The Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989. One after the other, the Communist governments lost their monopoly of power in all of the countries that made up the Eastern Bloc. The Eastern Bloc collapsed until all that was left was the Soviet Union. However, even there the process of disintegration had begun. Twenty-one countries in all declared their independence from March 1990 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.
For the international charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), after decades of hoping that the situation would ease for the Church in Russia, which was persecuted and largely cut off from the rest of the world, this opened up new opportunities for aid and collaborations with new project partners such as Msgr. Joseph Werth, the bishop of Novosibirsk in Russia. Maria Lozano spoke with him about the early days of the partnership during his recent visit to foundation headquarters.
A few months ago, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. 1990 was also a decisive year for Russia and the work of Aid to the Church in Need in this country. Do you still remember your first visit to our foundation?
I was visiting Germany for the first time just as the Berlin Wall fell. I remember having to talk with the KGB in order to be issued a visa. The official said to me, “Keep in mind that you will be traveling to a capitalist country. Be careful. Don’t let them influence you.” When I started off on my journey, everything was just the same as it had been until 1989. Then I went to visit ACN; I traveled by train through Berlin on the day before the 9th of November. The Wall was still standing then. The next day, as I was on my way to ACN, it was being broadcast on television that the Wall had fallen. That was quite a coincidence!
Up until that point, it had not been easy to communicate with the West… How did you even hear about the charity Aid to the Church in Need?
In 1989, a handful of journalists had already made it as far as Saratov on the River Volga. A Catholic journalist told me about ACN there. I had just started building a church in Marx on the River Volga and so I wanted to contact the charity about that. But, in the end, I was not the one who finished the church because I was transferred to Siberia by Pope John Paul II. My successor continued the building project in 1991.
Was this church your first project with Aid to the Church in Need?
No, that was my first visit to ACN and how it all began, but the first project came later. At the time I was already in Novosibirsk, in Siberia. I was bishop for all of Siberia. I was consecrated by the nuncio and then I was already headed for Novosibirsk. At the time, there was not a single church there. We had nothing.
There was nothing there? Not even a parish?
Yes, there was a parish in Novosibirsk, a single parish for the entire city, a metropolis of almost 1.5 million residents. For almost two months, I lived as a guest in a flat that had recently been bought by a Catholic movement. At that time, we didn’t have any funds, no ties to other dioceses in the world. I was like a pupil in the first year of school who has never even seen a number but is expected to do maths and knows absolutely nothing about it.
Was this when you did your first project with Aid to the Church in Need? Do you still remember it?
At the time, we did not have any liturgical books or liturgical calendars. There was absolutely nothing. We had a small copier, one for all of Novosibirsk. The priest also had a fax machine, but that was all. If you wanted to make copies of a prayer, you first made a single copy on this small machine, then waited a little and then made the next copy. It took forever… Because of this, the first project with ACN was for a risograph, a machine for photocopying and printing. I can still remember that it cost 20,000 German marks. But at the time it was our most pressing need.
You have known Aid to the Church in Need for 30 years, what do you remember about the collaboration with our charity? Has ACN changed a great deal?
Well, in the first two years there was only ACN. Renovabis, the charity of the German Bishops’ Conference, was founded in 1993. It also helped rebuild the Church in the former Soviet Union. That was a big help. We have kept up the ties to ACN over all of these years, the collaboration has always been excellent.
However, it is also true that the arrow to the East that the logo of Aid to the Church in Need bears used to hold more significance. The designation “Aid to the Eastern Priests” was once part of the charity’s name. We, the priests in the former Soviet Union, could feel this. We were the number one partner. Around the turn of the millennium, the name of the charity was changed to Aid to the Church in Need. We bishops and priests in the East were very concerned and thought that the arrow to the East would also be removed. This almost unleashed a crisis among us. But I have to say that, in the end, these concerns were unfounded, and the collaboration continued.
Your diocese covers an area of two million square kilometers. That is as large as Spain, France, Italy, Poland and Germany combined. Where do you see the greatest need and how does Aid to the Church in Need help you meet this need?
My diocese is enormous; to make matters worse, the Catholics are an “atomized” community, as I like to say. Which basically means that they are scattered all over the place. They are not very mobile because public transportation practically does not exist. We, therefore, have high traveling expenses for pastoral care. ACN helps us with this. Furthermore, the priests and religious live and work far removed from one another. We are made up of a large number of different nationalities. It is very important to organize meetings throughout the year so that they don’t feel completely left alone.
With distances such as these, you have probably logged quite a few kilometers on your milometer!
I have already traveled to the moon and back twice! All kidding aside, on average, I log about 100,000 km a year. Our vehicles need to be “robust” because it can be fatal if your car breaks down in the winter at outside temperatures of -40° or -50°. ACN helps us purchase these cars; the pastoral trips would not be possible without its support.