The Catholic Church in Russia - Its History, Present Situation and Problems, Perspectives
Taken from remarks originally presented at The Aid to the Church in Russia Conference,
January 17, 18 1998 in Northern Virginia, U.S.A.
A Short History of the Catholic Church in Russia

When we speak of Russia we often imagine a vast country with a very cold climate and many thousands of Orthodox churches. There is a certain truth to this mental picture, Russia was baptized in 988, more than one thousand years ago. And Russia really is an Orthodox country. But there are other elements in the full picture—for besides the Russian Orthodox Church, there are other Christian and non-Christian communities. Among them is the Catholic Church.

The first Catholic parishes in Russia were established in the twelfth century: one in Smolensk and two others in Novgorod. Seven centuries ago five Catholic parishes were established, one in Azov and four in Astrakhan. Finally, the Catholic Church’s normal hierarchical structure was established in Russia in 1782, when the Mogilev Archdiocese was created to cover the largest territory in the world.

Thus before 1917 there were already two dioceses in Russia: Mogilev with its episcopal see in St. Petersburg and Tiraspol with its episcopal see in Saratov.

Two Major Seminaries were subsequently located in St. Petersburg and Saratov to cater for a large number of seminarians. For example, the number of seminarians in the St. Petersburg Seminary at the time was about 160. Sixty-two of its graduates became bishops and two became cardinals. One of them was Alexander Cardinal Kakowski of Warsaw and the other the first Cardinal in the former Soviet Union, Julian Vaivods of Riga. At that time too in St. Petersburg, there was the famous Theological Academy, the only Catholic Theological Academy, or University, as we would call it today, in Eastern Europe.

At that time too there were fourteen religious congregations of women and four of men working in Russia.

The Catholic Church played an important role and was well known in both the education system as well as in the field of charitable activity in Russia. For example, Catholic priests taught religion in 72 schools in St. Petersburg and in 27 schools in Moscow.

Personalities well known in the Church at large served God and people in Russia. Among them were Saint Raphal Kalinowski, Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis, Boleslava Lament and Ursula Leduchowska.

Before 1917, there were 150 Catholic parishes with more then 250 priests to serve half a million Catholic faithful in Russia. In spite of its absolute minority compared with the Orthodox, the Catholic Church was well known in Russian society and played a notable role in it.

The Time of Persecution

Unfortunately the year 1917 came. An incredible persecution of religion was organized. All religions and confessions were persecuted for 70 years which means for three generations. Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims alike suffered greatly. Churches, monasteries and seminaries were closed, destroyed or transformed into offices, cinemas, theaters, factories, sport halls and so on. Many bishops, priests, religious, believers and people of good will were sentenced to death or to long periods of imprisonment. Even today we do not know exactly how many died in Gulags. Some researchers say it could be as many as 50 to 70 million people.

Still alive today is Archbishop Sigitas Tamkevicius present Archbishop of Kaunas in Lithuania, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison at the beginning of the eighties. Only when the Soviet Union collapsed did he receive his freedom again.

In the nineteen-thirties the Soviet regime declared a so-called “piatiletku bezbozhiya,” that is a five-year plan of fighting against God. When it introduced this plan the regime wanted to stop the activity of the Church and to exclude the name of God from the collective memory of the people. The Church had to give up its public and legal existence. As a result, by the end of the nineteen-thirties, there remained in Russia only two functioning Catholic churches served by two old priests. They were the Church of St. Louis in Moscow and the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in St. Petersburg. In the nineteen-sixties, Nikita Krushchev, then Prime Minister of the USSR, even promised to display, on television, the last Catholic priest in the Soviet Union.

Humanly speaking it seemed that the Gospel would no more be proclaimed in Russia and with the death of the last priest that would be the end of the Church in this country.

But here I would like to remember the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Apostle Peter: “I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it”(Mt 16,18). Also let us remember the apparitions of Our Lady in Fatima in 1917 when she foretold the development of communism in the world in the twentieth Century, especially in Russia, and predicted the conversion of Russia.

