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Bishop Joseph Werth: The Diocese Extends From The Urals To Sakhalin

Herman, Johannes. "Bishop Joseph Werth: The Diocese Extends from the Urals to Sakhalin." n.d.


Josef Werth, Bishop of Siberia, is fighting for a religious new beginning after seventy years of repression.

Novosibirsk, in August. Two years ago, Josef Werth, the bishop of Siberia was entrusted with the leadership of the largest diocese in the world. Large only in territory and problems, says the scarcely forty year-old, youthful-appearing Jesuit, who comes from an ethnic German family from Karaganda in Kazakhstan; the rebuilding of the ecclesiastical structure is proceeding under extremely modest conditions. The diocese, comprising in round numbers twelve million square kilometers, is managed from Apartment Number 163 in a high-rise building in the center of Novosibirsk. His first task, says Bishop Werth, has been to gather committed priests around him and to set up an official ecclesiastical representation (curia). Literally everything must be started from nothing, the furnishing of an office, its provision with telephone and telefax, and finally the choice of several co-workers. With four Jesuits and a nun as secretary, Bishop Werth is beginning the ecclesiastical new beginning, following the prescribed atheism of the past.

The curia, which includes a tiny chapel, is housed in an apartment of barely seventy square meters. Washlines are strung in the corridor. Large boxes containing religious writings set on a balcony, also pails with potatoes and pickled cucumbers. On one wall of the office in which visitors are received, hangs a map of the Russian Empire, in which the German Republic is included within its new borders.

Several old women sit in front of the curia and sell small quantities of potatoes; others offer apples and onions. Money is scarce, and fresh produce is expensive. A pensioner must pay a month's pension for a stewing hen, assuming that it would ever make it to the table. On the other side of the street, directly across from the curia, the Novosibirsk Circus has its quarters in a large circular building. Behind it shimmer the golden onion spires of a Russian Orthodox Church, in which old women pray for the souls of the dead for a few pieces of bread, and some tomatoes or radishes which are laid on a table by the relatives on the dead.

Rebuilding of a local Caritas (charitable institutions)

The relationship between the tiny Catholic minority and the Orthodox Church in Russia is cool. The Metropolitan [Archbishop] in Moscow observes the competition from Rome almost with hostility. False statements about new mission activities are consciously spread around. For the first time, Bishop Werth held a constructive conversation with a highly-placed dignitary of the Orthodox Church. And for the first time in the history of Russia, the Moscow Metropolitan visited him in Siberia during the past year.

When the Bishop works late into the night after 11:00 P.M., he sleeps in the Curia, because it is not safe in the streets of Novosibirsk, which is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the city's founding this year. Novosibirsk is located at the geographical center of Russia. The Nicholas Chapel on Lenin Place (named after the Czar Nicholas II) makes clear the historical and religious claim of the Russian Orthodox Church to be the center of spiritual might, even in far-off Siberia. A scant 300 meters distant, a house of God is being built which will shortly be the seat of the bishopric and the cathedral of the Catholic Church in Siberia. Until then, the congregation will assemble in a chapel on the city's edge that belongs to the Franciscans. Mother Theresa has already sent the first "Sisters of Charity" to Novosibirsk. Wearing the light-blue saris of the [sisters'] congregation which is active worldwide, an Indian sister and a German-descent sister sit next to each other during the service. A German Franciscan father is making a great effort in Novosibirsk to develop a local caritas.

Bishop Werth's favorite saying is: "Pro Deo, ecclesia et animis" (For God, the church and the souls). Josef Werth, consecrated as Bishop of Siberia, heads a diocese that extends from the Urals to Sakhalin. The distance from Novosibirsk to Moscow is 3,000 kilometers; to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, 6,000. When it is 10:00 o'clock in the morning in the western part of bishopric, in the far east it is already 6:00 o'clock in the evening. One must change one's watch six times during the flight over the diocese. Like Kaiser Karl V., the young bishop can say of himself, that in his empire the sun never sets. According to the statistics of the Polish embassy in Moscow, more than a million Catholics of Polish descent live in Siberia. Also every fourth or even third person among the approximately 800,000 Russian-Germans who live in Siberia is probably Catholic, says Bishop Werth.

German colonists

Also many deported Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Latvians are Catholic. The Stalinist persecution and the long years of discrimination after the second World War made a deep impression on the Russian-Germans. Families were torn apart, hundreds of thousands died in the labor and hunger-camps. Their property in their previous areas of residence was taken from them when they were resettled in Siberia Kazakhstan. What held them together was their language and their common culture. Their devote religiousness withstood all attempts of their old rulers to declare the death of God.

