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The Catholic Church's Status in Russia

Interview With Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz

MOSCOW, APRIL 28, 2006 (Zenit) - On April 13, 1991, Pope John Paul II signed a document that re-established the structure of the Catholic Church in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Since then, many changes have taken place in the Church. To learn about them, we spoke with Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, of the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow.

Q: How has the Catholic Church in Russia transformed itself after the re-establishment of its structure 15 years ago?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Here I think it's necessary that I speak of statistics. At the end of the '30s of the last century, only two Catholic churches remained in Russia, along with two priests.

We grew a bit in 1991 as 10 parishes were registered "officially." To register, means to present oneself at the Russian Ministry of Justice to be able to have juridical status and status of a physical person.

Also working were seven priests, two of whom were older than 80; there were four chapels and two churches. That was all! There wasn't anything else!

At present, after 15 years, we now have an episcopal conference, not very large because there are only three bishops, four archdioceses, close to 225 parishes and around 25 organizations, such as the seminary; Caritas, which has developed very strongly in the different archdioceses; Radio Maria in St. Petersburg and Radio Don in Moscow, among others.

We also have more or less 270 priests and 250 nuns; in both cases the majority are foreigners, from 22 different countries.

Little by little we are forming priests and, for example, 10% of them are now of Russian origin.

As to the number of Catholics, there are about 600,000 in the territory of the Russian Federation, though some studies point out that they comprise 1% of the population, that is, just under 1.5 million Catholics. However, many are in diasporas or are still afraid to declare their faith, and they must be sought and gathered.

Continuing with the statistics, of the 225 parishes, close to 25% of them do not have their own church. They do not have a place to pray, so they must find an alternative site.

We also have a seminary in St. Petersburg, "Mary, Queen of the Apostles," where about 50 seminarians are studying. The first priest was ordained in 1999, eighty years after any Catholic priest had been ordained in Russia!

In the archdiocese of Moscow there are seven publishing houses that, over these 15 years, have published close to 600 different publications in Russian. So imagine, if every parish priest had at least one copy of each of them, he would have a library!

Q: And, in regard to the Catholic community in Russia, how has it changed?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: I was born in the Soviet Union, specifically in Byelorussia, but I was often in Russia and I remember that there were some parishes, here in Moscow and in St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, that were made up primarily of "little grannies."

At present, as you can see, there are many young and middle-aged people in the communities. We are very grateful for these "little grannies" because, thanks to them, the faith was preserved, but it must be mentioned that the composition has changed.

If at the beginning of the '90s the majority of the baptized were adults, today almost half of the newly baptized are newborns, that is, that Catholics now come with their families.

At Easter this year, we saw, precisely, how many people were baptized in Moscow: more than 40, between adults and youths. Moreover, every day more marriages are celebrated between Catholics, which tell us how consciously new families are being formed in the faith.

And the same people who come to Mass, know very well what it's about. For example, the adoration of the Holy Cross on Good Friday lasted 50 minutes, and the people endured, did not leave, and followed the adoration.

This, more than anything else, pleases me much. I also like the enthusiasm of young people and to see how their approach to religion is changing.

I recall that the first Soviet youths who went to Czestochowa to see John Paul II, on returning asked very basic questions, as, for example: How does one become a bishop, a priest? Interesting, of course, but at present we do not have enough time to talk with them. They are now more aware and that makes me happy.

Of course, there is still much work to be done with the community, students, intellectuals; to develop further means of communication, of welfare.

I think that on one hand we can say that in these 15 years the structure of the Church has been developing and, at the same time, people are more spiritual, more active and know what they want from the Church. The Church is not a theater for them, which they like to attend, or a place they fell into by accident. They come to Church to seek God.

Q: You have been in many countries of the world. If we compared the Russian Catholic community with that of other nations, what would be its particular characteristics?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: On one hand I see that in our community the faith is strengthened and that young people go to Church.

But at the same time we are coping with the process of liberalism and secularization. In the face of this, of course one cannot "close one's eyes."

On the other hand, with the exception of the parishes of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad and perhaps some in Siberia, the remaining are very small, and are very far from one another.

Priests must have a very strong spiritual formation because they are alone and they live hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometers away from the community.

That is why the bishop must undertake continuous pastoral visits so that the priests can talk with us, with the vicar general. It is also difficult for the community to maintain itself when it is so remote.

Q: In the context of what has occurred in these 15 years, we cannot leave to one side the topic of the relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. In your view, what is the state of this relationship?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Of course there are difficulties and one cannot say there are none and that everything is going very well. I think the subject must be viewed from a more realistic perspective.

Both the Catholic as well as the Orthodox Church were persecuted in Russia. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church is practically all over the world, while the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church were limited to the walls of the churches.

Today, we see how it is beginning to develop its activities with the community, its social doctrine; it is beginning to spread again. This process of evolution must happen.

Let's say that in that "tunnel" in which we were for a long time, at last we see "a light that begins to shine."

It might be that the lack of information or of the custom of coexisting together has been of influence. When the opening took place in 1991, many sects -- destructive sects -- arrived in Russia. We had no churches and we began to pray also in apartments.

And, of course, perhaps mistrust arose in the ordinary people: "Who are these? Are they a sect or normal people?" Imagine the situation.

With time it is improving. Now for Easter we had a representation from the Russian Orthodox Church that congratulated believers and, if we follow the press, some time ago, for example, the Orthodox Bishop Hilarion said in Vienna that the Russian Orthodox Church is willing to make an alliance with the Catholic Church to address the challenges of our time.

It is a practical demand because together we need to address the present problems of secularism, relativism and liberalism. On this our Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Alexy II, both Churches, speak.

We must work as a whole. In a word, I think there are conditions to improve dialogue and I am optimistic in this respect.

Q: There must be many unforgettable moments in these years of work. Would you share one with us that you especially remember?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Surely the opening of our seminary in 1993. It is difficult to describe the great emotion of that occasion. Although I could also say the illumination of the Moscow Cathedral was a great event, the celebration of the Jubilee, and later, the death of John Paul II which demonstrated the great love of the Russian community for the Pope.

I could also mention the ordination of our first priest. In a word, there are many unforgettable moments.

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