More than a decade after the collapse of communism, churches in Eastern Europe are slowly recovering after seven decades of Soviet oppression. This was the observation of Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), who recently returned from a trip to Armenia and Georgia, former republics of the Soviet Union.
The churches face a difficult task “re-establishing themselves after years of spiritual drought,” said Msgr. Stern. Armenia and Georgia became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the early 1920s. One of the first acts of the U.S.S.R. was to outlaw religion.
“The most difficult obstacle facing the churches is that the people have been influenced by the materialism and consumerism of the Western world,” Msgr. Stern said. “The people are discovering for themselves – without proper faith formation – what it means to be Christian,” he added.
Msgr. Stern visited Armenia in late August at the invitation of Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, to commemorate the 1,700th anniversary of the dedication of the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin, the spiritual center of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The cathedral complex, located near Yerevan, the Armenian capital, contains the residence of the Catholicos, a seminary and church offices.
The Secretary General noted that “Armenia was the first country to embrace Christianity as its state religion,” which it did at the beginning of the fourth century.
A good sign, he said, was attending the ordination of two priests in the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin. He described the liturgy as resembling that of the ordination ceremony in the Catholic Church.
Another stop on Msgr. Stern’s agenda was a trip to a small Armenian Catholic community in northern Armenia and a visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial, Tsitsernakaberd. Beginning in 1915 and extending through 1922, Msgr. Stern said, as many as one million Armenians were killed in what we would today refer to as an act of “ethnic cleansing.”
In addition to an estimated 3.5 million Armenians in the independent Republic of Armenia, some 2.5 million Armenians live in Russia and 1.5 million have settled in the United States. Many make their home in the New York City area. A large number of Armenian-Americans live in California, he said, where the climate and topography resemble Armenia.
An advantage of this dispersal of Armenians, Msgr. Stern said, is that many of the present generation remember the homeland of their parents and grandparents and are generous in supporting the church in Armenia. This assistance, he said, will go far in helping to re-establish the church.
A major theme of the visit centered on church unity. While there are jurisdictional issues, particularly between the Armenian Apostolic and the Armenian Catholic churches, Msgr. Stern admitted, there is a strong sense of brotherhood and sharing among the people. “The Catholicos greeted us like family,” he added.
Msgr. Stern traveled with a group of influential Catholic leaders, including William Cardinal Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore; Bishop John J. Nevins of Venice (Florida); and Bishop Basil H. Losten, Eparch of Stamford, all members of CNEWA’s Board of Trustees.
Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, Apostolic Nuncio to Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, met with the delegation in Armenia.
From Armenia Msgr. Stern traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia, one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics. Under communism, the Secretary General explained, industries were decentralized, with various parts of the production process distributed among various states. With the breakdown of communism and the rise of nationalist states, none of the countries was able to survive in isolation. Social services are practically nonexistent, he noted.
Msgr. Stern visited with Caritas Georgia, a national Catholic aid organization supported in part by CNEWA. Among its vital programs are visits to the homebound by health care workers and food centers where the needy can receive a hot meal. Another project that CNEWA funds is a bakery and pastry shop that aside from serving walk-in customers supplies local hotels and restaurants with fresh-baked goods. Msgr. Stern also visited craft and weaving shops that employ young workers.
The trip, said Msgr. Stern, was “very positive.” It was an excellent opportunity to “re-establish connections.” CNEWA always regards the Christian community as “one big family,” he said. There are legitimate differences, but there is also a sense of “unity and solidarity.”