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Russia Begins 'Year of Merciful Love'

Interview With Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz

MOSCOW, JAN. 28, 2007 (Zenit) - The Russian episcopal conference has declared 2007 the "Year of Merciful Love."

The theme follows 2006's dedication to the "Year of the Bible." Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow explained to us why the bishops decided on the 2007 theme, and what fruits were gleaned in 2006.

Q: Why is 2007 the "Year of Merciful Love"?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Our bishops' conference decided that 2007 should be the "Year of Merciful Love" in response to Pope John Paul II's apostolic appeal "Ecclesia in Europa" and to Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical "Deus Caritas Est," which, in the second part, speaks about charity.

The theme of this year, "Hasten to Do Good," are the words of Dr. Feodor Haas, a German doctor who spent most of his life in Moscow caring for prisoners and whose motto in life was precisely "Hasten to Do Good."

As the Pope says in his encyclical "Deus Caritas Est," we want everyone to understand that charity is an integral part of the essence of the Church, whose nature is not only to proclaim the Gospel and administer the sacraments, but also to undertake works of mercy. As the Pope said in Germany: "Charity must not be separated from the Gospel."

Q: What are the most important activities to be carried out during 2007 in the context of the "Year of Merciful Love"?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: To begin with, all the pastoral messages and sermons will be focused on the encyclical "Deus Caritas Est," which addresses charity. A conference dedicated to Dr. Haas, whose process of beatification is under way is planned for April.

I have spoken about this conference with Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, president of the foreign relations department of the Patriarchate of Moscow, as we want to invite the Russian Orthodox Church. We hope there will be many representatives of it, because, for both, work with imprisoned people is very important. The Russian Orthodox Church is doing very much in this respect and it will be very enriching to hear its experience.

On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin of Fatima, we will hold a conference on May 12-13 given that, such apparitions, are also a manifestation of the charity of the love of God for Russia. At that time, in 1917, the most Holy Virgin predicted somewhat the history of Russia and of the world and called for repentance referring to what would happen here. In her message she also gave us hope of which we are witnesses today.

This 2007 we also want to concentrate the attention of our charitable organizations on communities of the faithful, because charitable activities should be directed to helping those in need and in our communities we have many people that require it. In fact at a Caritas meeting of our archdiocese, held in December 2006, this point was stressed: to help people concretely.

I have also officially requested Archbishop Georgi de Nizhny Novgorod of the Russian Orthodox Church, to send an Orthodox priest to groups that we assist with Caritas to give people the needed spiritual assistance. I made the same proposal last Jan. 15, 2007, to Archbishop Irinarkh of Perm where we have opened a social center and where Mother Teresa's Sisters are working.

The charitable issue in Russia today is very acute throughout the country. There is concern in the government to come to an agreement between the Church and State on the best way to interact in charitable works, because at present Russian laws are not adequate in this aspect; there are contradictions and tax exemptions are not in place. I very much like the Italian example, on paying taxes on the income of physical people, 0.8% can be allocated, if one so wishes, to the Church or to the State for charitable works.

In this way, the individual does not have to give extra money to help but can donate a part of his taxes. I think that in Russia, we must study the Italian experience and allot a certain amount of taxes of businesses and other organizations that wish to contribute to charity.

During the meeting that religious organizations held with the Russian president's administration on the topic at the end of last year, we heard the statistic that in Russia, 12-13% of the population is helped by charitable organizations. That is a very high percentage! Therefore, we have called for a change in the law and given what we have heard from the government, I have hope that it will happen. And, providentially, this common concern has coincided with our dedicating this year to "merciful love."

Q: What fruits were left from 2006: the "Year of the Bible" whose theme was "I Trust in the Lord's Word"?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: In general, very good and new initiatives appeared. In the Metropolitan Cathedral of Moscow, for example, the "Bible School" was created, where classes are held twice a month. "Biblical Exegesis," "The Bible in Art" and "the Bible in the Architecture of Churches and Paintings" is taught there.