With so-called Ulm boxes, solid flat freight boats, into which one could pack household goods and animals, the forefathers of the Russian-Germans at one time made their way down the Danube as far as the Black Sea. The first ones already started out in 1763, invited by Czarina Katharina II who knew the ability and industry of German craftsmen and farmers. The next wave followed in 1804 when Czar Alexander I, whose mother was a Swabian from the royal house of Wittemberg, called German colonists into the country to settle the provinces by the Black Sea, that had just been seized from the Turks.

Currently there are thirty-four priests in Siberia

At that time, more than 200,000 Germans - from Upper Swabia, Alsace-Lorraine, from the Palatinate and Baden left their old homeland. Many were impoverished smallholders, others went forth because they were discriminated against because of their faith or did not want to be pressed into military service in foreign armies. Russia's czars promised the colonists freedom of religion, German schools and exemption from the military service forever. In round numbers, there were 3,000 entirely German settlements (called "colonies") in the period before the first World War, on the Black Sea, on the Volga, in the Baltic States, near St. Petersburg, in the Crimea and in the Caucasus. Today the exodus in the reverse direction is in full swing. The experiences of the past have made the Russian-Germans skeptical.

Most certainly one could today reckon with many more than one million people of Catholic origin, says Bishop Werth, but perhaps 100,000 have been baptized, and practicing Catholics amount to fewer still, because under the Communist dictatorship there were no priests. The Faith was maintained only there, where Catholics, as in the German villages in Kazakhstan and in the Altai mountains, lived together in larger numbers. Where the people were dispersed, the Faith was lost.

At the present time, there are thirty-four priests in Siberia and twenty-five nuns. Of churches and chapels, there are a scant dozen. At the same time, Bishop Werth does not see the Catholic Church in Siberia as a newcomer; it can look back on a scant 200 years of tradition, but during the Communist time it was cut off from all contact to other countries. Now the Bishop wants to revive the religious life in the spirit of Vatican II. His prime concerns: Contacts with the scattered believers in the Siberian expanse, rebuilding of better communication between the priests, and development of a liturgy that also respects the religious traditions of the believers. With the Catholic bishops in Moscow and Karaganda, he is preparing the publication of common prayer books and liturgical texts.

The priests in Bishop Werth's surrounding area come predominantly from prolific (Bishop Werth grew up among eleven siblings) families of German descent. They are extremely pious young clergymen, ascetic by reason of their religious molding, reserved and soft-spoken. They are shaped by the experiences of an underground church, whose believers gathered to pray in backyards and small living rooms. Bishop Werth, of whom an extraordinary ability to empathize is required, is also anything but a representative of the church triumphant. It was only at the age of twenty, after his military service in the Soviet Army, when he was visiting relatives in Lithuania. He for the first time saw a church with pulpit and confessional and a robed priest, learned for the first time, that seminaries for priests existed. He also got his higher education in Lithuania. Pope John Paul II is said to have said, when he became acquainted with Werth, that he had encountered an extraordinary bishop.

For over seventy decades, the Catholic Church was not tolerated in the former Soviet Union. Priests and nuns were persecuted, murdered, and like millions of other persons not acceptable to the Communist regime, were deported. Today a new freedom is perceptible; priests are allowed to teach in schools and lecture at the universities. Also, the media exhibit a growing openness, but the alienation between Christianity and society is great. Adults, most of whom have not been baptized, are nowadays led to belief of their children, who are again being instructed in religion for the first time. Interest in religious questions is great, one says in the Curia, but it will take at least a whole generation before religious life again belongs to normal everyday life in Russian society. In the beginning of June the Bishop of Siberia was invited to a constitutional conference in Moscow by Boris Yeltsin.

Werth is negotiating with the Russian officials concerning the restitution of former ecclesiastical property. There are current plans to build churches in the cities, Omsk and Chelabinsk; one is still negotiating the return and renovation of the Catholic church in Vladivostok, converted to other purposes. Bishop Werth is thankful for the help of the German church. In April of this year, he informeed Trier suffragan bishop, Leo Schwarz, the spiritual midwife of Aktion Renovabis, at several press conferences in Germany about the difficult situation in Russia. Even in bygone years, he repeatedly visited Russian-German emigrants in the Bundesrepublic.

Bishop Werth sees himself as a member of the world church. The connection with Rome is close and absolutely positive. At the cornerstone-laying of the cathedral in Novosibirsk, a stone from the grave of the Apostle Peter in St. Peter's in Rome was set into the wall. In this manner, according to Bishop Werth, Jesus's saying will become reality: On this rock I will build my church.

Free from tension and furthered with mutual respect is the way Bishop Werth would like to make the relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. He knows their problems in present Russian society after seventy years of religious repression. In what concerns the relationship of both churches, he pleads for a clear and unmistakable image of the denominations. In his sermon at the cornerstone-laying, Werth said he was completely convinced that the "more favorable Christians" understood their beliefs and lived according to them, the sooner the unification of the Church would come. This only, and not a faceless synthesis, a mixing of all religious denominations, could lead to Christian unity.

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