Russia’s Catholics

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (CNS) — Just off First Red Army Street in central St. Petersburg, down the road from an ornate Russian Orthodox cathedral, it’s easy to miss a building that represents the future of Russian Catholicism.

Built in the late 19th century, four stories high and painted a yellowish gold, Mary Queen of the Apostles Seminary displays few signs of the Catholic faith flourishing inside. Instead there are signs of Catholicism’s centuries-long struggle in Russia.

Father Markus Nowotny, the German-born rector of the seminary, points to the building’s lone external cross, which faces, oddly enough, away from the street.

“Up until 1905, conversion to any religion other than Eastern Orthodox was illegal,” he explained. “In addition, displaying Catholic symbols close to an Orthodox church was outlawed.”

When czarist Russia fell to the communists in 1917, Catholicism became almost nonexistent.

“Visiting Catholics are surprised to learn about Catholicism in Russia,” said Father Nowotny. He estimates that roughly 1 percent of St. Petersburg’s 4.6 million citizens are Catholic. The national percentage is much lower.

“I hear programs on Catholic radio about ‘young’ Catholic countries in Africa and Asia,” he said. “If they are young, then Russia is a baby.”

Moscow’s newly appointed Archbishop Paolo Pezzi, an Italian, knows Catholicism’s difficult Russian history as well as anyone. In a February article in the Italian publication Vita e Pensiero, he lamented Catholicism’s difficult history in Russia.

“During the late 1930s, persecution led to almost complete destruction of the Catholic Church, at least in its formal structures,” he wrote. “In 1917, 2 million Catholics lived in Russia, with 900 priests and monks; by 1935 there were not more than a dozen.”

When Father Nowotny first arrived in Russia in 1992, he met German Catholics who had witnessed priests preparing parishioners to carry on the Catholic tradition despite Soviet rules.

During the 1990s, small communities of Europeans from Germany, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus immigrated to Russia and helped revive the Catholic liturgy there.

With the great majority of Russians being Orthodox, Archbishop Pezzi said, “I believe the first challenge facing the Catholic Church in Russia today (is) not to succumb to the temptation to perceive themselves as an ‘ethnic’ church.”

“Catholicism’s presence helps to understand that in reality doctrinal unity between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church already exists: What unites us is infinitely more than what divides us. This is true for the individual Christian and for the entire church, as the unity of Christians is the greatest testimony to the truth of Christ,” he said.

As a German, Father Nowotny’s presence in the former Soviet Union represents one symptom of Catholicism’s current ethnic status: a shortage of Russian priests.

Only about 10 percent of the priests in Russia are Russian. The rest, like Father Nowotny, hail from places such as Italy, Poland and Spain. This amalgam of different languages and liturgical styles can lead to culture clashes.

Recently, a group of Argentine missionaries prepared for Pentecost by blanketing their church in red: red on the walls, red curtains, red carpet. Little did they know that in Russia, Pentecost traditionally involves the color green.

“The parishioners were quite frightened,” Father Nowotny recalled. “The color red in Russia represents the Communist Party. They thought they had entered a Soviet rally.”

Russia faces a number of problems traditionally Catholic countries do not. One is Russia’s great size. Whereas a neighboring parish in Italy or Spain may be as much as several dozen or so miles away, Russian parishes may be several hundred miles apart. Many parishes only receive priests once a month, some even less.

Father Nowotny sees his seminary as a place to overcome many of these obstacles.

“Seminaries are places where theory becomes practice,” he said, beaming as he discussed one seminarian who has developed a way to send out the Gospel text through cell-phone messages to reach widely dispersed Catholic communities.

Father Nowotny also worries that the faith of Russian Catholics is limited now to the liturgical aspect.

“There are three pillars of Catholicism: liturgy, charity and witness,” he said. “Right now we only have liturgy in Russia.”

For him, Russian Catholicism’s goal is clear: “Catholicism must be brought into real life. It must become the groundwater for the Russian parishioners.”

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