We have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who attend the courses and that newcomers are incorporated, especially young people, because it is a great proof of how much knowledge of the Bible is needed and how important it is.

Also within the communities -- of course, not in all -- Bible groups are developing. Priests from the outskirts of Moscow told me that if, because of distances, occupations or for some other reasons people often cannot attend Mass, they did not fail to attend Bible groups and, in my pastoral visits, I realized the interest there is in them.

The people often asked me if with the end of the "Year of the Bible" the groups would also end and I told them no, of course not, we must continue to work with the Word of God.

In 2006 the teaching of "lectio divina" also spread, thanks in great measure to the initiative of the Verbum Dei Fraternity, which has been engaging in it especially in meetings with young people and in spiritual exercises. This community also started the publication of pamphlets with commentaries referring to the weekly readings of the Gospel, which has been very beneficial for those who cannot go to church.

In the Catholic periodical "Light of the Gospel" twice a month something was published on "Dei Verbum," the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation from the Second Vatican Council. Much was discussed and published about it.

The culminating moment of the "Year of the Bible" was the Biblical-Ecclesiastical Congress, held in May 2006 to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the re-establishment of the structure of the Catholic Church in Russia. During the year there were conferences on ecclesiastical themes but, the one which predominated, was that of the Bible. Personally, I was pleasantly surprised by the great interest awakened by the congress.

To continue, the "Fourth Meeting of Young Russian Catholics" was dedicated to the Bible. The hour and a half that we Russian bishops allocated for the question-and-answer session turned out to be too short, given the great number of concerns awakened in young people by sacred Scripture.

On my pastoral visits, I also came across some very singular initiatives. For example, in the community of Kaluga -- located on the outskirts of Moscow -- the children copied the Gospel of St. Mark by hand; they illustrated it in different ways and then, with the material, they made several books.

In other communities biblical courses were organized for children, young people and, in general, for believers. For example, every week a task was assigned, which had to be resolved by the next class; whoever answered correctly, received a Bible. I recall that in the autumn I met a boy who, from so much studying, had received three Bibles!

In the city of Vladimir, together with the Russian Orthodox Church and the participation of the Orthodox bishop of the town, an exhibition was held on the theme of the Bible, also addressing archaeological aspects.

Q: Was it just luck that both Churches participated in this exhibition?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: No, nothing happens by accident. This took place with the participation of the Spiritual Library on our side and the Russian Orthodox Church on the other. This was not the first time that we have done this type of exhibition together and in 2006, the exhibition was dedicated to the Bible.

In regard to printed books, and continuing with the recounting of the fruits, St. Paul's publishing house published in Russian a brief reference of the sacred Scripture entitled the "ABC of the Bible." Commentaries were published on John's Gospel, as well as the books "What Is Life For? Wisdom in Solomon's Times," "50 Personalities of the Bible," "The Community Reads Mark's Gospel," and other similar things.

The most important objective was, in itself, that every person understand that the Bible is very important, especially now in this era of secularization. The Bible, the Gospel, sacred Scripture, is not just a literary genre or a history book, though it is that too. Above all, it is the "living word" that can change man.

Q: After a whole year of working with the theme of the Bible, how would you describe the faithful's knowledge of it now?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: I should leave this answer to our priests who work more closely with the communities, but, I can tell you that, in general, people are very grateful for this initiative, as they learned many new things. That is why I would not hesitate to describe this year as a success. It has given a new impetus and awakened the faithful's interest in this topic.

The "Year of the Bible" generated more interest than any of the other pastoral themes we have proposed each year. The "Year of the Eucharist," for example, was also very fruitful but, in regard to interest among the faithful, we succeeded more this year.

Priests, men and women religious, and the faithful were very enthusiastic about the topic and, of course, a very important role was played by the creation of Bible circles in the communities and the emphasis in every Mass of understanding the message of the Word of God.

I have not the least doubt that in Russia, now there are more possibilities to study sacred Scripture. The question was not whether or not a person has a Bible at home, but if he understands it as the "Word of God" that changes man. This is the problem that must be resolved.

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