At present we are witnesses of such a process of conversion. The end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties was a time of political and social change in the Soviet Union and in Russia. We believe that all these changes happened by the power of the Almighty because of the intercession of Our Lady. Let me remind you of only two events of 1991. The leaders of Russia, Belorussioa, and Ukraine signed an agreement about the splitting up of the Soviet Union. But, please note the date, it happened on December the 8th—on the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. I do not believe that leaders of Russia, Belorussioa, and Ukraine knew about this. And the second event, the Soviet Union ceased to exist on December 25, 1991, on Christmas Day. Christmas was the beginning of the new era in the history of humanity. Christmas Day 1991 was the beginning of a new epoch in the history of Russia and the newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union. The time of Russia’s conversion and spiritual resurrection had begun.

Present Situation

Following the political changes of 1991 the Holy Father established two Apostolic Administrations for the Latin-Rite Catholics in the Russian Federation, one for the European and one for the Asian parts of Russia.

At that time in 1991, in the vast territory of European Russia, which covers 40% of the territory of Europe, there were only six officially registered parishes, two churches, two chapels and two very old priests. At the present time there are 96 officially registered parishes. But unfortunately, for these 96 parishes we have only 25 church buildings, 12 of them under restoration, and 28 chapels. So about half of the parishes have no place of worship. One of our biggest problems is how to recover confiscated ecclesiastical property or how to construct new churches. The Government is reluctant either to restore the Church’s old property or to give permission for the construction of new churches. St. Petersburg is in perhaps the best situation where we have recovered five churches and part of the historical building of the Seminary.

A total of 114 priests are working in these 96 parishes and in other church activities. Unfortunately, only 6 of these priests are Russian citizens, the others come from 16 different countries. The lack of clergy is one of most serious problems in Russia. I am very grateful to every priest who has come to Russia from abroad. Very often they are like heroes. They have had to leave their native countries and relatives. They have to study Russian, a difficult language. They have to face enormous difficulties receiving visas. Besides they have to adjust to different traditions and customs, and try to understand Russian ways of thinking, and so on. We understand how much we need native priests. That is why the “Our Lady, Queen of Apostles” Major Seminary was established in 1993. At present it is located in St. Petersburg with 59 seminarians spread over the five year course. This is not many but, compared with some foreign countries, this is not bad. At this point I would like to express my deep gratitude to “Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe” of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States as well as to “Aid to the Church in Russia” for the generous help we have been receiving for the Seminary in St. Petersburg. With full responsibility I can declare that without this help it would be impossible to restore the Seminary building and to run the Seminary. Thank you very much. A Seminary is the heart of a diocese. And in Russia after seventy years of persecution a program of priestly training has to have priority. That is why I am so preoccupied with the Seminary. Next May 31st I am going to ordain the first deacons ordained in our Seminary. By the way I would like to inform you that there are seven more seminarians from European Russia in Poland, the Czech Republic and Italy. Last year I ordained our first three priests. This year I am going to ordain another three priests and four deacons (three are preparing in St. Petersburg and one abroad). It is a slow process but native Russian priests are coming to Christ’s harvest.

One hundred and fifteen foreign nuns from 17 countries, are working with ten Russian nuns, mostly with catechizing, but in other activities of the Church in Russia too.

The St. Thomas Aquinas College of Catholic Theology was established in Moscow in 1991. Presently there are around three hundred students continuing their studies in the Moscow faculty and in its affiliated branches in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrag, Saratov and Orenburg. This College is a theological school for lay people. The main aim of the school is to prepare future catechists, religion teachers and social workers. Students of the College are also graduates or students of different Universities. This is very important for us, for example, those with linguistic expertise can be of great service with the translation of the liturgical and theological books into Russian or with the preparation of new ecclesiastical terms in Russian. I found them very useful with the translation of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church into Russian and I can say that without the College it would be impossible to make the translation. New terminology has been created with the generous help of the College. About one third of the students of the College are Orthodox Christians. For the College is open to all and in this way it plays an extremely important ecumenical role in Russia. As far as I know, our College is the only such ecumenical theological school in Russia open to students of all religions and confessions.

Also in 1991, the charity organization “Caritas” was established. It is like the Catholic Relief Service in the United States. “Caritas” provides a wide program helping poor people as well as victims of the different cataclysms, accidents and armed conflicts which occur in Russia or in countries of the former Soviet Union.

We have been publishing a weekly newspaper, Light of the Gospel, since 1994. It is the only Catholic paper regularly published in Russia. The paper informs Catholics and society at large about most important events of the life of the world-wide Catholic Church and of the Catholic Church in Russia and the former USSR, as well as publishing information about the life of the Russian Orthodox Church.

There are also two Catholics radio programs in Russia, “Radio Dar” or “Radio Grace” which broadcasts a one-hour daily program in Moscow and the second, “Radio Maria” which broadcasts 17 hours daily in St. Petersburg.

Above all we must underline the fact that today’s Catholic Church in Russia is the Church of young people. And this fact gives us great hope.

This is a brief account of our achievements for the period of the last six and a half years. They may not be dramatic, but they are real.


The Catholic Church in Russia now faces a lot of problems. The most pressing are: how to recover confiscated ecclesiastical property, how to receive permission to construct new churches and ecclesiastical buildings, financial problems concerning the construction and renovation of churches, the shortage of priests and nuns, the unavailability of religious literature, difficulties in relations with the Russian Orthodox Church and with the State, and how to provide religious education especially for the young, and other problems too.

As I have mentioned above it is extremely difficult to recover our former ecclesiastical property. Practically speaking everything depends on local authorities. In some places they do not create any problems. For example, in St. Petersburg we now have five of our former churches. In other places it is practically impossible recover even one, Kaliningrad is a case in point. In some places churches have been sold off during the process of privatization and today there is no practical chance of recovering them.

The same situation goes for the construction of new churches. It is very difficult to obtain building permission. In some regions the civil authorities place the decision in the hands of the local Russian Orthodox Church.

Russians in today’s society are extremely divided financially. Mostly it is a very poor society with the exception of a small number of very rich people. It is clear that our possibilities are very limited and practically speaking we can service only because of the generous help of our sponsors, among whom Americans play a very important role.

As I have mentioned before practically all the clergy and religious working in Russia are from abroad, what also creates its own problems. Besides the difficulties with the Russian language and ways of thinking there is another great problem, that of receiving visas and registration. A few years ago it was quite easy for foreign priests and nuns to obtain registration and residence permits for one year. Today these are available only for three months. We cannot organize normal pastoral work in such conditions when every three months priests have to leave Russia and travel back again. And if we consider the costs of such travel it becomes clearer how serious and difficult the situation is. All of this explains why we pay very great attention to the promotion of priestly and religious vocations and to the training of priests. The future of the Church in Russia will depend very much on our ability to have Russian priests and sisters.

During the time of persecution, that is for three generations, not a single religious book was prepared or printed in Russia. Today we are facing serious difficulties with the preparation and publication of new theological, liturgical and religious books. First of all we are hampered by a shortage of good translators, qualified both linguistically and theologically. This is compounded by a lack of ecclesiastical terminology in modern Russian. Today the Catholic Church has developed a new post-Conciliar vocabulary and this makes it difficult to fully adopt the historic vocabulary of the Russian Orthodox Church. But in spite of such difficulties about 160 titles of different liturgical, theological and religious books have been printed in the last six years. One of the most important is the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, the translation of which was sponsored by the Archbishop of New York, His Eminence John Cardinal O’Connor.

Three generations of Russians had no opportunity to receive any religious education. And at present time the Church has to pay great attention not only to the religious education of young people but also of the middle-aged and the elderly. On one hand, people are thirsty for God and the Gospel. They are looking for something eternal. But on the other hand, a spirit of materialism is beginning to affect Russian society. And the Church faces very great problems in attracting people and helping them stay faithful to the Gospel and the Church’s teaching. In our pastoral work we are adopting the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the best examples of pastoral practice from Western societies. Still we need well-prepared lay people who can help priests in pastoral work in parishes.

Our relationships with the Russia Orthodox Church present a special kind of difficulty for the Catholic Church in Russia. After the structures of the Catholic were restored in Russia in 1991, the Catholic Church was immediately accused of invading the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church and of engaging in what was described as “proselytism”. The short account we have just heard of the history of the Catholic Church in Russia gives us an idea of just how long, varied and rich the history of the Catholic Church in that country has been. It is not the fault of the Catholic Church that during the persecution many members of the Catholic communities were interned and transferred far away to Siberia, to Kazakhstan and to other places, that churches were destroyed or closed, that people did not have any opportunity to attend public worship and so on. Now they want to return to their forefathers’ religion, to confess their faith in the Catholic Church and to have the protection of the law to assemble and to worship God. This is their right.

