A German Bishop in Russia: Insights and Outlook. Clemens Pickel’s Experiences as Priest and Pastor on the Volga

Review of a book by Bishop Clemens Pickel’s on his long-term diary of his experiences as priest and pastor on the Volga

Paulsen, Nina. “A German Bishop in Russia: Insights and Outlook. Clemens Pickel’s Experiences as Priest and Pastor on the Volga.” Volk auf dem Weg, October 2009, 34.

Translation from the Original German-language text to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

In 1991, the 30-year-old priest Clemens Pickel took over a Catholic congregation in Marx, a city on the Volga, which at the time was comprised for the most part of German Russian and their descendants. Since that time he has been keeping a diary that records his meetings and his impressions, which by their very normalcy tend to get under one’s skin.

The rather personal entries of the cleric can now be read in the book Ein Deutscher – Bischof in Russland. Einblicke und Ausblicke  [A German Bishop in Russia: Insights and Outlook], which covers  the years 1990 to 2008.  During this time, Clemens Pickel was a priest in Tajikistan,  pastor for Volga Germans, spiritual aid to the Russians, and Bishop in Marx.  In 1998 he was named as the youngest bishop in the Catholic Church and has since then been administering the “Diocese St. Clemens” with its seat in Saratov. Its area corresponds to the combined one of Portugal, Spain, France and Germany. 

In the preface to his book Pickel urges the reader to peruse his notes with a “wide-open heart, because we continue to be in need of those open hearts in Russia to this day.” He, too, though a bishop of a huge diocese for twelve years now, has remained a pastor at heart, for “Being a pastor gives real meaning to my life. It is a service that works with the innermost centers of people.”

The downfall of the Soviet Union engendered in Russia a time of religious searching. A “wide-open heart” is what Bishop Clemens has needed all these years, in order to understand the mentality of people in Russia, to build a bridge of trust and maintain it, and to stand by the side of those searching for faith and for God.

His diary is therefore dedicated to the people who are so close to his heart, those he encourages by creating oasis of hope. Over eighteen years the priest has been transformed into “Father of the Poor.” Vividly and movingly, he talks of poverty and hopelessness, of people with heavy blows dealt by life, and of the tenacious burdens the USSR has left in its quake. But he also talks of signs of hope. For example, it was in Marx that the first Catholic church has been built since the October Revolution.

In addition to providing spiritual care, Clemens Pickel is primarily engaged in social services in widely scattered outposts of his diocese. Not infrequently this mission has had him driving up to 45,000 kilometers [ca. 27,000miles] a year in a clap-trap automobile. Close up and personally he has seen how many people have died of tuberculosis caused by malnutrition, and how hopelessness, poverty, alcohol and prostitution have left deep marks on their lives.

Pickel wishes to provide strength to the faithful, who are scattered across 1.4 million square kilometers [ca. 504,000 square miles]. Most of the Germans, who at the beginning of his time in office formed the backbone of the Catholic church on the Volga, have since emigrated. Some Russians, thanks to personal relationships with German Christians, have converted to the Catholic faith. With support from “Church in Need,” an organization working in 130 countries, Bishop Clemens has so far been able to build four churches. Of the roughly forty-two million residents of the area, around 35,000 are active Catholics.

Clemens Pickel was born in 1961, a very short time after the Berlin Wall was erected, in the Saxony city of Colditz. He was raised Catholic, his parents being part of a five-percent confessional minority.

In Erfurt, home to the only Catholic seminary for Catholic clerics in the GDR [German Democratic Republic], he studied theology. In 1988 he received ordination to the priesthood and became chaplain in Kamenz (Diocese of Dresden-Meißen). Two years later, Bishop Joachim Reichelt of Dresden freed him up for service in the then Soviet Union. From early on, Pickel had begun to sense a deep connectedness with Christians in the Soviet Union, having been in (still forbidden) correspondence with some of them as early as 1979.

In 1991 the young priest moved from Dushanbe, where he was able to celebrate Mass in German, to the Volga region. There Pickel started serving as a pastor in Marxstadt, a city of 30,000 residents once known as Katharinenstadt and until 1941 one of the centers of the Volga [German] Republic. This happened to be the beginning of a massive emigration wave by German Russians. Prior to 1991, Joseph Werth had administered the Catholic community there.

In his search for Germans in the Saratov region, Pickel came upon villages composed entirely of Catholic or Lutheran faithful. In the meantime, most of the people he has taken care of there have emigrated to Germany or have died. Thus he had no choice but to build up the Catholic Church in Russia for none other than the Russian people.

Clemens Pickel, Ein Deutscher – Bischof in Russland. Einblicke und Ausblicke. Benno Verlag, Leipzig, 2009. 245 pp., 9.90 Euros, ISBN 978-3-7462-2664-4.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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