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 roots.

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 Bishkek.

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.

The Auxiliary 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 van.

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, Atyrau).

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.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller