Catholic Christians in Siberia

Volk auf dem Weg, March 2001, 12-13.

The Church and the Russian Germans in the Siberian Homeland Today: A Personal Interview with His Excellency, The Most Reverend Joseph Werth, Bishop of Siberia, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, ND, 1996, 31 pages, softcover (available in English, German and Russian languages)

The following letter from the Apostolic Administrator for West Siberia, Bishop JOSEPH WERTH, unfortunately reached us with some delay. In the letter, he tells us about religious life in his vast see [bishopric].

Siberia -- this word has been associated for a long time with terrible images. Up to a few years ago, hundreds of thousands of innocent people languished in various prisons of the worst kind, only because they did not suit the regime in power for one reason or another. Humans easily forget, and there is the distinct danger that younger generation will not be able to connect these things with reality.

Within the framework of the Jubilee (or Holy) Year (the Catholic Church is celebrating the year 2000 as a Holy Year), bishops, priests and the laity observed in a special way, from November 5 till November 7, the memory of the martyrs of the twentieth century. A few words from Tertian, "The blood of the martyrs forms the seed of Christendom," became the motto for those days. In our prayers, we especially remembered those who during the time of Soviet power suffered and died because of their faith or due to being members of a national minority.

During the witnessing of those -- many with trembling voices -- who had experienced those times and had been in penal colonies or prisons, there were many tears in the eyes of their listeners. Many were moved by joy and gratitude for having survived and eventually experienced times when it became acceptable to give witness to their faith in public and without fear. One of the oldest female pilgrims had been asked by her pastor whether she thought she might be up to the journey of 1500 kilometers to Novosibirsk, and her answer was, "Even if I had to crawl, I would still make this journey!"

One of our guests was Archbishop Tamkevicius from Lithuania. He had been banished to Siberia until 1988. Just outside of the prison walls in which he had been locked up for ten months, the priest Joseph Swidnitzki told about his memories, praying along with the other pilgrims. Many still find it difficult to believe that this is now possible! "May this memory of their witness fortify our faith," was the wish and the prayer of Archbishop Kondruskievicz of Moscow.

In the vast expanses of Russia and Siberia, too, the Jubilee Year was rich in highlights of religious and church life. In our country, where for generations there was no possibility of public expression of religion, pilgrimage, highly public religious services, or the Congress for Catholics became for most people from smaller and scattered communities overwhelming experiences, even though in comparison to European standards everything is done rather modestly. However, for the privilege they easily accept discomfort and necessarily long and distant journeys. Many found themselves for the very first time in an actual, even if small church. Toward the end of June we undertook a pilgrimage from Novosibsirsk to Karaganda. The journey there alone required two nights and a whole day of travel by bus, which several times gave up its ghost. The trip back was very similar, but nobody got upset.

Pilgrimages to the places designated as jubilee churches were made in all of the six deanships. In August the communities of the Altai Deanship made their pilgrimage to Slavgorod. From Novosibirsk a bus arrived with overwhelmingly young passengers. A group from Barnaul even made the trek on foot, spending several days on the journey.

In February, about 150 young people from West Siberia and the Urals gathered for the first time ever for a great youth conference in the Cathedral at Novosibirsk. Services and spiritual talks for the amassed youth, and moving evening prayer services with spiritual song filled those days. The days were filled with a genuine religious and equally joyous atmosphere. Many received the sacrament of penance. Not a few of these young people just recently made a personal decision for God, although most are constantly surrounded by an environment without faith or have grown up in a completely atheistic home. At the beginning of May, an all-Russia Day for Youth was held in Saratov on the Volga.

The highlight of the all-Russia Eucharistic Congress toward the end of May in Russia was a Eucharistic procession through the streets of the capital. From four stations we blessed the city and the entire country.

A further great event for the church in Siberia was the September 8 dedication of the newly built Cathedral of Irkutsk. The city is about an hour's drive from Baikal Lake and is now the center for the Apostolic Administrature for East Siberia and the Far East, established in 1998 via the partition of the Novosibirsk Administrature. During the days following an all-Russia Marian Congress as well as the dedication of a Memorial to the victims of Stalin's horror camps were held. Fourteen memorial stones (corresponding to the 14 Stations of the Cross), overshadowed by a huge figure of the Resurrected Christ, have been etched with the names of the worst Soviet camps, e.g., Vorkuta, Magadon, Norilsk and Karaganda.

At the beginning of October a general pastoral conference was held with the theme of "cathechesis," with talks and conversations on future organizational activities for the religious instruction in commentates and for the training of those involved in it. Community services and prayer hours, many one-on-one conversations and a joyful closing event contributed to the deepening and solidification of the priestly community. However, because of the great distances they are rarely able to get together in this way.

On October 15 the Cathedral of Saratov was liturgically dedicated. It had been planned as a parish church with a seating capacity for about 100, but now it is the bishop's church for the entire southern portion of European Russia. Finally, each of the four Apostolic Administratures of Russia has its own cathedral.

Sixteen young men from Kaliningrad, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Vladivostok and other areas of Russia are at the minor seminary in Novosibirsk, preparing over a two-year span for entry into the priests' seminary in St. Petersburg, where about 70 regular seminarians are studying.

P.S. For some few people who have sent in first-time contributions for the Catholic Church in Siberia, we were unable to confirm receipt, due to illegibility of addresses. A few times mistakes were also made in the transmission of the data and in drawing up of letters of acknowledgment. We ask for your indulgence and, especially for one-time and larger monetary transfers we ask for complete address information. Unfortunately some mail still does not get here. Here is the bank information:

Father Eugen Reinhardt SVD
Taunus-Sparkasse Koenigstein, Germany
BLZ 512 500 00
Account number: 12 497 761
For "Bishop Werth/Siberia" [in German "Bischof Werth/Sibirien"]

Appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation and to Dr. Nancy Herzog for editing this article.

Cathedral at Novosibirsk, Siberia, Russia Bishop Joseph Werth

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