steep narrow sidewalk to the gates to the courtyard.

Just inside the doors sat an old woman in a folding chair. She was dressed in black and appeared destitute, most likely a widow. Her head was covered with a kerchief. She held out a cup and begged for alms, making the sign of the cross to bless those who gave.