MINSK, Belarus, NOV. 23, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Despite the challenges of living and ministering in an atheist society, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz says that the faith of the Catholics has remained strong amid persecution.
In this interview given to the television program “Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, the archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev spoke about the strength of faith of the people around him, and what they can offer the universal Church.
Born in Odelsk, near Grodno, in Belorussia, or modern-day Belarus, in 1946, he was ordained a priest in 1981. In 1989 he was ordained a bishop. Archbishop Kondrusiewicz has served as head of the Minsk-Mohilev Archdiocese since 2007.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Monday.
Q: How was it to live your life as a priest in this time (of communism)?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: You had to be very careful with what you said or even thought, but for several years I was serving as a priest in Lithuania. It was a different situation from Belorussia and Russia. It was a greater freedom.
We also had many more priests in such cities as Vilnius where I was serving. There were ten priests. It was not bad. Now there are fewer priests.
Providing liturgical services in the Church was allowed but providing pastoral care in hospitals was difficult; visiting was not allowed. Very often doctors would not allow it as well. So we called the sick patients to come to our car outside and we would hear their confession. This was possible only if the patient could walk. For those who couldn’t walk, we visited them in the hospitals as visitors. We had everything in our pocket. We listened to the confessions of everyone. It was not convenient but we had to serve them.
Q: Later when you were in Russia as a bishop you were obliged to bless a stone from the Church though there was no Church left. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: It is a very interesting and a moving story. It happened in a city called Marx. The church was destroyed and we received permission to build a new one.
I arrived because I was to bless the cornerstone for the new church. I was presented with a simple brick requesting me to bless it and use it as a cornerstone. It was an acceptable request and surprising for me because it was a plain, ordinary, old red brick stone. Normally everyone searches for stones from Rome or Fatima to be used as cornerstones.
I was told the story: When the church was destroyed the people took the bricks and brought them home. This particular red brick became the symbol of the destroyed church and through the years people prayed, lit candles and put crosses and flowers beside it. The people wanted some continuation between the old church and the new one under construction.
Another incident happened in Grodno. The government wanted to close a church. When the officials entered the church, however, they found the people lying on the floor of the church in the shape of a cross.
The officials were not able to close this church. For 28 years there was no priest in this church — I was the first priest appointed to this church after 28 years. People for a long time requested for a permanent priest in this church and the officials always refused. The officials used to say: “Grass is more to likely grow on my palm than you getting permission to have a priest in the parish.”
Now we have a cathedral and a bishop. People have always had a strong faith in God.
Another incident happened in Belorussia. A priest was serving several parishes and it was during Lent. The priest did not come. The people asked themselves what to do. A woman then told them: “We will confess our sins in the name of Jesus.”
She took a cross and brought it to where confession was normally heard. They all made a confession to the cross and believed that this was acceptable because they’d been waiting for several hours and in this situation the confession was valid. You can find many similar stories indicating a love for the Church and the strength of faith.
Q: Communism has fallen. What would you say now, in retrospect, is the greatest damage that communism did on the hearts of the people?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Seventy years of communism characterized by persecution damaged the heart and soul of the people.
On the other hand, now we are witnessing the process of secularization, which is coming also to us. The effects are much more damaging. We are now searching for an answer to counter this process of secularization. What are we going to do?
In former times there was the external prohibition imposed upon the Church and the Christian faith. Now, however, people are rejecting their faith on their own volition. This is more dangerous.
Q: You are the Catholic Archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev. What is the Catholic population?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Belorussia (Belarus) has about 10 million people and 15% are Catholics, which is about a million and a half. We have four dioceses, two seminaries, 450 parishes and 440 priests. Some 270 are native or local priests. We still need priests, nuns and a great need for Church buildings.
The city of Minsk before 1917 was not as big as it is now. The city now has two million people. In 1917 it was a small city and yet we had 17 Catholic churches — now we only have four Catholic churches and two chapels for 300,000 Catholics. It was previously very difficult to ask permission to build new churches and secure land. Now, however, the situation has changed.
At the moment I have about six pieces of land to build new churches and another piece of land to build a curia. Last year I received building permits for four and building more is not going to be a problem. The problem is funding.
Q: There was one church, which was converted from a movie house. How many Masses do you celebrate there?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: It is called St. Simon and St. Helen Church but everybody calls it the Red Church. On Sundays we celebrate about 15 Masses and sometimes there are three Masses at the same time.
In any case we need these small churches. Now I have received permission to build churches — and not big churches that cost millions but small ones that cost around €300,000-€400,000 ($408,300-$544,400) in every district or region of the city.
Q: What can the Belorussian Church offer to the universal Church?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Our experience of being persecuted enabled us to preserve our faith and transmit it to the younger generations.
Our people today are trying not to subscribe to the ideals of secularization, moral relativism or this philosophy of post modernism, which does not recognize absolute truth — everything is relative.
When the Holy Father asks us to receive the Eucharist kneeling we do not have a problem in abiding with this rule because we have always received it kneeling.
Q: So it is the strength of faith?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Yes, the strength of faith.
They also have not rejected the traditions of the Catholic Church such as the old prayers traditions, rosary, stations of the cross, litanies, processions like the Eucharistic procession.
Last year, for the Corpus Christi celebration, about 10,000 people marched on the main street of Minsk. The whole ceremony took three and a half hours from start to the finish. This is not happening in other countries.
This is a reflection of the Belorussian love for God — and many of them still remember the old times when there was only one priest in Minsk.
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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic c
harity Aid to the Church in Need.
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On ZENIT’s Web page:
Part 1: www.zenit.org/article-31034?l=english
On the Net:
For more information: www.WhereGodWeeps.org