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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

The Church in the Soviet Union

Msgr. Stern visits the Soviet Union on a fact-finding tour that proves fruitful for all concerned.

When Catholic Near East Welfare Association was established by Pope Pius XI in 1926, it was mandated to assist the people and churches of the Soviet Union. Until recently, there were very few opportunities to do so because of the political situation.

Under President Gorbachev’s innovative policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), direct communication and assistance to churches in the Soviet Union is now possible. On the occasion of his visit to Pope John Paul II in December of 1989, the suppressed Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church was allowed to begin to register its local congregations.

In response to the pope’s appeal for assistance to the churches of central and eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States set up in May of 1990 an ad hoc committee for aid to these churches. During the summer months, three fact-finding missions were sponsored by the committee.

Because of Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s role and competence, as secretary general I was invited to serve as a consultant to the committee and to accompany the fact-finding visit to the Soviet Union.

Purposes. Catholics in the Soviet Union are concentrated in the western part of the country, with the exception of those internally displaced and exiled.

Our delegation visited those areas where a Catholic hierarchy is established. Our objectives included initiating contact on a national hierarchy to national hierarchy basis or at least on a bishop to national hierarchy basis; informing the bishops in the Soviet Union of the potential assistance from the church in the United States; making a very preliminary needs assessment; and setting up a mechanism for future communication.

Additionally, we planned to meet with the Russian Orthodox patriarch and Soviet officials.

Participants. The delegation was headed in Moscow and Lithuania by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago. It was otherwise led by Archbishop John L. May of Saint Louis, chairman of the American bishops’ ad hoc committee and also a trustee of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Other members were Bishop Paul A. Baltakis, bishop for Lithuanians outside of Lithuania; Bishop Basil H. Losten, Exarch of Stamford; Dr. Francis J. Butler, president of FADICA; Mr. John Carr, secretary of the United States Catholic Conference Department of Social Development and World Peace; and myself.

Milan. Before going to the Soviet Union, we traveled first to Milan, to meet with the president of the Council of European Episcopal Conference, Cardinal Carlos Maria Martini, S.J., and its secretary general, Fr. lvo Furer. In Milan, we also were briefed by the secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, Dr. Gerhard Meier.

They shared the assessment of leaders of the western European churches concerning the pastoral situation in central and eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. They also informed the delegation of their activities to date and future plans.

Moscow. Our visit began in Moscow. We were briefed by American embassy officials; received in formal audience by Alexei II, the newly elected Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia; and met with officials of the All Soviet Council for Religious Affairs.

At St. Louis Catholic parish, Father Franas Racijunas told us of his time in Siberia at forced labor as a coal miner. He used to offer Mass secretly in an unworked gallery underground during his daily shift. Now he celebrates publicly next door to the KGB headquarters!

After Moscow, we proceeded to visit four republics: Lithuania, Latvia, Byelorussia and the Ukraine.

Lithuania. We flew to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, on a regularly scheduled flight of the Soviet airline, Aeroflot. Much to our surprise we were escorted off the plane ahead of the other passengers. On the tarmac, a group of bishops in cassocks and young girls in traditional costumes greeted us with flowers!

We met with Archbishop Julian Steponavicius and celebrated Mass “privately” at SS. Peter and Paul Church with an enthusiastic crowd of worshipers that overflowed into the square outside.

In the crypt of St. Theresa’s Church, families remember their loved ones. A woman asked us to pray over her father’s remains, just returned from Siberia, where he died after 37 years of exile.

The next day we drove to Kaunas for festive concelebrated Mass with the archbishop, Cardinal Vincentas Sladkevicius, and the entire Lithuanian hierarchy. Later we visited the seminary and then met with all the Lithuanian bishops together.

Latvia. Driving from Lithuania to Latvia, we detoured to visit the Hill of the Crosses. Thousands of crosses, large and small, studded the hillside – a testimony of faith, resistance and national sentiment.

In Latvia, the delegation met with the two active bishops there, the apostolic administrator of Riga and Liepaja, Bishop Janis Cakuls, and the auxiliary, Bishop Vilhelms Nukss.

In Riga, the seminary is being rebuilt by the students themselves under the direction of one of the priests who is also an architect. All during the years of persecution, except for Lithuania, this one small seminary in Latvia was the only place to prepare Catholic priests for the entire Soviet Union.

Byelorussia. In the Slavic republic of Byelorussia we were the guests of the newly consecrated bishop of Minsk, Bishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the only Catholic bishop in Byelorussia. At that time we met also with and were briefed by the new apostolic nuncio to the Soviet Union, Archbishop Francesco Colasuonno.

The day before we arrived in Grodno, Bishop Tadeusz had just opened a seminary. Two weeks before, the authorities had given him back an old convent, long used as a government clinic. Immediately, hundreds of volunteers had spruced up part of the old building. It was hard to believe that the 40 serious young men studying had just arrived.

Ukraine. Of the 10 Greek-Catholic bishops in the Ukraine, our delegation met in Lvov with the senior prelate in the republic, Metropolitan Volodymr Sterniuk, the administrator of Lvov, and Bishop Ivan Semedi of the diocese of Ivano Frankovsk.

We squeezed into the 9-foot by 15-foot room in an old apartment block that Archbishop Volodymr has used for home, chapel, and office for the past 30 years, since he was released from prison. His space was tiny, but his heart is great!

