A day With Bishop Nikolaus Messmer in Nurenberg

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

Bishop Nikolaus Messmer, SJ
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 marginalized

The acting out of the history of Zachaeas illustrates the sermon
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 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

Divine service: Fr. Klaus Vaethroeder, SJ; Fr. Hieronymus Messmer, SJ; Bishop Nikolaus Messmer, SJ; Fr. Otto Messmer, SJ
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.

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 church life.

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.

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