A Native Son Will Help Welcome John Paul II

Story of Siberian Bishop Joseph Werth, Born in Karaganda

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ASTANA, Kazakhstan, SEPT. 21, 2001 (Zenit.org).- When Joseph Werth was ordained a priest in 1984, he did not imagine that one day the Pope would visit his homeland of Kazakhstan.

Today, the Jesuit is the bishop of Western Siberia, one of the world´s largest dioceses in area. And he is preparing to welcome John Paul II to his native land.

The bishop and the Pope are good friends. In 1991 it was John Paul II who appointed Father Werth at age 38 to be bishop of Siberia, after the collapse of the Soviet regime.

Bishop Werth´s story is similar to that of many Catholics of Kazakhstan. His family was of German origin. They arrived in European Russia in the 18th century, during the reign of Catherine II.

Like many Christians in the 1930s, the family was deported to Kazakhstan during the Stalin regime. «Conditions of life were very harsh, really dramatic,» the bishop said.

The deportation of Germans, Ukrainians and Russians, among others, led to the rebirth of Christianity in the immense plains of this nation, which is the size of the European Union, but with a population equal to that of the Netherlands.

The first priest Joseph Werth met was Bishop Aleksander Chira, an Eastern-rite Hungarian prelate ordained clandestinely, and sentenced in 1948 to 25 years of forced labor in Siberian concentration camps. Having completed his first term, the bishop was sentenced to an additional five years of forced labor in Karaganda, Werth´s birthplace.

Prior to «Father» Chira´s arrival, the Catholic community remained faithful, thanks to the work of another survivor of the concentration camps, Father Wladislaw Bukowinski. From 1954 to 1971, the year of his death, Father Bukowinski baptized and catechized thousands of deportees, with the help of a Sister Gertrude.

The Catholic community obtained legal recognition in 1977. The following year, Bishop Chira built the first church in Karaganda. He appeared in public with his episcopal ornaments for the first time in 1982. Until then, his status as a bishop was kept secret.

In 1983, a year after Bishop Chira´s death, Joseph Werth was ordained a priest and sent first to Marx, near Saratow, and, seven years later, to Siberia, as bishop.

Kazakhstan now has one diocese, three apostolic administrations (namely, circumscriptions entrusted to bishops, but still not ranked as dioceses), 37 parishes, 62 priests, 74 nuns, about 30 seminarians and 50 catechists.

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