Neither can I accept the charge of proselytism. Catholics never stand in front of Orthodox churches and never say: “Don’t go to the Orthodox Church but came to the Catholic Church.” We never organize religious services in stadiums or in other similar public places. We never try to buy believers with humanitarian aid. The Second Vatican Council has declared that the Orthodox Church is our Sister Church and has the same means for salvation. So there is no reason to have a policy of proselytism. But we have to leave to people the right of free choice. Everybody has the right to make a free decision about which Church to belong to. Freedom of religion is a fundamental principle of human rights.

We need to be clear that at the present time the ecumenical situation in Russia is quite difficult. But in spite of many problems I do hope for a better future. An interconfessional consultative committee has existed in Russia for the last four years. Metropolitan Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, Pastor Peter Konovachik, a Baptist, and I are the co-chairmen. Already we have organized two big ecumenical conferences. This is the sign that we are able to find common language and to work together to improve our relations.

Speaking about freedom of religion means that I must speak about the new Russian law on religious freedom which has provoked a lot of controversy.

The previous law came into effect in 1990. It was really very liberal. However in 1997, under pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church and from some nationalists, the Russian Parliament approved a new bill. Its character may be judged from the fact that the text of new bill was prepared secretly. Many religious leaders were unaware of its existence initially. The Holy Father wrote to the Russian President, Mr. Boris Yeltzin, asking him not to sign the bill. The American Congress protested. Many religious leaders in Russia joined the protest. I myself sent two letters, to the President and to the President’s Administration, asking for corrections to the text to bring it into line with the Constitution of the Russian Federation. As we know President Yeltzin refused to sign the bill in July 1997, but two months later in September, he changed his mind and signed it a slightly revised text. The final draft of the bill on religious freedom scarcely improved on the first. It is practically the same text as in July, with small cosmetic changes.

Now we are expecting the rules of application of the new law being prepared by the Russian Government. We have received only the draft of the rules. The first problem is the re-registration of all previously registered religious organizations. I hope we will be able to re-register all our parishes and activities and structures. It will not be easy, in particular there will be problems re-registering religious congregations. We must be grateful that the Government recognizes us as a “centralized religious organization.” This will avoid the difficulties arising from the requirement that a religious organization must have been present in Russia for 15 years to be eligible to apply for registration.

The new law on religious freedom creates a lot of difficulties for Church activity. For example: it is impossible to teach religion to children in school without the permission of the school director and of the local government. It is forbidden to have religion instructions for children under the age of fourteen without the written permission of both parents. It will be impossible to have mission activity, and so on.

Of course I am worried about conditions for the future activity of the Catholic Church in Russia, but I know well that in Russia it was never easy, and yet the Church has survived until today and I believe, with the blessing of God, we will continue to survive.

Pastoral Activity and Its Perspectives

After the three generations of persecution the Catholic Church, like her Orthodox Sister, is rising to new life. This process is not easy, as we have just seen, and the way of the Church in Russia is not sown with roses.

But we live in hope for the future. We are taking care not only about the renovation and construction of church buildings, but also exerting every effort for the spiritual resurrection of the Russian people. Therefore we must see to the organization of normal ecclesiastical structures to provide normal pastoral work.

The huge territory of European Russia is divided into four regions. Every month in these regions we have pastoral meetings with the priests, nuns and lay people.

Catechization is organized mostly in parish Sunday schools and are intended not only for children, but also for adults and even the elderly.

Catechetical and liturgical commissions have been preparing liturgical and catechetical literature. Lay councils have been helping with the religious animation of lay people, organizing pastoral work and also with the construction and renovation of ecclesiastical buildings.

There are about 300,000 believers in the European Part of Russia, 65,000 of whom live in Moscow.

The future of the Church in Russia will depend very much on the political situation and on relations between Catholics and the Orthodox. Nonetheless whatever problems we may have to face, the Catholic Church in Russia faces them as an integral part of Russian society. The Government, the Russian Orthodox Church and other confessions and religions recognize us as such. This gives us real hope for the future.

The second very important argument for the future of the Catholic Church in Russia is the great interest in Catholicism among young people, especially among the intelligentsia. Young people are one of the characteristics of the Church in Russia. They are very active especially in the re-founding of parishes. Youth in the Church in Russia is a clear sign that she has a future.

Today in Russia after seventy years of persecution we are working very hard to confront the spiritual vacuum which was created with the values of the Gospel. It will be the only foundation on which we will be able to rebuild society. Russia will have its future if we will build it on the solid foundation of moral principles, given to humanity by God.
Archbishop Thaddaeus Kondrusiewicz
© Archbishop Thaddaeus Kondrusiewicz