ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Christianity in the Soviet Union

The Catholic Church in the Soviet Union is coming to life, thanks to a Soviet thaw.

Most North Americans know that Christians in the Soviet Union have been heavily persecuted for the past 70 years, but few are aware that millions of believers survived and that today tens of thousands of churches are open for worship in the Soviet Union each Sunday, including an estimated 1200 Roman Catholic parishes.

Before the 1917 Communist Revolution, the vast majority of the Russian people were Orthodox Christians. Today, an estimated 50 to 75 million are still members. The Russian Orthodox Church recently constructed a large new headquarters in Moscow to mark the millenium of Christianity in their nation. After World War II, several predominantly Catholic areas along the Soviet Union’s western borders were annexed, thus adding some 10 million Catholics to the Soviet population. Two Roman Catholic seminaries are now open in the Soviet Republic of Lithuania, and about 50 new priests are being ordained annually. There is also an active Baptist Church in the Soviet Union, as well as several other Protestant denominations.

Since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1983, the Soviet Government has liberalized its treatment of religions. The greatest changes have taken place in the last year when Christianity celebrated its 1000 years in Russia. The Soviet Government not only permitted the Russian Orthodox Church to observe the anniversary publicly, but President Mikhail Gorbachev invited Orthodox leaders to the Kremlin. Their historic meeting was publicized in the Soviet press and on Soviet television.

Pope John Paul II sent a high-ranking delegation to the anniversary celebrations, led by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Cassaroli and John Cardinal O’Connor, Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s president and archbishop of New York. Cardinal Cassaroli also met privately with President Gorbachev in the Kremlin.

The Ukrainians are members of an Eastern Rite Catholic Church which has an estimated 5 million members in the Soviet Union. It was forced underground by Stalin after the Second World War. In Lithuania, a small republic on the border of Poland which is almost completely Catholic, the Government released 77-year old Archbishop Julijonas Steponavicius, who had been under house arrest for 27 years. The cathedral in the capital city of Vilnius, which had been used as an art gallery and concert hall for the past 38 years, was restored to his control.

Bishop Paul Baltakis, O.F.M., Brooklyn-based bishop for the Spiritual Assistance of Lithuanian Catholics outside Lithuania, visited Lithuania last April. “The Government,” said Bishop Baltakis, “can no longer cope with its social problems, such as drug addiction, care for the handicapped, alcoholism and the breakdown of the family. It now recognizes it needs the assistance of the church.”

In 1988, the Government allowed 120,00 copies of a Catholic edition of the Bible in Russian to be imported. The bibles, funded in part by Catholic Near East, arrived in Riga February 16, 1989, and were unloaded from the ship by seminary students, many of whom were overwhelmed by the gift.

The Catholic Church in the Soviet Union is divided into three major communities. Two are from the Latin rite, the third consists of Ukrainian Catholics, members of an Eastern rite church. Half of the Soviet Union’s five million Roman Catholics live in Lithuania. The other half are scattered across the Soviet Union, from the Polish border to Siberia.

Many are of Polish descent, but there are also Germans, Latvians and many other nationalities. The majority live in territories along the Soviet Union’s western borders which were annexed by Stalin after World War II.

The third group of Catholics are the Ukrainian, a group of churches which were Orthodox in origin but established ties with Rome.

After the war, Stalin forced the Ukrainian Catholic churches to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church. Some accepted the merger, but millions did not. Today some Ukrainian Catholics attend Orthodox services, but still consider themselves Catholic. Others worship underground. The Vatican believes there are about 4.6 million Ukrainian Catholics who worship underground in the Soviet Union today, ten bishops and one thousand priests, all secretly ordained.

July 17, 1988 Ukrainian Catholics celebrated their first public Mass since 1946. More than 6000 people attended the Mass which was held at a shrine near the village of Zarvanytsia, site of reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The Mass commemorated the millenium of the church in the Ukraine. Christianity’s millenium dates back to 988 when a large number of people were baptized in Kiev, the Ukraine’s capital.

“When Stalin was alive, the church existed only from day to day,” Father Josephus Pauilonis, pastor of Leningrad’s Catholic parish said. “Gorbachev is presiding over the funeral of Stalinism.” A young priest confirmed this view. The Rev. Rein Ounapuu, pastor of the Roman Catholic parish in Tallinn, capital city of Estonia and a recent graduate of the Catholic seminary in Riga, told American visitors last summer “The situation is better because of perestroika. Things are changing day by day.”

Last June, Father Ounapuu and 70 of his parishioners traveled to Helsinki, Finland, for the visit of Pope John Paul II. “It was the most beautiful day in my life,” he said afterward. “Three years ago, it would have been impossible for a priest to visit a western country.”

One American Catholic who visited the Soviet Union said afterward that he had come “fearful and apprehensive. My expectation was I would encounter a rigid, structured community,” he commented after his trip. But after Sunday Mass at the Catholic church in Kiev, he spotted one of the local women crying as a Soviet Catholic embraced an American visitor. “This is the first time tears came to my eyes for a long time,” he said. “There are hugs, handshakes and hand-kissings all over the place. I remember what the early Christians said, ‘Look how they love one another.’”

Parting, which took 45 minutes, was difficult. “The Soviet parishioners were waving hands and bidding goodbye. Children brought us flowers, giving them to us on the bus. They were bringing apples from the orchard. I don’t think there is another moment that can rival this. There were hundreds of other incidents where people imparted the feeling of wanting to be closer.”

Finally, he said: “I thought I was coming to my enemy’s land. Now, all of a sudden, I think this is not my enemy anymore. I love the people I encountered.”

Ivan Kauffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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