A day With Bishop Nikolaus Messmer
Begegnungstag mit Bischof Nikolaus Messmer in Nuernberg
Paulsen, Nina. "A day With Bishop Nikolaus Messmer in Nuremberg." Volk auf dem Weg, August/September 2007, 20-21.
Translation from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
The slogan "We are bishop," uttered by Josef Schlosser
during a day of meeting with Bishop Nikolaus Messmer, SJ (SJ = member
of the order of the Society of Jesus) in Nuremberg, describes exactly
the mood and feeling of pride over the fact that a German-Russian
had become a bishop. For just over a year, Bishop Messmer has been
residing in Kyrgyzstan's capital of Bishkek, having been ordained
a bishop at St. Peter's Basilica on June 2, 2006, and having been
appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to be the Apostolic Administrator of
Kyrgyzstan. A day for meeting at the Academy Caritas-Pirckheimer House
of Nuremberg on July 21, organized by the missions procurature of
the German Jesuits, saw dozens of guests (relatives, friends and countrymen
from near and far) - it was also intended to raise awareness of the
needs and worries of the Catholic Church in Kirghiztan.
As pointed out by Missions Procurator Klaus Vaethroeder, SJ, of
Nurenberg, the pillar of Catholicism in Kyrgyzstan has emigrated,
so here was an opportunity to build up a circle of benefactors and
friends in support of the bishop in a new beginning for the Catholic
Church in Kyrgysztan. Serious conversations, speeches and discussions
were lightened by means of a cultural program. Anna Keller of Bruchsal
sang church hymns accompanied by guitar, the horn-quartet Meistersinger"
from St. Petersburg entertained with classical music, and a dance
troupe of Nuremberg presented a classical and folklore repertoire.
Mass was concelebrated by Bishop Messmer, his brothers Hieronymus
Messmer, SJ (from Upper Bavaria) and Otto Messmer, SJ (of Moscow)
as well as Klaus Vaethroeder, SJ, Rector of the Jesuit Mission at
Nuremberg. The central content of the sermon was illustrated by
an acting out of the story of Zachaeas, in which the selfishness
of the high customs official of Jericho was transformed by Jesus
into love of neighbor. This idea became the guiding theme of the
day -- constructing bridges through faith and love of neighbor,
to stretch out one's hand toward reconciliation and compassion.
Compassion - serving those who suffer and those who are
Compassion and support for the poor, the suffering and the marginalized
is the most important responsibility of the Catholic Church of Kyrgyzstan.
The former Soviet Republic is among the poorest of nations. Following
the revolution of recent months, the political, economical and social
crisis has deepened there, as Bishop Messmer indicated in his slide-illustrrated
talk on the current situation of the Catholic Church there.
The acting out of
the history of Zachaeas illustrates the sermon
The mission region of Kyrgyzstan, which has been cared for by the
Jesuits for years, is comprised of three large parishes: Bishkek,
Talas and, since recent days, Dshalalabad in the south of the country,
about 600 km [360 miles] from Bishkek, where about 100 German Russian
families still reside. With the capital city as a base, the Administrator
cares for the Catholic communities in the overwhelmingly Islamic
country (80 percent). "In light of an ongoing Islamization
of Kyrgyzstan, it is important that the Catholic Church has a presence
there," emphasized Bishop Messmer. A dialog has so far not
been established, but the Catholic Church at least does cooperate
with the Ev.-Lutheran Church.
There are about 2000 Catholics in Kyrgyzstan. Each community numbers
roughly 30 people, who meet for Holy Mass in private homes. The
overwhelming majority of German-Russian Catholics has emigrated
to Germany, and so the services are mostly conducted in Russian.
Six Jesuits and six religious-order nuns care for the Catholics
remaining in the country. They work with children and the youth,
prepare adults for baptism and other sacraments, and regularly visit
sick and elder Catholics in their homes.
The priests and nuns in fact care for people of various nationalities
and religions, including street kids, they visit old folks homes,
homes for the handicapped, and prisons. They bring along food and
clothing, lead Bible study hours, sing with the people, show films,
and talk with them about God's love. The nuns use an ambulance van
to visit many localities, mainly because there is no medical care
in rural areas.
The Messmer Family -- even in the worst of times the parents
clung to their faith
The Messmer family is a witness to how German Russians in the underground
under the Soviets clung to their faith and transmitted it to their
children. Of nine children of the Messmer parents, four sons became
priests, and three daughters became Eucharist Sisters. With modesty,
and even more steadfastly, the parents always modeled for them joy
in their faith and love for their church.
