A Struggle for Unity Among Christians in Russia
Mario Ponzi

Interview with Bishop Joseph Werth of Transfiguration, Novosibirsk

Ecclesial unity, ecumenical dialogue, the commitment to vocations, witnessing the Gospel, human promotion: these are the objectives that Benedict XVI outlined for the Bishops of Russia on the occasion of their ad limina visit at the end of January. Summarizing these goals in the following interview is Bishop Joseph Werth of Transfiguration, Novosibirsk, who described his pastoral experience in the immense territory of Siberia and also spoke on the current situation of the Catholic community in Russia.

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It can be said that the Catholic Church in Russia was reborn after 1991. What has been your practical experience in these years?

When I arrived in Siberia a territory of 13 million square kilometres there were only three Catholic priests. There were several communities, very few in fact, to which these priests ministered. The rest of the Catholics were scattered over this vast region. My first task was thus to identify these people and gather them into larger or smaller communities. I am thinking in particular of my own diocese, which includes only a third of Siberia: Western Siberia, to be exact. This diocese in Novosibirsk is called Transfiguration of the Lord and covers four million square kilometres. We have about 60 larger, more structured communities on the territory, and about 300 smaller communities that are visited by priests. When I arrived here and saw that there were no priests the first question I asked myself was: where can I find some? I sought help from Catholic communities abroad. For the time being the majority of the priests come from abroad.

And what is being done to promote priestly vocations within Russia?

I immediately thought of setting up a seminary. Although there were insufficient resources to create a true and proper seminary, I founded a "pre-seminary" which has had 120 students in 16 years. To tell the truth, very few of them have become priests, but one has to consider that this was the beginning of 1993. In Moscow, during the same year, a real seminary was founded but was later moved to St. Petersburg. In Novosibirsk in 1991, we only had a tiny church. The need then arose to build churches and to found houses of prayer. We did so. And this work must continue, because still today not all the communities have churches or places in which to pray. Masses are for the most part celebrated in private homes where families live. Thus the priest celebrates Mass with the small domestic community.

What is the state of religious freedom in Russia today?

t was born in the Soviet Union and I know what the situation was like during the Soviet epoch. Today I can therefore enthusiastically affirm: we have freedom of religion. However, this does not mean that we are a State Church or a Church privileged by the State. On the contrary, we have no special privileges; we have certain difficulties, for example, concerning the issue of visas. We are waiting for the State to change laws to permit our priests and women religious not only to obtain a sort of tourist visa but a visa that will enable them to stay with us and work undisturbed for a longer period. In the past 18 years I have never seen any direct curtailment of freedom.

What sort of relations do you have with the Orthodox community?

I must honestly say that they could be better. Let us hope that one day they will be. I work, as I have said, on a territory of four million square kilometres on which the Orthodox Church has 10 dioceses. Until now I have only been able to meet a few of their Bishops. Before Christmas I sent greetings to my Orthodox brethren. Then the news of the death of Patriarch Alexy II arrived. I accordingly assured them that we were praying for the deceased Patriarch. Two Bishops answered me, and this was already a positive occurrence. Even in small successes we must rejoice.

On 19 December, the Feast of St. Nicholas, in the town of Kemerovo I presented a relic of St. Nicholas of Bari to the Orthodox Church together with Archbishop Mennini, our Nuncio in Moscow. The result was truly marvellous and I hope that other such moments will become ever more. numerous in the future. Although high level dialogue may still be arduous, a basic dialogue has always existed, especially during the Communist period when the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church and all the other religious communities met with the same difficulties since they were all being persecuted. In those circumstances, the various believers became very close to one another. It is a shame that in more recent times Catholics and Orthodox have not always made the most of this possibility to attain, if not unity, at least a better understanding. We must pray that this happens as soon as possible.

How is the Catholic Church present in society and how is she accepted?

The Catholic Church in Russia is a minority. The people who have Catholic roots, but who are not necessarily practising those whose parents or grandparents were Polish, Ukrainian, German or Lithuanian represent one percent of the population. In any case, such a small minority is imperceptible in society. Caritas is very active in our diocese and, for example, in Novosibirsk itself, we have launched several social projects which have been very well-received by the city and by individuals. We have two schools in the diocese, an elementary school and a junior high school. We also have a Catholic newspaper and, in Novosibirsk, a television studio a production studio that publishes video material.

Can the Catholic Church's message circulate freely in Russia through these means?

So far we have had no difficulties. We have never been forbidden to disseminate information with these means. Some communities have websites on which information can be found. I am thinking, for example, of the timetable of our celebrations. It is perhaps somewhat more difficult to be present in schools and universities.

Among the pastoral challenges that you are called to face are the consolidation of the Christian presence in the country, the proclamation of the Gospel in a generally difficult and unwilling environment and the pastoral care of the family. How do you plan to confront them?

Today Christians have to confront such a great many challenges both in the West and in our country, dominated for 70 years by militant atheism. This demands unity of us Christians in particular, for the Catholic Church can do almost nothing on her own and even the Orthodox Church is far weaker by herself. If all the Christian Churches were to cooperate, Christian values could be defended and protected more effectively. In our community, we work in particular with young families. It is known that in Communist Russia it was families that suffered the most. Communities that have existed for 15 years and more are now slowly becoming composed of young families. Baptism is celebrated with increasing frequency, quite the opposite to before, when most Baptisms concerned adults. More and more people are getting married. As for us, at our Cathedral in Novosibirsk but probably also in many other communities we hold a monthly meeting to which young families are invited for an exchange of opinions. The priest suggests a specific topic on which there is a brief discussion. Then they spend some time together, they speak to one another and socialize. Some meetings are certainly very important for our families.

With regard to the pastoral care of families there had been an idea of a common project with the Orthodox in the context of which to dedicate a day of reflection to the family. What is the current situation of the family?

Every year in our diocese we organize an important pastoral conference in which all our priests and women religious participate. Every two or three years we also invite members of our communities. This conference has twice been dedicated to the family. This was the case last year and in 1997, because the family is the first and most important nucleus of human society and also of the Catholic Church. As I have already said, an effort is being made in every community to strengthen the family. I do not know whether something specific to be carried out together with the Orthodox has been planned. Initiatives of this sort may rather involve movements such as Focolare or that of the Neocatechumens.

What I do know is that for many years in Novosibirsk we have collaborated with the Orthodox in the promotion of newborn life and the fight against abortion. For example, there arc several women Catholic and Orthodox who organize meetings on this topic in hospitals or even in schools. Thanks to this effort we can say that about too babies have been saved. This is one example of collaboration between Catholics and Orthodox. We hope that this situation too will increasingly improve.

The present situation of the family in Russia seems satisfactory. Let us not forget that for several years there has been a policy in practice in the country in favour of the family and of births. Parents with two children receive 250,000 rubles for each child, which until recently corresponded to approximately $10,000. This is certainly a good incentive for young families. The State has also taken other measures to promote and consolidate families. Consider that today on the street and on public transport one often encounters pregnant women or families with small children: to years ago this did not happen. I believe that in the past 10 years the situation in Russia has truly improved.
 


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
11 March 2009, page 15

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