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European Russia’s Latin Catholics

Amidst a new religious freedom in post-Communist Russia, the Latin Catholic Church can minister openly to its faithful – and attract some new members.

Since the demise of Marxism-Leninism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, religion, in its traditional and not-so-traditional forms, has flourished in the Russian Federation.

The vast majority of ethnic Russian believers identity themselves as Orthodox Christians, yet other denominations and sects abound. American-funded evangelical Christians offer large-scale religious spectacles and distribute free bibles. Southern Russia’s Muslims, with Gulf states’ support, are revitalizing mosques and theologates. Once again Buddhist monks pray in their ancient monasteries in the Russian Far East; and marginalized “prophets” prey on the economic and social fears of ordinary Russians.

Russia’s Latin (Roman) Catholics are among Russia’s most significant religious minorities. According to Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the Apostolic Administrator for Latin Catholics in European Russia, more than 300,000 Catholics live in European Russia, a territory of more than 2.5 million square miles west of the Ural mountains. An estimated 250,000 Catholics, led by Bishop Joseph Werth, S.J., Apostolic Administrator for Latin Catholics in Siberia, are scattered throughout the Siberian wilderness and the Russian Far East.

The number of languages spoken by Russia’s Latin Catholics reflects the ethnic diversity of the Russian Federation and the Russian Catholic Church. English, French, German, Italian, Korean, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and Spanish – all may be heard after the celebration of the Eucharist, which is normally prayed in Russian, the common language of the former Soviet Union. Most of the 100 priests who serve European Russia’s Catholics are foreign-born, but facility in the Russian language is required.

“One day we hope all our priests will be native Russian-speakers,” Archbishop Kondrusiewicz stated from his cramp quarters in Moscow during a recent interview.

Before 1918, 150 Latin Catholic seminarians, all citizens of the Russian Empire, studied in St. Petersburg, the imperial capital. When he was named Apostolic Administrator in April 1991, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz’s primary goal was the foundation of a seminary. Today, 45 young men are enrolled in St. Petersburg’s restored Theological Academy, which was reopened in 1993.

“To assist these future priests in creating a network of catechetical and pastoral services, some 500 students study at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Moscow, an institution with branches in Ekaterinburg, Orenburg and Saratov. A Russian translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,ort funded in part by CNEWA, was a recent priority of the Dominican-run college.”

Latin Catholics also publish a magazine, Svet Evangelica, and operate a radio station. The church organizes special events for youth; 9,800 attended a recent Day of Youth celebration.

It is the Russian Orthodox Church, however, that has been the principal faith of the Russian people, perhaps its defining force. The presence of the Catholic Church grew as the Russian state expanded, enveloping non-Russian, often Catholic, territories. In what is now western Ukraine and Belarus, most Christians shared the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, celebrated by the Russian Orthodox, but these Byzantine, or Greek, Catholics were in communion with the Church of Rome. When the Russian state had become an empire by swallowing up the nations of the Lithuanian and Polish Commonwealth, large numbers of Latin Catholics became part of the Russian nation. Armenian and Chaldean Catholics were also incorporated into the Russian Empire as it spread to the south.

Russia’s tsars invited thousands of German and Polish families to settle in these territories, particularly along the Volga River and the Black Sea. These “Russian Germans” built imposing stone churches wherever they settled, evidence of their spiritual liberty and economic prosperity.

Like their Russian Orthodox fellow Christians, who were nearly exterminated, Russian Catholics were not spared this century’s catastrophes of war, revolution, civil upheavals, famine and persecution. Churches were pillaged and closed. The faithful and their priests were imprisoned, even shot. German, Lithuanian, Polish and Ukrainian communities were dispersed and exiled, usually to Siberia or the Russian Far East.

In April 1991, encouraged by President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), the Holy See established three apostolic administrations for the pastoral care of Latin Catholics in the Soviet Union – European Russia, Siberia and Kazakhstan. In deference to the Russian Orthodox Church, however, care had been taken not to establish dioceses; Catholic dioceses would have been inappropriate in view of the historical role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the region.

The eventual break-up of the Soviet Union, however, irrevocably altered the state of affairs for religion in the newly created Russian Federation.

