Ten Year Anniversary of the Re-established Catholic Church in Russia
On 25-27 May 2001 the Catholic Church in Russia celebrated its tenth anniversary of freedom, and Aid to the Church in Russia (A. C. R.), a non-profit organization based in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia (Great Falls), was invited to participate in the festivities. Christopher B. Briggs, executive director of A. C. R. and a parishioner at Our Lady of Hope in Sterling, VA, represented the organization at the celebrations. During most of the past decade A. C. R. has been major contributor to some of the most important projects in the Church in Russia.
Ten years ago last month, the Holy Father issued a decree that established in Russia two apostolic administrations for Latin-rite Catholics Russia, one for European Russia and one for Asiatic Russia. His Excellency Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz was named in 1991 apostolic administrator of European Russia and has spearheaded the Church’s remarkable growth after more than seventy years of brutal communist repression. Bishop Joseph Werth, S. J. was named as the other apostolic administrator.

Before the communist revolution in Russia in 1917, there were over 300 Catholic churches in Russia; after the Revolution, there were 2. Before the 1917 Revolution, Catholic doctrine was taught in 72 different schools in St. Petersburg and in 27 schools in Moscow. Afterwards, Christian doctrine, whether Catholic or Orthodox, ceased to be taught in either city—or in all of Russia.

All told, the Bolsheviks executed 200,000 Catholic and Orthodox priests and religious. 300,000 more were “repressed”—that is sent to prison terms in the communist concentration camps. (About 30,000 diocesan clergy today serve in the United States.) And as if that were not bad enough, the Bolsheviks executed 50 million citizens. Their crime? Belief in Jesus Christ or simple disbelief, in even the smallest manner, in the Communist Party and ist fantasy future.

In essence, Svyataya Rus—Holy Russia—was no more. The Church that survived went under underground.

Through those terrible years of merciless persecution, the world prayed fervently, crying out to God for an end to the crimes and blasphemies. Priests led the faithful in begging the Almighty for the conversion of Russia. Both East and West knew and clung to the incredible promise of Our Lady of Fatima: Russia “…will be converted and the world will enjoy a period of peace.”

After decades of world domination and ruthless persecution of religion by Bolsheviks, a remarkable series of events led to the Soviet Union’s dissolving itself, without bloodshed, on Christmas day 1991. The awful experiment to create a society without God had come to an end, halted by those entrusted to perpetuate it into the third millennium.

And with the stunning collapse, the burning question arose in Russia—what is to be done? How should the West respond to the liberation of the communist lands—particularly Russia?

Founded in 1994, Aid to the Church in Russia (A. C. R.), has been actively engaged in the one meaningful answer to that question: the reconstruction of the Church and society in the East. Since that year, A. C. R. has been a source of major funding for the Church, making significant donations to, among other things, the following projects:

…reconstruction of Mary Queen of the Apostles Seminary, St. Petersburg

…reconstruction of Cathedral of the Assumption, St. Petersburg

…reconstruction of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Moscow

…reconstruction of St. Louis of France, Moscow

…construction of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Irkutsk, Siberia

The founder of A. C. R. is Rev. Marcel Guarnizo, a native of Washington, D.C., a graduate of O’Connell High School, and at the time of A. C. R.’s founding, a seminarian in Rome. In 1998, after his training there, Rev. Guarnizo, was ordained to the priesthood for the Apostolic Administration of European Russia by Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz.

“And the Gates of the Netherworld Shall Not Prevail Against It” (Mt. 16:18).

The tenth anniversary celebrations took the form of a Biblical and Ecclesiological Symposium, which started at 4:00pm on 25 May 2001 in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Moscow. The appropriate theme for the weekend: “And the Gates of the Netherworld Shall Not Prevail Against It” (Mt. 16:18).

The host for the events was Archbishop Kondrusiewicz. The Holy Father’s envoy to the event, His Excellency Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Secretary for Relations with the States, presided over the opening ceremony and closed the weekend as the main celebrant of the Mass on Sunday morning.

In a press conference after the opening of the symposium, Archbishop Tauran fielded questions from both Russian and foreign journalists, including from American Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican, an monthly news magazine covering the Church across the world and a journal with strong interest in Russia. Many of the questions dealt with the Catholic Church’s relations with the Moscow Patriarchate and the Holy Father’s upcoming trip to the Ukraine. “The purpose of the Holy Father’s visit to Ukraine,” said Tauran, “ is a pilgrimage, a pastoral visit to the Catholic in Ukraine in order to confirm them in faith and unity. It is not a political visit.”

A report on the long history of the Catholic Church in Russia followed the opening remarks and the press conference. Present in Russia since the 12th century, the Catholic Church shepherded a small but significant element of Russian society but succumbed, as did all religions, to the Bolshevik terror, which left Russia vast spiritual desert.

