Extraordinary missionary month, a time of renewal for Kazakhstan’s Catholic Church
Catholics are just 1 per cent of the population in the former Soviet Republic. Testimony, the lives of the saints, pilgrimages and Masses are the central points of the celebrations for this month. “We hope to reach the hearts of the people by speaking directly to them in their own language,” says Fr Kropfreiter.
Nur-Sultan (AsiaNews) – The Extraordinary Missionary Month is a special time to renew the spirit of Kazakhstan’s small Catholic Church and bear witness to Christ by serving people and learning the country’s official language, Fr Leopold Kropfreiter told AsiaNews.
For the missionary with the Servants of Jesus and Mary in the Diocese of Nur-Sultan (ex Astana), the local Catholic community, decimated by Soviet rule and forced labour, is now experiencing a new life, rediscovering the lives of the saints and the country’s cultural traditions, which the missionaries are called to learn if they want to speak to “hearts of the people". The clergyman’s story follows below.
The Extraordinary Missionary Month celebration is very important for the Church in Kazakhstan, a country in which the percentage of Catholics is small and is decreasing. Only slightly more than one percent of the 18 million inhabitants of Kazakhstan are members of the Catholic Church. More than 70 percent of the population are Muslims. In this context, the World Missionary Month has a crucial role to play.
When Pope Francis announced the Extraordinary Missionary Month of October 2019, he highlighted four dimensions, which were to have a particular importance for the implementation of the month’s program: a personal encounter with Jesus Christ in His Church, missionary testimony, missionary formation and missionary charity. In our preparations, we laid great emphasis on paying particular attention to these four aspects.
Kazakhstan used to be a part of the Soviet Republic. In the 30s and 40s, hundreds of thousands of Christians were deported to Kazakhstan, where they were imprisoned in camps and had to endure forced labour. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many descendants of these Catholics had the opportunity to return to their countries of origin with the result that the proportion of Catholics in the country fell drastically whereas the number of Muslims has almost doubled during the last 30 years.
The country’s official languages are Kazakh and Russian. Traditionally, Russian is still used as the liturgical language. From the beginning of the World Missionary Month, courses in Kazakh, which are obligatory for the missionaries, were made available throughout the Diocese of Astana. In this way we are intending to promote a more intensive dialog and closer contact with the Kazakhs, whose population of around 12 million forms the great majority of the inhabitants of Kazakhstan. We hope to reach the hearts of the people by speaking directly to them in their own language.
One of the highlights of the World Missionary Month was the missionary pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus in Pavlodar, which is situated in the north eastern part of the country. This pilgrimage was a wonderful opportunity to come into contact with many missionaries and believers, whose life stories and testimonies proved to be a great enrichment for us. The route to this place of pilgrimage led through vast, deserted steppes. The first stop on the route was the coal town of Ekibastuz, where huge numbers of people had to endure hard labour in the worst possible conditions during the time of the Soviet Union. A further stop included the town of Shalbakti near the Russian border. The missionaries, who come from all corners of the earth, live and work with great zeal for God and for the people in Kazakhstan.
The pilgrimage began by celebrating Holy Mass followed by a talk about the missionary life of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus. It became clear from the exemplary life of this great saint of the world mission that every baptised person can be a missionary.
The highlight of the pilgrimage was the celebratory mass led by Archbishop Thomas Peta, who made the point in his sermon that the first and most important missionary land is one’s own heart and one’s own soul. Only when we have truly turned to God are we then capable of becoming one of His missionaries.
The celebratory mass was followed by a colourful concert program, which included groups of people dressed in a variety of national costumes who sang their folk songs in their own languages, Kazakh, Russian, Ukraine, German and Polish. Here one could experience the fact that the Church is by no means merely a national church, but is, in fact, universal or, in other words, – Catholic.
The World Missionary Month in Kazakhstan has led to a new awareness that every baptised Christian has a vocation to be a missionary. Our next great task will be to invite people even with an Islamic background in a more open and courageous way to become more deeply acquainted with the Church of Christ.
*Missionary in the Diocese of Nur-Sultan (ex Astana)