Catholics in Central Asia: the joy of witness
by Stefano Caprio

This is the message of the bishops of the region, delivered during a webinar on the mission of evangelization. Bishop Dell'Oro: the local Church has the privilege of experiencing "a totally new hope". Fr. Andrzej Madej: "Christ is risen in Turkmenistan!".

Rome (AsiaNews) - Msgr Adelio Dell'Oro, bishop of Karaganda in Kazakhstan says the Catholic Church in Central Asia has the privilege of experiencing "a totally new hope". This is always secretly sought in the condition of being a minority of communities scattered across countries that are far removed from the Christian tradition. These communities have now been united in a single Episcopal Conference, which from Kazakhstan coordinates the "prudent and adventurous actions of many missionaries."

These sentiments were expressed by the bishop during a webinar organized by the Pontifical Missionary Union on October 12 and 13, entitled "The Mission of Evangelization in Central Asia at the Time of Evangelii Gaudium. Context, Difficulties, Prospects."

Msgr. Dell'Oro (see photo) recalled the fundamental points of Pope Francis' encyclical, recalling that "the mode of witness is joy," as the very title of the papal text recalls. The joy of the Gospel means not being afraid to "be a living presence in history, focusing on the importance of man through personal relationships in a time like ours, in which globalization suffocates the sense of God."

Christ is encountered in charity, as the many speakers at the conference recalled, finding in the small groups and in the many encounters the "road of beauty", of which Dostoevsky spoke: "In Karaganda we have a beautiful cathedral and organ".

The bishop explained that these very thoughts inspired his episcopal motto, "Uno locuntur omnia" (Everything points to God); without this certainty "it would be better to follow Kafka's advice, when the agent replied to the traveller seeking the way: 'Give up, give up!', turning away like those who laugh in secret".

The Churches of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and even Afghanistan, whose protagonists told their stories in first person, feel freer precisely by experiencing the "grace of being a minority" and rediscovering the "paradigm of the small flock," as the moderator of the webinar, Franciscan Fr. Dinh Ahn Nhue Nguyen, recalled.

Msgr. Dell'Oro used a n effective metaphor to explain that priests and bishops must not be "ship cooks, but commanders who navigate the course," recalling the words of Pope Benedict XVI for whom "the future of the Church is in the hands of the saints."

Father Giovanni Scalese, superior of the mission in Afghanistan, was moving in his testimony, recalling the evacuation of the religious from Kabul in August as "a true divine miracle".

In these countries we are experiencing "an era of great change," observed Msgr. José Luis Mumbiela Sierra, bishop of the Holy Trinity in Almaty and president of the Episcopal Conference of Kazakhstan. However, personal change is needed. One must treasure the history of martyrs and Christians persecuted in these nations during the long decades of Soviet rule, "when we were already a true Church, not externally, but internally," as Msgr. Evgenij Zinkovskij, the recently consecrated, first bishop of Kazakh citizenship recalled. He warned that "local priests are not necessarily the best, they are often very closed in their own realities" and fail to convey the joy of the Gospel to the entire local population, "a great work of permanent formation is needed.

Central Asia has a very young and growing population, but one which has also been pushed to emigrate to richer realities due to lack of work and difficult economic conditions. Thus, mission is often limited to the traditional service to Russian-speaking Catholics, due to the difficulty of the transition to local languages: a process underway in all countries amidst many contradictions.

Catholics do not have the possibility of attracting people from ethnic groups other than Polish, German or Ukrainian, but "faith is a matter of contagion, not proselytism," as Fr Guido Trezzani, an Italian missionary who has been working in Siberia and Kazakhstan for 30 years, observes.

As Fr. Jerzy Maculiewicz, a Franciscan in Uzbekistan, observed, "we must be the salt of the world, but we must not put too much salt, or it will spoil the taste of the dish.”

With bitterness, but without losing hope, Bishop Giorgio Marengo of Mongolia said that the Church in Ulan Bator "is only an umbrella for other works, a headquarters of a foreign NGO", with priests who have been waiting for a visa for over a year in Korea because "worship in the churches has been suspended due to Covid".

The Church in Central Asia "is as vulnerable as our worthless internet connection," exclaimed poet Fr. Andrzej Madej, superior of the missio sui juris in Ashgabat, where there are only 150 Christians (but with a priestly vocation). Yet this did not prevent him from proclaiming forcefully, between skipped connections, that "Christ is risen in Turkmenistan!".