04/28/2018, 10.03
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The difficult reopening of Catholic churches in Russia

by Vladimir Rozanskij

The restitution of Catholic religious buildings continues to meet with resistance from the authorities. The "breaking down" of the wall of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The re-consecration of a church in Ryazan and the pretexts for denying the restitution of the church of Kirov.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - For  one church restored to the Catholics of Ryazan, Russian authorities continue to deny churches to other communities such as the faithful of Kirov, where the parish priest has even started a hunger strike. Indeed, 2018 marks a quarter of a century since, in 1993, the Catholic Church in Russia succeeded in obtaining the formal restitution of the first churches by the competent authorities.

In that year the statute of the parishes of St. Catherine in St. Petersburg was approved, the most important and prestigious, that of the Rosary in Vladimir, the center of the "Golden Ring" of the ancient Russian cities, and that of St. Louis of the French in Moscow, the only one left open all the time under communism together with the twin church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Leningrad. These were the two French "diplomatic" churches, and their activity served to demonstrate freedom of worship in the USSR, even though they were strictly controlled by the KGB.

The church of St. Louis was returned to the French government (not to the Catholic archbishop, Msgr Kondrusiewicz), and today Catholic communities of varying linguistic expression are hosted there (in addition to the French, there are functions in English, Italian, Hispanic -Portuguese, Korean, Filipino). One of the Sunday Masses, moreover, is entrusted to the parish priest of the Russian Church of Saints Peter and Paul, the main Catholic church in Moscow that stands 200 meters from St. Louis, but which has not yet been returned. Recently it seems that there are openings for partial restitution, if not the actual ecclesiastical building, at least one of the subsidiary buildings. The church was the base for very important schools and charitable works, such as those animated by the German physician J.F. Haass, the "holy doctor" of the early 1800 whose cause of beatification, followed by the curie of Moscow and Cologne, seems to be coming to fruition.

Other Russian Catholic churches were "reconquered" in the 1990s by the faithful together with the missionaries who came from different countries, in some cases even by striking interventions such as in 1994, when the seminarians and the faithful led by the rector Msgr. Bernardo Antonini "broke down" the wall of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Moscow, finally obtaining its return. Today it is the most solemn of the Russian Latin churches, and the seat of the archbishop "of the Mother of God" in Moscow, Msgr. Paolo Pezzi.

Just Msgr. Pezzi had the joy of re-consecrating a church on April 16th in Rjazan (pictured), a city just over 200 km from Moscow, whose restitution was pursued with great tenacity by the Slovak parish priest Fr. Josif Gunchaga, who arrived in Russia in 1991. The church is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and was closed in 1935, then hosted an art school; now it will have to be entirely rebuilt, but the small group of  faithful (a little over a hundred) will finally be able to gather for prayer, without looking for makeshift accommodations.

The parish priest of the Catholic community of Kirov, has not been so lucky.  The city lies in the north of European Russia that took the name of the famous revolutionary killed by Stalin (formerly called Vjatka), when the period of "great terror" began. For 17 years Fr. Grigorij Zvolinskij (photo 3) has explored every possible avenue for the restitution of the building dedicated to the Sacred Heart, built in 1903 by the Polish exiled under Alexander III. After the umpteenth refusal, Fr. Grigorij decided to start a hunger strike and a 30-day continuous prayer for the restitution of the church.

The closure took place during the Stalinist purges, and the Catholics were accused of espionage and betrayal, even today they do not know where they were buried after the shooting. The church was used directly by the KGB as a transmission center to block foreign radio stations, with special antennas installed in place of the crosses where the so-called "white noise" was broadcast.

After communism, a concert hall was opened for organ and chamber music, allowing Catholics to celebrate Mass by paying an hourly rent, only in large parties. The repeated requests for complete restitution have always been opposed by a sharp refusal, the last on 5 April. The reason for the refusal is paradoxical: as other premises have been built in the building, the church must be guarded by the Superintendent as an artistic asset and cannot be used by Catholics, who should remove unnecessary additions.

In response to this latest mockery, the parish priest together with the faithful decided to hunger strike for a  month of continuous adoration and rosary: the 5 official rejections are considered by Kirov Catholics as 5 wounds on the tortured body of the suffering Christ. Fr. Grigorij has already suffered thefts, assaults and death threats, so much so that he built a high wall around his house with video surveillance and three dogs. In the small room he now uses he celebrates daily Mass, with his small constituent of people descendants of Polish exiles, German prisoners and Africans from countries that were friends of the Soviet Union in the cold war years. The power of prayer can work miracles, even in times of austere reign of Putin, the Orthodox tsar.

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