New Kazakhstan Cathedral Pays Tribute to Victims of Communism

Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Karaganda on Beauty, Art and Silent Evangelization

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By Paul De Maeyer

ROME, SEPT. 13, 2012 ( Last Sunday, the cathedral of the Diocese of Karaganda, in Kazakhstan was consecrated, in a solemn concelebration presided over by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals and Papal Legate for the consecration.

The cathedral was planned and desired by then archbishop of Karaganda, Jan Pawel Lenga, and Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who commissioned the painter, sculptor and professor of art Rodolfo Papa to make a series of 14 paintings for the crypt on the theme of the Eucharist.

In the following interview, Bishop Schneider explains the historical and spiritual reasons that underlie the construction of the cathedral and the commissioning of the paintings.

ZENIT: What is the historical and spiritual meaning of the construction of this cathedral in Karaganda?

Bishop Schneider: This first reason is this: to have a cathedral in a more fitting and visible place, as up to now the diocese used a building constructed in the time of persecution, which is located in the outskirts of the city , and which is not a recognizable church. A cathedral in a more central place, built in an unmistakable Catholic style, such as the Neo-Gothic, would be a silent though powerful sign and means of evangelization, in a country where Catholics are about 1% to 2% of the population, with a Muslim majority and a strong Orthodox minority. Moreover, there is a considerable part of the population that doesn’t belong to any religion; they are persons seeking God.

The cathedral’s architecture and the objects in its interior have been made with the greatest care possible, so that they represent real artistic beauty and, at the same time, sacredness and supernatural meaning. All this is appropriate to incite the religious sense and faith of the faithful and visitors, as well as to express an act of adoration of the Holy Trinity.

In addition, its historical and spiritual meaning has the following aspect: the new cathedral is a sacred place to remember the innumerable victims of the Communist regime, given that on the outskirts of Karaganda one of the most terrible concentration camps existed, the gulags, in which people from more than one hundred different ethnic groups suffered.

ZENIT: How have the political authorities and Muslim community received this Catholic initiative?

Bishop Schneider: With a sense of respect towards the Catholic Church. The civil authorities feel honored to have in their own city a building of such extraordinary architectural beauty and so much cultural significance. The civil authorities regard the new cathedral as a gesture of the Catholic Church for the benefit of culture.

ZENIT: A small Catholic community is capable of building a cathedral in mission land. Can we say that this is a model to stimulate a rebirth of the faith in old Europe?

Bishop Schneider: Above all, the small Catholic community was able to make a spiritual contribution for the construction. However, the greatest material contribution came from our brothers of old Europe — something beautiful, as it manifests fraternal solidarity, a fraternal exchange of gifts, similar to the early times of the Church, when the richer communities help the needier ones.

The faith will be reborn in old Europe when the first place is given always to Jesus in everything, when the life of faith is increasingly more concrete, visible, and more “incarnated.”

ZENIT: What are the daily problems that the Catholic community has to face in Kazakhstan?

Bishop Schneider: The daily problems are the insufficiency of priests, the enormous distances between the parish communities, the insufficient material means for the works of construction of churches and for social and educational endeavors, the emigration of young people abroad and some obstacles of a bureaucratic type.

ZENIT: What are the relations with other Christian confessions?

Bishop Schneider: Relations with other Christian confessions are good. Sometimes there are meetings with bishops and priests of the Russian-Orthodox Church and with representatives of the Protestant communities. We have, let’s say, an ecumenism of life, where human relations are more important than theoretic and doctrinal discussions. With Russian-Orthodox and Protestant brethren we carry out joint works in the defense of life.

ZENIT: Art is surely an effective instrument of evangelization and the Holy Father encourages and stimulates us to use it. Can you tell us about your experience in having commissioned so much art in your diocese as a sign of witness of the Catholic faith?

Bishop Schneider: The construction of a new cathedral with works of art is a proclamation of the first duty of the Church: to give God, the incarnate God, the first place, a visible place, as God makes Himself visible in the Incarnation and in the Eucharist; to give God the first place also in the sense of offering artistic beauty in his honor, given that God is the author of all beauty and deserves to receive truly beautiful works as homage on the part of believers.

Moreover, a cathedral can give concrete manifestation of the tender love of the believing community, the Bride of Christ, to the Body of Christ, offering in its honor this body of Christ, in a certain sense, the prodigality of the sinful woman, who offered in Christ’s honor a jar of precious perfume (“more than 300 denarii,” cf. Mark 14:4). To anoint Christ’s body, the sinful woman offered a sum with which a family could be maintained for a whole year. Some present were indignant over this waste. Jesus. instead, praised the action, saying, “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:6). “The “holy waste” must be done for Jesus.

Many people have already visited the new cathedral, the majority non-Catholics and even non-Christians. And they have been attracted by its beauty. They expressed visibly their own admiration. Some non-Christian women wept with emotion in my presence. On one occasion, I showed the cathedral for half an hour to a non-Christian couple, explaining all the details of art and the sacred objects. When we finished and went outside, the woman said to me: “I have purified my soul in this half hour. Can I come back? I would like to admire these beauties in silence.” Of course I answered that she could come when she wished. In that half hour, through the explanation of sacred art, I gave a lesson on the truth of the Catholic faith. 

ZENIT: Could you explain to us the spiritual and theological meaning of the paintings that have been commissioned for the crypt?

Bishop Schneider: I wanted to express in the cathedral, in the most profound way, the mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, given that the Eucharist builds the Church spiritually, the Eucharist makes the Church live continually until the end of time. The Eucharist is the real foundation of the Church. That is why I have placed in the crypt, close to the foundations of the cathedral, a series of 14 images on the Eucharist, in analogy with the 14 stations of the Via Crucis in the main nave. The whole of Sacred Scripture proclaims to us Christ made flesh, made man. But Christ has made himself Eucharist, he has left us his flesh, really and substantially present in the Eucharistic mystery. In a certain sense we can say that the whole of Sacred Scripture proclaims Christ to us in the mystery of the Eucharist. So I have chosen the best known Eucharistic images of Sacred Scripture, namely, the best known Eucharistic symbols: the sacrifice of Abel, the sacrifice of Melchisedech, the sacrifice of Abraham, the paschal lamb, the nourishment of the prophet Elias while he was on his way to the Mountain of God, the Temple of Jerusalem, Bethlehem as “house of bread,” the miracle at the wedding of Cana, the multiplication of the loaves, John’s Eucharistic discourse, the Last Supper, Emmaus, the Angel in the Heavenly Jerusalem.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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