Catholicism in Russia Today

Dennis J. Dunn

Russian Catholics: Strength and Distribution

The implosion of the Soviet Union dramatically affected the number and location of Catholics who live in Russia. The new independent states of Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan were no longer part of Russia, with the size of the Catholic Church in Russia thus significantly reduced. It is difficult to say precisely how many Catholics are in Russia today. The number varies from the official Vatican estimate in 2000 of 1,285,000 to a recent estimate by Sergei Filatov and Lyudmila Vorontsovaof 150,000. Russian Catholic leader Yuli Shreider and Yuri Gnedkov, editor of the Moscow Catholic weekly Svetevangeliia, estimated in 1996 that the number of Catholics was about 500,000.1Whatever number is correct, there does seem to be general agreement that the location of most of today’s Russian Catholics is no longer European Russia, but Siberia. The Vatican maintains that there are one million Catholics in Western Siberia, 200,000 in Northern European Russia, including Moscow and St. Petersburg,50,000 in Eastern Siberia, and 35,000 in Southern European Russia. While Vatican figures are debated, no one appears to disagree with the pattern that the figurespresent.2 This reality is the fruit of tsarist and Soviet policies of deporting to Siberia Catholic Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Germans, and others over centuries.

By 1996, according to reports in a letter from Siberia, the number of Catholic parishes and communities totaled 86 in European Russia and 110 east of the Urals. In 2000 the Vatican calculated 327 parishes and 51 missions. This number is the rough figure that Russian Orthodox nationalists accept and denounce.3Besides the sudden reduction in numbers and the subsequent movement of Catholicism’s numerical center of gravity to Siberia, the Catholic Church also faces the challenge of geography. Russia still has 11 time zones, with the Catholic Church spread from St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea to Magadan  in eastern Siberia. The administration of this huge region is daunting.

The Nationalities Question

Another problem for the Church is that social stratification and ethnic identity divide its followers. There is the traditional nucleus of the Catholic Church in Russia: Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, and other non-Russians who have retained their ethnic identities.4 Then there are those who favor a revival of the Russian Uniate or Byzantine Catholic Church, which was largely suppressed under the Soviets but still is recognized by the Vatican.5 These Catholics argue that the Byzantine tradition is the appropriate vehicle for the expression of RussianCatholicism.6 Then there are the russified descendants of Catholics living in territories annexed by Russia or the Soviet Union. Finally, there is a small but influential group of Russian Catholic intellectuals and youth who believe that the Latin rite is the appropriate expression of Catholicism and the way by which Russia can pull closer to the West. To serve each of these groups, to reconcile their agendas, and, at the same time, to increase the Catholic presence in Russia, is proving


Catholic Parishes

Another obstacle for the Catholic Church has been the task of trying to secure the return of church property. The process is slow and tedious because the government has reused the property for a plethora of purposes, from hospitals to office space to residences. In addition, the court system is not set up to adjudicate property disputes and the Duma, controlled by Russian nationalists, is not in the least sympathetic to the Catholic Church. In addition, local governments, which invariably favor the Orthodox Church, are often more restrictive than the federalgovernment.

Overcoming the Shortage of Priests

Another problem for the Catholic Church in Russia is the catastrophic shortage of priests, which has been solved in part by priests coming from abroad. As of 1996 in European Russia there were 89 priests from 16 countries; and of these, 37 were secular priests and the rest were members of various religious orders. There were also 104 nuns from 17 countries. In Russia in Asia there were 52priests and 60 nuns. The Vatican reported that the Russian Federation as of 2000 had 192 priests and 312 nuns. The number had increased to nearly 300 priests by 2002.8

Although most foreign priests have residence permits, the non-renewal and revocation of visas have created fear and anxiety among non-native Catholic clergy. This trend may signal a resurgence of traditional Russian xenophobia and anti-Westernize. Indeed, human rights journalist Lawrence Uzzell believes that the Putin government started taking an anti-foreign tack in May 2001 when Nikolai Trofimchuk, an advocate of state repression of Catholicism and other Western religions on geopolitical grounds, became head of the Kremlin’s new Council for Co-operation with Religious Organizations. Trofimchuk considers “spiritual security” as part of national security and demands that foreign missionaries be expelled because they are reallyagents of foreign governments that do not have Russia’s best interest at heart.9

