Faithful Waited 70 Years for Confirmation in Azerbaijan

Apostolic Nuncio Recounts Story of Clandestine Community

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BAKU, Azerbaijan, MAY 20, 2005 ( Catholics of Azerbaijan received the sacrament of confirmation on Pentecost, a grace some of them had to wait seven decades for.

Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, the apostolic nuncio to Azerbaijan, visited the former Soviet Republic — where Catholicism was swept away by Stalin’s persecutions — and found a group of elderly believers who had kept the faith alive for more than 70 years without the sacraments.

«It was an indescribable emotion,» said the archbishop to the Italian newspaper Avvenire, «to see the elderly ladies, with the traditional veil on their heads and the elderly men full of wrinkles come forward and again pronounce their baptismal name — Teresa, Anselm, Francis — after decades of using other names of Azerbaijani roots, and then ask for confirmation.»

«I was amazed to see that most of the people confirmed were elderly,» said the archbishop.

The prelate explained that at the start of the 20th century there was a flourishing Catholic community in the Azerbaijani capital, made up of Polish, German, and Russian immigrants who had built a neo-Gothic church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.

«In the ’30s, Stalin had the only priest killed and the church demolished. Since then, Catholics have been in clandestinity,» he said.

For the Azerbaijanis, this meant that they had to give up using their baptismal name, and some were not able to be baptized or confirmed.

As «many were not even able to be baptized, they waited until today to receive baptism,» continued the apostolic nuncio.

For many years, the Catholics had no place to meet for prayer and no priest. In 1997, a young Polish priest arrived, one of the many pioneers in the post-communist East.

When Pope John Paul II visited Azerbaijan in 2002, then President Heider Aliev placed at his disposal a plot of land in the center of Baku for the construction of a Catholic church.

The return to freedom has enabled Azerbaijani Catholics to rebuild, little by little, their community under the guidance of four Slovak Salesians, and to receive the sacraments only at the end of their lives.

There are fewer than 1,000 Catholics in the country, though young converts are entering the Church.

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