MOSCOW, JUNE 6, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Russian Catholics have just ended what might have been their largest-ever pilgrimage to Rome in the post-Soviet era.
“The main objective of our visit,” said Olga Karpova, who organized one of the three buses of pilgrims that went to Rome, “was to pray at the tomb of John Paul II for the intention of his speedy canonization and glorification among the saints and blessed, as well as to meet with his successor, Benedict XVI, to whom we wished to express our love and loyalty.”
“At first we thought we were only 92 people in two buses: one ‘Muscovite’ and the other from ‘St. Petersburg,'” Karpova told ZENIT.
“I say it in quotations because in the Moscow bus there were people from other regions, such as Smolensk, Vladimir, Ivanov, Volgograd and St. Petersburg itself; and in ‘Peter’s’ there were people from the regions of Petrozavodsk, Murmansk, Kaliningrad, Novgorod and other parishes of the northwest of Russia,” Karpova explained.
“However, as there were so many people who wanted to join the pilgrimage, another bus was added with people from more distant regions, such as Nizhni Novgorod, Tyumen, Rostov-na-Dony and others,” she added. “So, on May 16 in John Paul II’s crypt and in Benedict XVI’s audience in St. Peter’s Square on the 17th there were about 150 Russian Catholics together. It was the largest group in the modern history of the Russian Catholic Church.”
The pilgrimage was the culmination of the Year in Remembrance of John Paul II, which the Catholic Church in that country observed.
What was the reason for such great interest? What drove, for example, a person from Siberia, to travel so many days by bus and train to pray at a Mass with the Pope?
Victor Khrul, editor of the Russian Catholic newspaper Svet Evangelia, told ZENIT: “Neither in the time of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union nor the now Russian Federation, have Catholics of this country had the opportunity to pray beside the Holy Father.
“Until now no Pope has been able to come to Russia and to realize this dream to pray with him; Catholics have had to go to other countries. During the Soviet era this was unthinkable, as one could not leave the territory.”
Khrul continued: “Some criticize us because they say that we Catholics ‘idealize’ or make the Pope a kind of ‘fetish.’ They say we can see the Pope on television or hear him on the radio. However, it isn’t the same.
“Even if it is in a huge crowd, it is a great emotion to see him, an unrepeatable experience. As if this were not enough, going on pilgrimage is a not-so-easy spiritual work which requires much restraint and patience, but which gives many gifts.”
Olga Karpova told of the impact of the trip on the pilgrims: “Many have written to me that at the moment of the general audience in St. Peter’s Square they realized for the first time the strength of the Catholic Church.”
She said the pilgrims expressed the view that “We realized that we are not alone, that we are not marginalized and, most importantly, that we are a necessary part of the Body of Christ. For us, the meeting with the Pope was the fulfillment of a dream and a gift of God.”
At first it was expected that only 70 of the 150 pilgrims would be taking part in a Eucharistic celebration at John Paul II’s tomb, presided over by the Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of the Mother of God in Moscow Archdiocese.
Resigned, the pilgrims cast lots to see who would be able to be in the crypt. In the end, permission was given to the whole group. At the tomb, pilgrims left the petitions of hundreds of Russian believers who were unable to go to Rome.
During the May 17 general audience with Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square, the Russian pilgrims were told that only 20 or 30 of them at most would be in a special area where the Holy Father was. In the end, all 150 pilgrims were able to be beside the Pope.
At the end of the audience, the pilgrims gave Benedict XVI a Russian translation of his encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est.” Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said the Pope was happy with the publication of the document in Russian.