In Russia, Waiting for Springtime of Faith
Interview With Father McLean Cummings
ROME, APRIL 10, 2006 (Zenit) - The future of Russia hinges in part on the vitality of the Russian family, says an American priest working there.
Father McLean Cummings, a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, has been working in the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow since early 2002. Last fall he was appointed spiritual director of the Catholic seminary in St. Petersburg.
Father Cummings shared with us his insight on the current state of the Catholic Church in Russia.
Q: How would you describe the current state of the Catholic Church there?
Father Cummings: I must first point out that my experience is rather limited. I have only lived and worked in Russia for the last four years. Most of that time has been spent in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with short stays at various parishes.
As Archbishop [Tadeusz] Kondrusiewicz has said, the history of the Catholic Church in Russia is "many centuries long, very noble, and also tragic."
In the first decade and a half since the end of the Soviet Union, great strides have been made to revive this noble and historic presence. Bishops have been named. Over 200 parishes have been reopened. Where possible, the original churches have been renovated.
Liturgical books and basic texts like the Catechism have been translated. It would seem that this stage is coming to an end, and a new stage is beginning.
We all know that the Church is not made up of buildings and books. Now the emphasis will be more exclusively on building up the faith of the people, strengthening the young communities, developing local traditions.
Q: What challenges does the Catholic Church face in Russia?
Father Cummings: The path toward a fervent, vibrant local church in Russia has many obstacles.
The most obvious problem that we face is the almost seven-decade interruption in the transmission of the faith. This discontinuity has very serious repercussions; one cannot simply pick up where one left off. One must in many ways start from scratch.
Cultural tradition is a process that can very nearly be destroyed if stopped for a generation or two.
The challenge most characteristic to Russia is distance. For various historical reasons, Catholics are not found in certain geographical pockets, but are spread thinly over this vast land mass. It makes it very difficult to provide for them, as the parishes are consequently very small.
This is one reason why the possibility of Catholic schools is very remote; this, of course, is a most effective tool for transmitting the faith that we do not have.
The most publicized challenge concerns the tense ecumenical situation in which the Church is operating. Great caution must be taken to avoid misunderstandings and great efforts [must be] made to overcome historic prejudices. This can stifle the initiative and enthusiasm of both pastors and people.
To choose one more challenge to mention: It would be the fact that 90% of the priests serving in Russia are, like myself, foreigners with no particular preparation for their mission. Assimilating the language and culture and overcoming differences in approach takes significant effort.
Q: What kind of young men in Russia are pursuing a vocation to the Catholic priesthood?
Father Cummings: Last fall, I was asked to come work in the seminary as spiritual director. Thus, I have been able to get acquainted with the diocesan seminarians from all four dioceses.
I was immediately struck by the fact that this group of men is very unusual for a seminary. Many have followed their own spiritual itineraries, often from atheism, overcoming great obstacles. One is reminded of St. Augustine. They seem to be particularly blessed by a divine election.
Nonetheless, a loving, faithful Catholic family has aptly been described as a "first seminary" for a reason. It is easier for candidates from such a background to realize a priestly call.
Most of the seminarians now training at Queen of Apostles in St. Petersburg have to work at their formation with special intensity to develop human and priestly virtues, to assimilate a truly Catholic outlook, and to integrate fully into the life of the universal Church.
Q: In light of the teaching of Pope John Paul II on building a culture of life, how would you describe the present situation of the Russian family?
Father Cummings: No one can deny that Russia is suffering from the culture of death in a most dramatic way. Every year the population drops by half a million, mainly due to alcoholism, suicide and abortion. Pornography and crime are rampant.
This atmosphere has taken its toll on those with Catholic roots as well.
Efforts are being made to build up Catholic families. This is, of course, essential for solid parishes and future vocations. We must strive for the goal that one day genuinely strong, faithful Catholic families will shine in their communities as a living Gospel for all to see.
Q: After many years of governance by communistic atheism, what signs do you see of a new springtime of faith in Russia?
Father Cummings: In St. Petersburg, one must wait a long time for the spring to arrive. The same may be true of "a new springtime of faith in Russia."
One must learn to rejoice at the individual victories: a child who learns to pray, a young couple that starts a genuinely Christian household, one more good book that gets translated, and so on. The big picture really must be left to the Lord of history.
However, we have the promise of Our Lady of Fatima, that her Immaculate Heart will triumph, to keep us strong. And we know from history that she can surprise us, as she did at Guadalupe, with great and sudden leaps forward in the work of evangelization.
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