New Bishops for Kazakhstan and Kirgystan
Neue Bischoefe Fuer Kasachstan und Kirgisien
"New Bishops for Kazakhstan and Kirgystan." Volk auf dem Weg, November 2006, 20-21.
Translation from the original German-language text
to American English by
Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
At St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome on June 2, 2006, State Secretary
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, ordained two bishops for the former Soviet
Republics of Kazakhstan and Kirgystan. Both have German-Russian
Today, around 340,000 Catholics live among Kazakhstan's population
of 17 million, and among Kirgystan's 5 million residents there are
900,000 Catholics. Their new shepherds are Bishop Nikolaus Messmer,
SJ (Order of Jesuits, 51), Apostolic Administrator for Kirgystan,
and Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider, ORC (Order of Regular
Canons of the Holy Cross, 45) of Karaganda, Kazakhstan.
In his homily, Cardinal Sodano pointed out that the two bishops
will strengthen their faithful and help them, which "under
the given circumstancesconstitutes true witness to the Gospel."
|At the Ordination of Bishops
on June 2, 2006 at St. Peter's Cathedral (left to right): [Papal]
State Secretary Cardinal Angelo Sodano; Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius
Schneider; and the new Apostolic Administrator for Kirgystan,
Father Nikolaus Messmer. (Photo from L'Osservatore Romano)
Kirgystan: the Country's First Bishop
Bishop Messmer will reside in Bishkek, the Kirgyz capital city.
This missionary region, which has been tended to for years by the
Jesuit Order, has two parishes (Bishkek and Talas) for the entire
country, and it was recently elevated to the rank of Apostolic Administrature.
During March of this year Pope Benedict XVI appointed the Jesuit
Nikolaus Messmer to Bishop of Bishkek, to
be the first Apostolic Administrator for the Kirgyz Republic. The
bishop took office at the beginning of June.
Nikolaus Messmer comes from a Catholic family of Volga-Germans
who had been deported under Stalin. He was born in 1954 in Karaganda
(Kazakhstan). He spent some years caring for souls as a pastor in
The first Catholics settled in Kirgystan during the latter part
of 19th Century. During Soviet times, thousands of Germans, Poles,
and Lithuanians were deported to Kirgystan. By the early 1950s,
Catholics of German descent attempted to establish the first official
church community. However, such attempts were persecuted by the
State. "Illegally" built prayer houses, such as in the
village of Luxemburg, were destroyed. Only in the Sixties would
the state officially recognize several Catholic communities.
The greatest problem for the Catholics was that there were no priests.
Only rarely did priests from Lithuania or priests freed from the
camps visit the faithful. People met in homes to pray, and they
baptized their children themselves. Toward the end of the 1960s,
Father Michael Koehler, who had just been released from the GULag,
came to Kirgystan. He was the last living priest from the original
German diocese of Tiraspol in Russia, which the Communists razed.
He established the parish in Bishkek and built a small church.
This marked the beginning of relatively normal religious life. Still,
there were many problems, such as the constant controls exercised
by the KGB, difficulties for children and youth who attended church,
and many others.
Following Father Koehler's death, Nikolaus Messmer took up the
work of pastor in Bishkek. He had spent his first years of training
in Riga, Latvia, before concluding his studies in Rome. Most recently
he was the rector of the priest seminary in Novosibirsk.
Bishop for Karaganda, Athanasius Schneider, ORC (left) and
Bishop of the Diocese of Karaganda, Jan Pavel Lenga (right).
Kirgystan is considered to be among the poorest nations in the
world. At present, a few Jesuits and nuns reside in the country
to tend to the remaining Catholics. Works of mercy constitute the
most important efforts of the Catholic church in Kirgystan. The
pastors regularly visit homes for the elderly, homes for invalids,
and prisons; they bring meals and clothing, tell simple stories
from the Bible, sing with the folks, show films, and talk with them
about God's love. Because there is no State-provided care of the
sick in the villages, the nuns visit many places by using an ambulance
Without help from the outside, the Catholic church in Kirgystan
would not be able to afford this work. From Germany, for example,
they receive containers with various articles for the church to
use. Used clothing is distributed to invalids, prisoners and poor
Catholics living in the villages. Large portions of these goods
are also passed along to Ev.-Lutheran and Orthodox parishes.
