Siberian Bishop Joseph Werth talks about the task of rebuilding the church in Siberia after more than 70 years of Communist repression.

REVIVE THE CHURCH: Religion was Suppressed in the Soviet Union for 70 Years. Now Siberian Bishop Joseph Werth has a Mission...

Shaver, Adele. "REVIVE THE CHURCH: Religion was Suppressed in the Soviet Union for 70 Years. Now Siberian Bishop Joseph Werth has a Mission..." Hays Daily News, 14 June 1995.

Siberian Bishop Joseph Werth has his work cut out for him.

On April 13, 1991, the Catholic priest was given the task of rebuilding the church in Siberia.

Werth, 42, stopped in Hays Tuesday to renew his contacts with people in Ellis County, many of whom have been instrumental in helping him with his mission.

All religions in the former Soviet Union had been suppressed during the 70 years of Communist domination, and Werth took up his responsibility as bishop with only three priests to help him minister to as many as a million or more people of Catholic background. Many had been uprooted by the government and exiled to Siberia from other parts of the Soviet Union.

Of the 100 or more Catholic church buildings confiscated by the Communists in Siberia, so far only four have been returned for the use of the church.

But buildings are not his most urgent need, he said.

"What we need most are priests, nuns and lay persons who can go and work," Werth said, speaking through Hays interpreter Robert Firestone.

"I have the impression Americans are afraid of Siberia," Werth said.

Ellis Countians were among the first to help, he added.

Werth now has 50 priests and an equal number of sisters. Five of the priests are Americans and of the four American sisters now serving in Siberia, three are from Ellis County. A fourth Ellis County sister is preparing to go. Only nine of the 50 sisters in Siberia are local women. The rest come from all over the world.

Anyone who goes has to pay careful attention to what is actually needed and not just attempt to bring America to them, Werth said. The mentality of the people is different.

Werth said he was pleased with the attitude of the Ellis County sisters in that respect.

They came to him before they went and said they didn't want to go loaded with "American baggage," but with "empty hands" ready to do what they can to help.

An example of a difference in attitude is the great veneration the Siberian Catholics have for sacred or holy objects. In the west, people have a much freer relationship to the church and foreign priests need to realize that difference or they might offend the religious feelings of the people they are trying to serve. Taking communion in the hand, for example, would not be understood.

Existing underground for so many years, the church in Siberia has not experienced the changes that came to the rest of the world with Vatican II.

In some ways, that may be an advantage, Werth said, because the Siberian Church can possibly learn from the often painful experience of others as it changes.

"The people kept their own faith alive," he said.

In his own family in Kazakstan, Werth said his family included 11 children, almost a small congregation by itself. They had daily family prayer and a longer devotion on Sundays.

When danger was especially great, the faithful only assembled as families.

Often, within a community, there would be a person of particular devotion to the faith, a saintly individual.

Where such a person lived, people would gather around. Where there were no priests, these people would be the ones called on to baptize babies.

Often, they were women.

"Usually, they did it quite properly," Werth said, somehow finding out what they needed to do and carefully following their instructions.

Werth's own father baptized him.

One of the best things the people have retained are many old hymns and prayers, Werth said.
Among the people in general, Werth said he does sense a certain hunger for religion, but he cautioned that it shouldn't be exaggerated.

Reprinted with permission of the Hays Daily News.

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