Russia’s Catholics celebrate Christmas, full of memory and gratitude
The 10th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic ties between Moscow and the Holy See was celebrated this month. On December 1, 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev met John Paul II for the first time, initiating the rebirth of the Catholic Church. In St. Petersburg, Msgr. Kondrusiewicz recalls the first Catholic martyr of the Soviet time, Msgr. Konstantin Budkiewicz, executed in Lubjanka. Improved relations after the meeting between Francis and Kirill in Havana.
Moscow (AsiaNews) - The small community of Russian Catholics is preparing to celebrate Christmas in a spirit of gratitude for the fraternity and freedom to worship that it has enjoyed in Russia for many years now. The 10th anniversary of the full restoration of diplomatic ties and the Holy See were celebrated on 9 December with a press conference in Moscow attended by the nuncio to Russia, Msgr. Celestino Migliore, and the secretary of the Russian Catholic Bishops' Conference, Msgr. Igor Kovalevskij (photo 1).
The decision to fully reestablish relations was taken immediately after the meeting between the then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on December 5, 2009. This event also recalls the first historic meeting on December 1, 1989, when the first president of the Soviet Union emerging from communism, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to Rome to meet John Paul II, giving rise to the rebirth of the Catholic Church in Russia and in all the ex-Soviet countries. After that meeting, the first missionaries arrived in Russia, and the following year the mission of the first nuncio, Mgr. Francesco Colasuonno, later cardinal.
In 1991 the first apostolic administrators of Russia and Kazakhstan were appointed, starting with Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, who from Belarus settled in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Just on 15 December, Kondrusiewicz himself, today archbishop of Minsk, celebrated another anniversary, the 110th anniversary of the consecration of the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in St. Petersburg, where he presided over a solemn celebration (photo 2). The archbishop had spent years of university studies in the Leningrad of Soviet times, when the church was the only place of prayer open for Catholics, although under the close control of the KGB.
In Moscow, in the early 1990s, the only functioning structures were the two "French" churches, that of Lourdes and that of Saint Louis. They played the role of generating centers for the new mission in post-atheist Russia. As recalled by Msgr. Kondrusiewicz, "in these churches we remember our fathers in faith, who have sent us the spiritual energies to resist persecution and be reborn to new life". A few days earlier, on December 9, Kondrusiewicz himself had blessed a plaque in memory of the prelate Konstantin Budkiewicz, vicar general of the diocese of Minsk-Mogilev (photo 3), who in 1923 was the first Catholic martyr of the persecutions of the regime. After a summary trial, he was executed in the basement of Lubjanka, the Muscovite headquarters of the KGB.
It is therefore a Christmas of memory and anniversaries, for a community today organized in four dioceses: that of the Mother of God in Moscow, run for 12 years by the Italian Paolo Pezzi; that of the Transfiguration in Novosibirsk, since 1991 in the hands of the Russian-German bishop Iosif Werth; that of St. Clement in Saratov with the German bishop Klemens Pickel, in office since 2001; that of St. Joseph in Irkutsk, in which the current Polish bishop Kirill Klimovicz was appointed in 2003, after his predecessor, Erzy Mazur, had been deprived of a visa the previous year, following strong tensions with the Orthodox Church.
Today relations with the Orthodox are very serene and full of collaboration, especially after the February 2016 meeting in Havana between Pope Francis and the patriarch of Moscow Kirill. Local priests are now active in a good part of the approximately 300 Catholic parishes of the four dioceses, and some of them could soon be elevated to episcopal dignity. The St. Petersburg seminary, which opened in 1995, saw the first ordinations 20 years ago, in 1999. This is also another date to remember on this Christmas, which for the Russians is still the western "Christmas", ahead of the Orthodox celebration of January 7. By now, many Russians consider December 25 already the beginning of the Christmas holidays for everyone.