Visits were also made to churches, seminaries, and other institutions suggested by the bishops.

Outcomes. The visit certainly achieved its objective of establishing a structure for formal communication with the Catholic Church in the Soviet Union. It provided an excellent introduction to the Church’s situation there at a unique and positive moment in its history.

The delegation was warmly and enthusiastically received by the bishops and, in the case of the public liturgies, by the faithful. Although the contacts were brief, they sufficed to orient us to the needs of each church and to furnish an accurate overview of the diverse pastoral situations and challenges.

One result of the visit is that Catholic Near East Welfare Association will formalize a procedure for assistance to the churches of the Soviet Union.

As soon as is practicable, we will extend our seminarian sponsorship program to the major seminaries in the Soviet Union, presently in Riga, Kaunas, Telsiai, Grodno, and Lvov. Also, an annual disbursement budget for pastoral and humanitarian projects in the Soviet Union will be initiated this year.

Catholic demographics. According to information received, the Catholic population of the Soviet Union may be as many as 12,500,000 persons – 500,000 in Latvia, 3,000,000 in Lithuania, 2,000,000 in Byelorussia, 5,000,000 in Ukraine, and 2,000,000 in Russia and Kazakhstan. Scattered Catholic communities exist in other parts of the Soviet Union as well.

The overwhelming majority of Ukrainian Catholics belong to the Byzantine rite; the rest are mostly of the Latin rite.

Any description of large segments of the population as Catholic necessarily refers to family background and nationalist sentiments. A pastoral reality is the general paganization of entire generations during the long years of doctrinaire atheism.

Because of its systematic repression for so many years, religion seems to have a certain fascination for the younger generation. Many are seeking information, religious formation and baptism. There is need for programs of evangelization, even for “believers” themselves.

Soviet government religious policy. The vice chairman of the All Soviet Council for Religious Affairs – the agency previously charged with the promulgation of atheism and the repression of religion – and his staff met with our delegation in Moscow. An event in itself!

The vice chairman gave this appraisal: Before perestroika the Church was conceived of as a hindrance and obstacle to progress; now it is seen as a positive force in Soviet society. The Communist Party shares this view as well, but this does not mean there are not difficulties. It is not easy to quickly change attitudes and feelings after so many years.

He also commented that before perestroika it took years for religious communities to be registered; now there is no problem. Hundreds of buildings are being turned over to the churches, religious literature may be imported, and the Church may participate in the mass media.

Subsequent to the visit, a law on freedom of conscience was passed by the Supreme Soviet. Although it has some limitations, especially the maintenance of strict separation of church and school and no provision for the legal status of religious confessions as such (as opposed to local congregations of believers), it is a huge step toward ensuring religious liberty in the Soviet Union.

In recent Soviet public opinion surveys, religious institutions enjoy a high level of confidence and more trust than any other institutions. There seems to be a growing optimism among believers.

Challenges of outside assistance. There is an extreme diversity of pastoral situations and religious history in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Bishops in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union are glad to share information, but they are not yet ready to spell out their needs.

There are, of course, profound differences of mentality, the result of different experiences over many years. Secularization evolved gradually in the West, but was imposed in the East. Many bishops were named by the old regimes, many have little formal preparation.

Most eastern European bishops view the changes in western Europe during the last 40 years as undesirable (although they are probably inevitable in the East).

Bishops in the East may well seek to replicate the classic institutions of the past – e.g., Catholic school systems, hospitals and newspapers – which have been found wanting by many in the Church in the West or have overtaxed its resources.

It is important that bishops’ conferences be formed where they do not exist, and that each country’s bishops set their priorities for assistance. It is important to develop overall pastoral plans rather than ad hoc projects.

Initial concerns of Soviet bishops. All are concerned about the need for the theological and pastoral updating of their priests and about the tremendous shortage of clergy.

At present hundreds of parishes do not have priests to serve them, and still many more churches are being returned to religious use by the government.

There is need for formation of candidates for the priesthood and for the opening or expanding of seminaries. Although skilled faculty members are lacking, there is a wariness about importing them from the West. There is an abundance of candidates, far more than can be accommodated.

As church buildings are being returned to ecclesiastical use, they need to be restored, refurbished, and staffed.

Traditional Catholic life needs to be regularized, and the baptized, to be evangelized. Bibles, catechetical materials and religious literature are needed for all levels of society. Accordingly, communication tools are necessary, especially printing equipment and paper.

External church relations. The Holy See is concerned with normalizing relations with the U.S.S.R.; regularizing the condition of the Ukrainian hierarchy; ascertaining the Catholic presence outside of the Baltic states, Byelorussia and Ukraine and making provision for pastoral care; and for ecumenical relations with the Orthodox.

Patriarch Alexei is deeply concerned that conflict between Orthodox and Greek Catholics in the Ukraine may profoundly damage overall Catholic-Orthodox relations. He admitted that the 1946 dissolution of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church was the result of political intervention, but he was concerned about the future of the existing Orthodox Church in the western Ukraine.

Greek-Catholics are repossessing hundreds of churches in the western Ukraine, as their formerly Orthodox congregations and, often, priests declare themselves Catholic. The ancient sectarian rivalries and resentment of Russian domination in the Ukraine have been aggravated by many years of injustice. Presently, the Greek-Catholic church seems more concerned for defense of its rights than for ecumenical relations with the Orthodox.

Msgr. Robert L. Stern is Secretary General of CNEWA.

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