ROME, FEB. 12, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The four Catholic bishops of Russia and Siberia recently came to Rome for their first “ad limina” visit with the Pope. This was an opportunity to evaluate the situation of Catholics in that immense region where the Church was reborn 10 years ago, at the height of perestroika.
Catholics comprise about 1% of the population; the great majority profess the Orthodox creed. To get a sense of the Church´s status in Russia, Vatican Radio interviewed Catholic Bishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Moscow, officially the apostolic administrator of Northern European Russia.
The Holy Father consecrated this Byelorussian bishop in 1991, when he was only 45. A decade later, the bishop evaluates the situation.
–Q: What is the situation of the Catholic Church in Russia at present?
–Bishop Kondrusiewicz: The Holy Father constituted two apostolic administrations in 1991; today there are four. Thus, the climate of openness continues; what is more, it is developing. Today the Catholic Church is an integral part of Russian society, despite the fact that there are still many obstacles — the lack of civil registration of our apostolic administrations, of structures, of priests, etc.
–Q: At times, Catholics in Russia are regarded as “recent arrivals.” This causes serious problems in recognizing them as a religion according to the new law on religious liberty. However, it seems that their presence on Russian soil goes back to the Middle Ages.
–Bishop Kondrusiewicz: The first parishes were built in the 12th century. Prior to the October Revolution of 1917, there were two dioceses, two seminaries, the Academy of Theology, many parishes and also many priests, and men and women religious. Therefore, it cannot be said that it is a newly arrived Church or that it is for foreigners; but [rather it is] for Russians, for all those who were Catholics, and want to continue to be so.
–Q: How has the presence of Catholics developed in these years? How are they organized now?
–Bishop Kondrusiewicz: There were only 10 parishes and seven or eight priests in 1991; today there are 220 parishes officially registered and recognized by the state. There are 219 priests in the whole of Russia, despite the fact that still only 10% is represented by Russian citizens, while the remaining foreign priests come from 17 countries. Moreover, there are 230 nuns working in Russia.
We have a seminary that is located in St. Petersburg. In 1999 I personally ordained the first Russian priests in 81 years; it was truly a great grace from God, because it means the rebirth of the Church.
–Q: What is the life of a typical Russian parish like?
–Bishop Kondrusiewicz: As I was saying, we have 220 parishes in Russia, but 40% do not have an appropriate place to celebrate holy Mass. The small number of priests obliges them to move from one area to the next to administer the sacraments and celebrate Mass. However, this can only be done once or twice a month, as distances are enormous: 200, 300, 1,000 kilometers and sometimes more, between one parish and another.
–Q: We are not disclosing anything if we say that at the summit, the dialogue between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is delicate and difficult. However, does this problem also exist in the daily life of peoples and villages? Are there problems?
–Bishop Kondrusiewicz: Among people, in every day life, there are no difficulties. I know many people who come for the principal feasts of our churches and then go to visit the Orthodox churches. There is no difficulty for them in daily contacts or common prayer.
I myself have good personal contacts with all the Orthodox bishops of the territory. Since 1994, there is an interconfessional Committee in Moscow and, precisely last week, we approved the organization of an interconfessional youth conference, which will be held this coming month of May.
–Q: It is increasingly important for the spiritual roots of your Church to recall the memory of the new martyrs. What obstacles are you facing in this connection?
–Bishop Kondrusiewicz: Russia really became the Golgotha of the 20th century. I myself was part of the commission for the new martyrs, and we prepared a text for the Vatican for the occasion of the great commemoration of the witnesses of the faith, held during the Jubilee.
There are obstacles, but above all it is necessary to find witnesses. This is not easy, as few have survived and are able to recount what happened 50 or 70 years ago.