Spring awakening after hibernation

20 years ago today, still under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Pope John Paul II. the church structures in Russia were rebuilt. After more than 70 years of persecution by the communists, he created two bishopric-like church areas, so-called apostolic administrations.

Was it a sign from God that on 13. April 1991 in Moscow the sun was shining? "I remember very well that it was a beautiful sunny spring day. Nature woke up from hibernation," Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz said during a sermon in Minsk on Sunday. At that time he was appointed chief shepherd for the European part of Russia.

It was a milestone in the history of the Catholic Church in Russia as well as Kazakhstan and Belarus. For the first time since the persecution of the Church under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, this part of the world has once again received a Catholic Church hierarchy. In 1990 there were only a handful of Catholic clergy in all of Russia. Most of their colleagues were killed or deported by the Soviet regime. Persecution began with the communist overthrow in October 1917. Only a few clergymen were able to continue pastoral care underground.

Help from abroad
Therefore, Kondrusiewicz and the bishop in charge of Siberia, Joseph Werth, a German-born clergyman born in Kazakhstan, had to rebuild the Catholic church almost from scratch. Inevitably, they relied on foreign priests. Russia still lacks its own priests today. The number of clergy with Russian passports is rising only slowly. About 80 percent of today’s 300 priests come from abroad, as do the vast majority of the nearly 400 religious sisters. And that will remain the case for the foreseeable future. Only about a dozen young men are currently preparing for the priesthood at the seminary in St. Petersburg, which opened in 1993. Petersburg – the only one in the country – for the priesthood.

It comes in handy that the initial visa problems for Catholic priests seem to have been solved in the meantime. The Russian authorities were particularly restrictive when the two administrations became four dioceses in 2002. Even the Soviet-born bishop for eastern Siberia, Kyrill Klimovicz, had to travel to Mongolia for two days every six months for a while. Meanwhile, the Belarusian has a temporary residence permit, which was recently extended without problems.

Only Half a Percent Catholic
Of the 142 million Russians, just under 800 percent are Catholic, according to church officials.000 Roman Catholics – just over half a percent of the population. In the Asian part of Russia (Siberia), the Catholic population percentage is much higher than in the European part. And the number of Catholics would have been far greater if many Catholics of German origin had not left Russia since the opening of the borders.

The successes of the reconstruction are nevertheless already clearly visible. A Catholic Stations of the Cross procession took place through the streets of downtown Moscow for the first time a year ago. About 2.000 people took part. In many places, new Catholic places of worship were built.

At the beginning of the year, a new restitution law increased the chances of restitution of Catholic church buildings that had once been confiscated. Even today many of them are used as theaters or cinemas. "This is a bureaucratic war," the bishop for southwestern Russia, Clemens Pickel, tells the Catholic News Agency (KNA). For who would like to hand over a cinema or a concert hall?. The only one of three former churches in his diocese that he would like to have back is the church in Taganrog on the Sea of Azov. There has been a children’s library there since Soviet times. "Despite legal assistance, we got a refusal from the city," Pickel said. But: "I hope this is not the last word."

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