07/06/2006, 00.00
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Bishkek, first bishop installed as head of local Church

With two decrees dated March 18, Pope Benedict XVI elevated Kyrgyzstan to an apostolic administration and appointed the Jesuit father Nikolaus Messmer as its bishop-administrator.

Bishkek (AsiaNews/UCAN) - The former parish priest of the only church in Kyrgyzstan has returned as the first bishop of the Kyrgyz Church. On July 2, Jesuit Father Alexander Kan, head of the former sui iuris (self-governing) mission of Kyrgyzstan, turned over his duties to Jesuit Bishop Nikolaus Messmer, the new apostolic administrator. The Church in this Central Asian country was elevated to an apostolic administration on March 18, 2006.

From 1989 to 1997, then-Father Messmer served as parish priest of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Bishkek, after which he was reassigned as rector of a minor seminary in eastern Russia.

Among guests and concelebrants at his July 2 installation were Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, apostolic nuncio to Kyrgyzstan, and Bishop Jerzy Maculewicz, apostolic administrator of Uzbekistan. Also present were prelates from Kazakhstan -- Bishop Henry Theophilus Howaniec of Almaty, Archbishop Jan Pawel Lenga, bishop of Karaganda, and Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Karaganda.

The Apostolic Administration of Kazakhstan and Central Asia was established in 1991, when the former Soviet republics of Central Asia became independent countries with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1997, sui iuris missions were erected for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Archbishop Wesolowski serves as nuncio to all these countries except Turkmenistan. He is also nuncio to Kazakhstan, where the local Church now comprises an archdiocese, two dioceses and an apostolic administration.

At the beginning of the installation Mass, Father Kan read out two decrees dated March 18, 2006, with which Pope Benedict XVI elevated Kyrgyzstan to an apostolic administration and appointed Father Messmer, 51, its bishop-administrator. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano ordained Father Messmer a bishop on June 2 at the Vatican.

At the installation Mass in Bishkek, Father Kan expressed his wish that Bishop Messmer's "faith, hope and love" of will support all local Catholics.

Archbishop Lenga, who was apostolic administrator of Kazakhstan and Central Asia 1991-1997, praised Church growth in Kyrgyzstan. "I see that it was not useless to build and enlarge the church as there is now no vacant place."

Bishop Maculewicz expressed his hope for more cooperation between the Churches in Central Asia for the common good.

Bishop Messmer was born in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, in 1954 to an ethnic German Catholic family. In 1975 he joined the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Following his ordination as a priest in 1989, he was assigned to Bishkek. From 1997 until 2001, and again from 2004 until his recent appointment, he served as rector of the minor seminary in Novosibirsk, Russia. For the three intervening years he studied spirituality at Gregorian University in Rome.

At his installation, the bishop thanked his parents for bringing up their children as "dignified Catholics." All three of his brothers are priests, two of them Jesuits, and his three sisters are nuns.

St. Michael the Archangel, the only Catholic church in Kyrgyzstan, was built in 1969 by ethnic Germans. They had been in Central Asia since Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered their forced relocation from Russia's Volga region in the 1930s and 1940s, along with Poles, Lithuanians and Koreans from several parts of the former Soviet Union.

The church was built as a one-story building in order not to be conspicuous among private houses. In 1981 the community built a second floor to accommodate more churchgoers.

The new apostolic administration has three parishes as well as nearly 30 Catholic communities of about 30 villagers each spread across the country. Priests visit these communities during the week. Six Jesuit and two diocesan priests offer pastoral care while Franciscan nuns provide medical, legal and other help.

Kyrgyzstan has about 5 million people, 75 percent of them Muslims and close to 20 percent members of the Russian Orthodox Church.

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