Fr. Klaus Vaethroeder, SJ; Fr. Hieronymus Messmer, SJ; Bishop
Nikolaus Messmer, SJ; Fr. Otto Messmer, SJ
The Messmer parents were from Speyer and Kandel, resp., in the
Black Sea region. During the retreat of the German Wehrmacht in
1943 [should be 1944 - Tr.] the families were taken to the Warthegau
region [in Poland - Tr.], and after the end of the war they were
"repatriated" to the Soviet Union. They finally succeeded
in reaching Karaganda, which at the time was a kind of a center
of the Catholic underground church. All of the Messmer children
were born and grew up in Karaganda.
Aside from their parents, the Messmer children were also instructed
and formed by the Jesuit priest Albinas, who after his release from
prison worked in the Karaganda area between 1975 and 1990. For the
children of Catholic families he organized a thriving and lively
Christian community, and for young people who were interested in
the priesthood, the Messmer brothers among them, he founded an underground
novitiate. And when it began to be known to the authorities they
slipped into hiding among various Catholic communities in Central
Asia: Hieronymus in Dushanbe, Nikolaus in Bishkek, Otto in Zelinograd.
Following his service as pastor in Dushanbe, Father Hieromymus
Messmer went to Germany in 1995. There he cared for souls at the
Elisabeth Hospital in Leipzig, and at present he cares for the teaching
sisters in Kochel am See in Upper Bavaria. Father Otto Messmer was
a pastor in Astana for over ten years, and is now Superior of the
Jesuits in the Russian region. Viktor completed seminary at St.
Petersburg, was ordained in 2000 and is currently the pastor at
Dsheskasgan in Kazakhstan. Three Messmer daughters became Eucharist
Sisters: Sister Anna, Sister Maria, and Sister Lina are nuns in
the diocese of Bishop Werth in western Siberia.
Following his pastoral work in Bishkek and his underground novitiate
in Karaganda, Bishop Messmer studied at the seminary in Riga and
after his ordination returned to Bishkek, where he worked as pastor
from 1989 to 1997. After that, from 1998 until 2006, he was the
Rector of a pre-seminary in Novosibirsk, with an interruption of
three years for theological studies. Maria Messmer, who has been
living in Germany for several years, was able to witness her son's
ordination to bishop at the Vatican.
Excerpts from the history of the Catholic Church in Kyrgyztan
The first Catholics settled in Kyrgyzstan toward the end of the
19th Century. Under Stalin, Poles, Ukrainians, and Latvians were
deported to Kyrgyzstan. As early as the 1930s, and later, the entirety
of the Catholic clergy was destroyed or sent into banishment. By
the 1950s, Catholics of German descent attempted to found officially
a Catholic community. However, such attempts were strictly suppressed
and persecuted by the State. "Illegally" erected houses
of prayers, such as the one in the village of Luxemburg, were destroyed.
Only by the 1960s did the State recognize several Catholic communities.
Bishkek (known as Frunse during Soviet times) was not only Nikolaus
Messmer's first parish, but in 1967 also became the first Catholic
community to be officially registered in the former Soviet Union
after World War II. Of course, this required official the existence
of clergy when the greatest problem at the time was a dearth of
priests; only seldom did priests from Lithuania or priests recently
released from camps visit the faithful there. People met in their
homes to pray and to baptize their children.
Toward the end of the 1960s Father Michael Koehler, just released
from the GUlag, arrived in Kyrgyzstan. He was the last surviving
cleric from the "German Diocese" of Tiraspol in Russia,
which had been totally destroyed by the Soviet regime. In 1969 he
took over the parish at Frunse. Despite numerous problems, such
as constant checks by the KGB and problems created for children
and the youth who attended church, there was a semblance of normal
Following Father Koehler's death, Father Nikolaus Messmer worked
as pastor in Bishkek and returned there for eight years following
his ordination and entry into the Jesuit order. So today he is again
at the place where he once began as a priest. His dream is a cathedral
in the very center of Bishkek, for the current church building,
purchased in 1969, is situated at the edge of the city and thus
can hardly contribute to improving communications.
Without the assistance from the outside, the Catholic Church in
Kyrgyzstan can hardly afford anything. From Germany, containers
arrive with various goods for assistance to the church. Used clothing
is distributed to the handicapped, to prison inmates, and to poor
Catholics in the villages. A great portion of the goods is further
distributed to the Ev.-Lutheran and Orthodox communities. Even private
people collect money to be distributed, with assistance from the
church, to the very poorest.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this article.