Today, however, Russia has 220 parishes and 215 priests, and 75 young men study for the priesthood in the seminary in St. Petersburg. These figures reveal a remarkable single decade of renewal following seven decades of brutal repression. Truly, one need not look farther than these figures for concrete confirmation of an ancient Christian truth: the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

Also on the first day, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz opened the exhibits on the history of the Bible and on the social services the Catholic Church. Displays on these subjects lined two sides of the interior the cathedral.

On Friday evening, a troupe of talented actors staged a three and a half hour performance of Murder in the Cathedral: Repetition, by Moscow playwright and poet Marc Rozovskij. The play is essentially a play within a play: a Russian acting company attempts a production of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the English poet’s drama about the martyrdom of St. Thomas a Beckett, and notices the parallels between this murder and the 1990 murder of Father Alexander Men, a spiritual Polaris for the Russian Orthodox Church credited, among other things, with converting Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

In what turned out to be the twilight years of communism, Father Men was a strong, quiet voice for the elevation of the spiritual over the temporal realm and for a genuine ecumenism. In the early morning of 9 September 1990, a still-undiscovered killer, or killers, attacked Father Men with an axe while he was walking from his house to his chapel in the small town of Novaya Derevnya, located some thirty miles outside Moscow. Father Men died of an axe blow to the head. The murderer’s choice of weapon struck deep chords in the Russian soul. The axe was the weapon in Russian history used to punish traitors. The murderer(s) clearly wanted to send a message of terror.

Father Men was the last well-known martyr of communist Russia. Like Beckett, he shed his blood in defiance of the state’s perennial desire to control the Church. The perpetrator(s) have never been found, but many in Russia suspect the KGB orchestrated the crime.

Saturday, the second day of the symposium, was taken up with a panel discussion of the nature of the Church—what it means for the faithful to be members of the Body of Christ. In Russia, the news that each baptized man and woman belongs to the royal house of Christ is, even after ten years of freedom, still that: news—Good News. Hundreds of Russian faithful stayed for hours—all day—to listen. The Church was packed for a choir concert afterwards and for the round table still later in the day, when the different groups composing the Body of Christ in Russia gave witness to their life and growth.

The symposium closed the next day, Sunday, 27 May, with a four and a half hour Mass. The main celebrant was Archbishop Tauran. An impressive ceremony indeed, the Mass closed with a procession around the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the Blessed Sacrament held aloft by Archbishop Tauran. With Lenin’s tomb on Red Square and the Lubyanka prison (KGB headquarters) only minutes away, this procession would have been unthinkable even twelve years ago and was a highlight of the weekend.

The Church in Russia has come a very long way and is moving forward. Much work remains but hope abounds. The Church there evokes the times of the Apostles, according to Inside the Vatican editor, Robert Moynihan. “When I meet the lay people and priests and bishops who are working in Russia,” he said, “I feel as if I am meeting some of the early Christians, those who heard St. Paul preach and decided to commit their lives to this new message of hope and love. When I walked across Red Square with Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, I felt as if I were walking across one of the great squares of the ancient world with Paul or Barnabas or Luke, or Peter himself.”

The unfinished tasks facing the Church in Russia are significant. For example, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz runs his territory—historically the most important as it comprises Moscow and St. Petersburg—and the Russian Bishops’ conference out of three small apartment rooms. From this inadequate space, home during the day to five other curia staff members, the archbishop must also navigate for the Church in Russia the barrier reefs of Russian bureaucracy. In addition, visiting clergy and missionaries have no place to stay while in Moscow. Holding conferences is also very difficult; the 10th anniversary celebrations, for example, were held in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

For these and other reasons, Aid to the Church in Russia will focus ist efforts in the next years in raising funds to help Archbishop Kondrusiewicz build in Moscow of a full-scale curia. Groundbreaking on a large plot next to the cathedral took place recently “There is no more important project for Catholics in Russia,” said Briggs. “If Western Catholics need some convincing,” he added, “they should read the next Inside the Vatican. The whole dramatic story we’ve seen on the ground will be covered there. You’ll see there the living embodiments of the promises of Our Lady of Fatima—like Archbishop Kondrusiewicz—and you’ll see why we must help them rebuild ” “Read the story, and then write to us, ” he concluded. “We’ll get you involved in this incredible redemption of history.”

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz’s most immediate task, however, is preparing to greet the Holy Father in the Ukraine 23-27 June 2001. It has been the Pope’s strong desire to heal the rift with the Orthodox Churches, and he has made several trips to predominantly Orthodox countries, most recently Greece, in hopes of strengthen the bonds of charity between the sister communions. The Holy Father ardently wishes to go to Russia, but difficulties with the Patriarchate have precluded a papal visit. When the trip to the Ukraine was first announced last winter, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz remarked happily: “Christianity came to Moscow through Kiev. We are hoping this means the Holy Father will come to Russia through the Ukraine.”

For more information on Aid to the Church in Russia, please write to: Aid to the Church in Russia, P. O. Box 1077, Great Falls, VA 22066-1077.
Christpher C. Briggs
© Aid to the Church in Russia