While some of the Catholic population are diplomats or foreign-born nationals with business concerns, the majority are Russian citizens. Many trace their Catholicism to a German, Lithuanian or Polish grandparent. Some Russians have married into the church, while others have sought baptism and full sacramental participation. Most Russians who seek out Catholicism are attracted to the church’s universality and its commitment to serve the poor. Often these converts are unbaptized members of the intelligentsia who, while on their spiritual journey, find consolation in the Orthodox Church as well.

Relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches – which were strained after the press misunderstood the intentions of the Holy See when it created two apostolic administrations for Latin Catholics on Russian soil – were described by the Archbishop as “much improved.” As evidence, he cited recent meetings with officials of the Moscow Patriarchate in preparation for a European ecumenical conference to be held in Graz, Austria, this July, as well as the Moscow Patriarchate’s positive responses to the Russian translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

During an interview in New York last summer, the Archbishop, an ethnic Pole born in the Belarus city of Grodno, indicated that Patriarch Alexei II had himself appealed to Moscow authorities to return to Catholics the Church of the Immaculate Conception, an ethnic Polish parish in a suburban section of Moscow. The church had been closed by Communist authorities, its lovely nave subdivided and utilized as office space. It seems unlikely that the church’s original magnificence will be restored.

One Latin Catholic church in Moscow, St. Louis, which is owned by the government of France, managed to minister to Moscow’s Catholics throughout the Communist period, despite KGB surveillance. Today, the liturgy there is celebrated in Russian, Polish and French, with one Sunday Mass celebrated in Russian especially for children.

The Catholic Church is most active in its person-to-person work with Russia’s increasing number of poor people, particularly its children and the elderly. A case in point is Father Kazimierv Szydelko, pastor of Moscow’s church of the Immaculate Conception. A polish Salesian who has guided this community for more than four years, he wishes to build a center to house Moscow’s swelling population of street children. In fact, the rights of children and education seem to be his passion.

In Moscow, Sister Teresa Kim, a Polish-born member of the Congregation of the Holy Family, is one of a handful of Catholic religious working among Russia’s homeless and substance-addicted children.

Sister Teresa entered religious life during the Communist repression of Polish society and religious life in the 1980’s. Her friends – even her family – had no idea she was a nun until 1991, when, while working in a hospital rehabilitation unit, Sister Teresa began to wear her habit.

Three years ago she traveled to Moscow where the nun spent most of her time visiting children in the toxology ward of a large hospital. She was given permission to visit the children regularly, especially those with special needs and those who had no visitors.

Many of these children are from broken and dysfunctional families. Often the parents are substance abusers.

For example, one 14-year-old’s alcoholic father had murdered his mother in a drunken brawl. The youth fled, sleeping in attics, in alleys or on park benches until he met Sister Teresa.

A hard-working nun, Sister Teresa is driven to confront this daunting problem in troubled Russia. Street children are present everywhere in Moscow. They can be seen living hand-to-mouth in railway stations, markets and alleys.

In a typical suburban Moscow apartment, Sister Teresa runs a halfway house, a place where she and a few responsible teenage helpers (also beneficiaries of Sister Teresa’s concern) provide the children (mostly adolescents) with elementary vocational training: sewing, cooking, cleaning and the like.

There is no room in her small three-room apartment to house the increasing number of children who stop there, but they find food, warmth, clean clothes, love and even a little fun.

“We need more funds to house these children properly,” she said. Caritas Russia provides her with some support, but she is in desperate need of more. Sister Teresa is trying, almost bare-handedly, to fill a widening gap in the free-market free-fall that defines modern Russia.

Russia has become a society of haves and have-nots, and the future does not bode well, especially for its youth. Unemployment, the breakdown of social services and increases in drug addiction, alcoholism and violence in the home are symptoms of the nation’s travail. They also add to its problems.

Both the Russian Orthodox and the Catholic churches are trying desperately to turn the tide, but the church in Russia is once again a fledgling. Russians emerging from the thrall of Communism know little about their faith. Despair is rampant. The Russian Orthodox and Latin Catholic churches have little to work with, but they are nevertheless bringing the Gospel to life for their people.

This is photojournalist Sean Sprague’s 50th contribution to ONE magazine.

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