Although the influx of foreign priests has helped relieve the problem of the shortage of priests in Russia, it simultaneously reinforces another problem. The large number of foreign priests emphasizes the image of Catholicism as a foreign religion. The Catholic Church in Russia has been fighting this battle for centuries, and it continues to this day. Patriarch Aleksii II declared in August1997 that “you cannot claim that there is a Catholic tradition in modern Russia,” and in June 2001, when Pope Paul II visited Ukraine, he spoke of a Catholic invasion of Orthodox lands.

To solve the problem of being identified or painted as foreign religion, the Catholic Church in Russia has pursued two policies. On the one hand, its leaders state categorically that the Catholic Church is not a foreign religion in Russia. Metropolitan Kondrusziewicz simply refers to the edicts of the tsars in the eighteenth century that granted Catholics the right to practice their faith.10 Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Paul I, and Alexander I granted legal status to the Catholic Church, invited the establishment of Catholic communities, and approved archdiocesan and diocesan structures.

Theological Education

The second response of the Catholic Church to the charge that it is a foreign religion is a major effort to begin to build a native priesthood. To this end, an upper level seminary, Mary Queen of the Apostles, was opened in Moscow in 1993 with close to 30 students.11 The seminary aims to prepare priests for ministry in Russia who will be familiar with Russian language and sensitive to the culture. Special courses on the history and distinctive aspects of Russian religious consciousness taught by Orthodox professors are included in the curriculum. The Catholic Church wants to be certain that its priests are attuned to the nuances and rich traditions of the Orthodox faith.

Because of cramped and uncomfortable conditions in Moscow and a new opportunity in St. Petersburg, the seminary was moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg in September 1995. The Catholic Church had asked the government to return to it the building that had housed test. Petersburg Ecclesiastical Seminary, which had been confiscated in 1918. On 4 September 1995 the chief of test. Petersburg Committee of Management of City Property returned one floor of the building to the Church, and the seminary moved to St. Petersburg shortly thereafter. In 2002the seminary had about 70 diocesan and religious order students, mainly Russians and recent converts to Catholicism. Out of the nearly 300 Catholic priests in Russia in 2002, 17 were Russians.12

Nonetheless, the Catholic Church in Russia will be dependent upon foreign priests for many years to come. On 11 February 1996 Metropolitan Kondrusziewicz set up at Mary Queen of the Apostles Seminary a new Center for Vocations to the Priesthood and the Dedicated Life. Bishop Joseph Werth established minor seminaries in Novosibirskin 1993 and Vladivostok in 1996. Bishop Clemens Pickel also recently set up a minor seminary in Astrakhan.13

Catholic Charity

Another critical issue for the Catholic Church is its administration of charity. In 1991 Caritas, the international

Catholic charity organization, opened a branch in Moscow. By the mid-1990s it had five regional branches in European Russia and two east of the Urals in Novosibirsk and Vladivostok. Throughout the 1990s Caritas provided

material help to the homeless, single pensioners, and the truly needy. The largest Caritas center, in Moscow, served 942 people in 1995, almost 50 percent of whom were homeless, about 30 percent invalids, eight percent single pensioners and the rest from large or broken families. The type of aid given included 334 requests for clothes, 226 forfoodstuffs, 37 for money, 26 for physical rehabilitation, 35for employment assistance, and 270 for psychological counseling. A children’s hospital called the Holy Family Center was also opened in 1993 to help teenagers who hadneurological disorders, many of whom had attempted suicide. Most of these teenagers are homeless, orphans, or the children of broken families and alcoholics. Priests and nuns are providing them with food, clothing, and counseling, and are trying to teach them how to lead a normal life.14 Besides Caritas, other Catholic charitable organizations include American Catholic Charities, Aid to the Church in Need, and aid directly from the Vatican. In addition, various Western religious orders provide assistance from their own resources.