Kazakhstan: Faith Forced to Exist under Cover
The German-Russian priest Athanasius Schneider, appointed on April
8 to be the Auxiliary Bishop of Karaganda, Kazakhstan, is the first
priest from the Order of "Regular Canons of the Holy Cross,"
the order performing the work of angels, to be elevated to the rank
of bishop. He will work at the side of Bishop Jan Pavel Lenga in
Karaganda. The Catholic church in Kazakhstan is organized into the
Karaganda diocese plus three Apostolic Administrators (Almaty, Astana,
Athanasius Schnieder's German parents had been deported to the
Ural region. The strongly devout Catholics lived there until the
late 1950s, and after easing of restrictions on Germans, they were
allowed to move to Karaganda. Athanasius was born in 1961 in Tokmak,
Kirgystan, and was raised in the Catholic tradition. He and his
family later emigrated to Rottweil in Baden-Wuerttemberg [Germany].
There Athanasius Schneider became acquainted with the Order of
the Cross, which he joined in 1982. He was ordained a priest in
1990 and taught at a high school belonging to the order in Anapolis,
Brazil. The new Auxiliary Bishop completed his studies at the Papal
University of St. Thomas, the so-called "Angelicum," in
Rome. In 1999, he received a doctorate in Patristics. At Archbishop
Lenga's request (Karaganda), Athanasius Schneider was sent to the
Karaganda diocese in 2001. Most recently he has been pastor and
Prefect of Studies of the priest seminary in Karaganda and was active
in the administration of the diocese.
During the Bishops' Synod last October he spoke about his childhood
experiences with the Eucharist: "I spent my childhood and early
youth in the Soviet Union. Sacramental life, especially Eucharistic
devotion, had to exist in secrecy. What affected me very deeply
and has remained very much alive in my memory is the attitude toward
Holy Communion, ..., which was not available for years. Several
years passed before my parents were able to receive Communion again.
But during all the years of persecution, they had retained strength
from their spiritual Communion, to remain true to their faith and
to be able to impart to their children their love for the Eucharist."
Athanasius personally also received his first holy Communion in
secrecy, from Father Janis Pavlovski, who had spent some years in
Stalinist camps in Kazakhstan. "We were a small group of children.
The external circumstances were very meager, but it was a great
feast for the soul." And, adds Bishop Athanaius, "Father
Pavlovski told us: 'Receive Communion each time as if it were your
first and your last.'"
Catholic communities of Polish and German immigrants existed in
Kazakhstan as early as the 19th Century. Due to the Stalinist deportations,
several thousands of Catholics of various nationalities (Poles,
Germans, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, White Russians) lived in Kazakhstan.
The church was forced to exist and live in the underground -- a
church of believers and martyrs, with its the center in Karaganda.
Among its well-known representatives was the first martyr of Kazakhstan
to be declared Blessed, Alexiy Saritzki, who died in 1963. Other
believers were the underground Bishop Alexander Chira (died in 1983)
and the priest Vladislav Bikovinski (died in 1974), both of whom
died in Karaganda and for whom the process of being declared Blessed
is currently under way.
At present the Church in Karaganda is going through a historicall
very important phase. During a climate of inter-religious peace
between various confessions, there is the opporunity to proclaim
the Gospel and to build up the Catholic Church even with visible
structures. Here, too, the work would be possible only with great
difficulty without the personal and material assistance from Europe.
Volk auf dem Weg
The Editors are grateful to Father Anton Schmadel, ORC (Rome) and
Lukas Schmadel (LRA, Biberach) for the information and photos they
provided to us on this topic. The Internet provided further sources.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this article.