Currently There are Thirty-Four Priests in Siberia

"Currently There are Thirty-Four Priests in Siberia." German News, 30 August 1995.

At that time, more than 200,000 Germans – from Upper Swabia, Alsace-Lorraine, from the Palatinate and Baden, left their old homeland. Many were impoverished smallholders, others went forth because they were discriminated against because of their faith or did not want to be pressed into military service in foreign armies. Russia’s czars promised the colonists freedom from religion. German schools an exemption from military service forever. In round numbers, there were 3,000 entirely Germany settlements (called “colonies”) in the period before the first World War, on the Black Sea, on the Volga, in the Baltic States, near St. Petersburg, in the Crimea and in the Caucasus. Today, the exodus in the reverse direction is in full swing. The experiences of the past have made the Russian-Germans skeptical.

Most certainly one could today reckon with many more than one million people of Catholic origin, says Bishop Werth, but perhaps 100,000 have been baptized and practicing Catholics amount to fewer still, because under the Communist dictatorship there were no priests. The Faith was maintained only there, where Catholics, as in the German villages in Kazakhstan and in the Altai mountains, lived together in large numbers. Where the people were dispersed, the Faith was lost.

At the present time, there are 34 priests in Siberia and 25 nuns. Of churches and chapels, there are a scant dozen. At the same time, Bishop Werth does not see the Catholic Church in Siberia as a new comer; it can look back on a scant 200 years of tradition, but during the Communist time it was cut off from all contact to other countries. Now, the Bishop wants to revive the religious life in the spirit of Vatican II. His prime concerns: Contacts with the scattered believers in the Siberian expanse, rebuilding of better communication between the priests, and development of liturgy that also respects the religious traditions of the believers. With the Catholic bishops in Moscow and Kazakhstan, he is preparing the publication of common prayer books and liturgical tests.

The priests in Bishop Werth’s surrounding area come predominately from prolific (Bishop Werth grew up among eleven siblings) families of German descent. They are extremely pious young clergymen, ascetic by reason of their religious molding, reserved as soft-spoken. They are shaped by the experiences of an underground church, whose believers gathered to pray in backyards and small living rooms. Bishop Werth, of whom an extraordinary ability to empathize is required, is also anything but a representative of the church triumphant. It was only at the age of twenty, after his military service in the Soviet Army, when he was visiting relatives in Lithuania, that he was for the first time saw a church with pulpit and confessional and robed priest, learned for the first time, that seminaries for priests existed. He also got his higher education in Lithuania. Pope John Paul II is said, when he became acquainted with Werth, that he had encountered and extraordinary bishop.

For over seventy decades, the Catholic Church was not tolerated in the former Soviet Union. Priests and nuns were persecuted, murdered, and like millions of other persons not acceptable to the Communist regime, were deported. Today, a new freedom is perceptible; priests are allowed to teach in schools and lecture at the universities. Also, the media exhibit, a growing openness, but the alienation between Christianity and society is great. Adults, most of who have not been baptized, are nowadays led to belief by their children, who are again being instructed in religion for the first time. Interest in religious questions before religious life again belongs to normal everyday life in Russian society. In the beginning of June, the Bishop of Siberia was invited to a constitutional conference in Moscow by Boris Yeltsin.

Werth is negotiating with the Russian officials concerning the restitution of former ecclesiastical property. There are current plans for build churches in the cities, Omsk and Chelabinsk; one is still negotiating the return and renovation of the Catholic church in Vladivostok, converted to other purposes. Bishop Werth is thankful for the help of the German church. In April of this year, he informed Trier Suffragan Bishop, Leo Schwartz, the spiritual midwife of Aktion Renovabis, at several press conferences in Germany about the difficult situation in Russia. Even in bygone years, he repeatedly visited Russian-German emigrants in the Bundes republic.

Bishop Werth sees himself as a member of the world church. The connection with Rome is close and absolutely positive. At the cornerstone-laying of the cathedral in Novosibirsk, a stone from the grave of the Apostle Peter in St. Peter’s in Rome was set into the wall. In this manner, according to Bishop Werth, Jesus’s saying will become reality; On this rock I will build my church.

Free from tension and furthered with mutual respect, is the way Bishop Werth would like to make the relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. He knows their problems in the present Russian society after seventy years of religious repression. In what concerns the relationship of both churches, he pleads for a clear and unmistakable image of the denominations. In his sermon at the cornerstone-laying, Werth said he was completely convinced that the better Christians understood their beliefs and lived according to them, the sooner the unification of the Church would come. This only, and not a faceless synthesis, a mixing of all religious denominations, could lead to Christian unity.

Reprinted with permission of the German News.

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