"I am very happy to be back," Father Bronislaw Czaplicki, 49, said May 12 by telephone from the city of Pushkin.
Alarm bells went off among religious-freedom monitors when Russian Interior Ministry officials denied Father Czaplicki an extension of his residence permit in February, forcing him to leave March 12.
At the time, the priest's friends in St. Petersburg speculated that his unplanned departure was connected with his work as the program coordinator of the Catholic Newmartyrs of Russia Program. Probing an especially sensitive chapter in recent Russian history, the program researches and documents those Catholics who were killed by Soviet authorities and might be eligible for beatification.
Before Father Czaplicki's unplanned departure, four priests and one bishop had been expelled from Russia without explanation, prompting protests from the Vatican and Western governments. Those expulsions came after the country's politically powerful Russian Orthodox Church reacted angrily to the Vatican's creation of four new dioceses in Russia. Some Orthodox leaders labeled the move "Catholic expansionism" into Orthodox territory.
Father Czaplicki was reluctant to comment on whether his return indicated a change for the better for the overwhelmingly foreign clergy serving Russia's estimated 600,000 people with Catholic roots.
"For God, everything is possible," said Father Czaplicki, a priest from the diocese of Katowice, Poland, who has worked in Russia for 11 years.
The general secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Russia, Father Igor Kovalevsky, said he detected an improvement in relations with the 80-million-member Russian Orthodox Church, but he declined to specify why. He said it would be a mistake to read too much into Father Czaplicki's return.
"He got a Russian visa and returned. That's all. There is no political significance to this," said Father Kovalevsky.
The visa, however, is for only three months, after which time Father Czaplicki must return to Poland and apply for another.
Of the five Catholic clergymen expelled from Russia, only one has been formally replaced. The Vatican reassigned Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Pole who headed the Diocese of St. Joseph in Irkutsk, Siberia, to lead a diocese in Poland, and named as his successor Auxiliary Bishop Cyryl Klimowicz of Minsk-Mohilev, Belarus. Father Kovalevsky said he did not know the status of the four other expelled clerics, all parish priests.
One of them, Father Stefano Caprio, said in a late-April interview from Rome that he is currently making his first attempt to return to his parish in Vladimir, a city near Moscow. The other three priests have given up trying to get back into Russia, he said.
Father Caprio, an Italian citizen, was not available by telephone May 12, but the administrator of the Vladimir parish, Yulia Mospan, said the parish has formally asked Russian authorities that Father Caprio be granted a visa. She said she expects to get an answer by the end of May.
"Of course, we are all hoping for a positive answer, but we are ready for the worst," Mospan said.
Father Caprio had said earlier that a refusal by the Russian government might provide the basis for a legal challenge.
"If they refuse the parish's request and offer an explanation, then we hope there will be a basis for a court case," Father Caprio said. "A foreigner doesn't have the right to live in Russia, but the parish has the right to invite me."