Posted: September 3, 2004
Interview with Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz
August 31, 2004
By John L. Allen, Jr.
NCR Rome Correspondent John L. Allen Jr. traveled to Moscow with a Vatican delegation to return a late 17th-early 18th century copy of the Icon of the Madonna of Kazan, which was presented to Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II. While in Moscow, Allen interviewed Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, head of the archdiocese "Mother of God in Moscow" and president of the Russian bishops' conference.
Allen's story on the return of the Kazan icon can be found here: Returned icon does little to warm Russian Orthodox-Vatican relations.
What was the significance of the return of the icon?
First of all, it's a sign of good will by the Holy Father, of his openness towards the Russian Orthodox Church. It's a sign of his desire to cooperate and to feel a common responsibility for the future of Christianity and of the world. It's a sign of his readiness to respond together to the challenges of the world around us, which are so great. Last Wednesday the Holy Father celebrated an event in Rome for the handing over of the icon, and his appeal there for reconciliation is very important for us. Also, I would like to underline the role of American Catholics, because they bought this icon, this image. Had it not been for them, the icon might have disappeared. Maybe today it would be in some private collection, or in some museum. Instead the icon as a subject of cult for Christians was preserved. American people prayed before the icon, and then later on in Fatima. The first time I saw the icon was in Fatima in 1991. For me also, it was something quite special and very familiar. We had a very small group of Russian Catholics that went to Fatima after the changes. I was told this icon was there, so we prayed before it. Now Now it has come back to Moscow. As Patriarch Alexy said in receiving the icon, in his speech, he underlined this very difficult, very complicated story of the icon. He underlined that not only Orthodox, but other Christians have prayed before it, so that's important from an ecumenical point of view. It was said by the patriarch. I was touched very much by his words that devotion to Our Lady brings us to the time of the undivided church. That's what we are searching for now, unity. Maybe Our Lady can help us create a new climate. I see this new climate now. I don't know if you noticed at the Kremlin between the ceremony and the lunch, but there were a lot of people coming up to us, saying 'Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving us this icon.' I felt there's this very new climate. Maybe it's rudimentary, but it's something new. Yesterday Patriarch Alexyn II sent his message to the Holy Father. He mentions in his message that the transfer of the icon to the Russian Orthodox Church may help create dialogue between our churches. For me, it's quite a significant event. Also, our news media, means of communication, gave it quite a bit of attention, starting with the event in the Vatican. I wasn't able to follow everything, but it was quite nice. Also, look at how many people came to the cathedral in the Kremlin, and they were praying. There's a new sensitivity from all people, and everyone's speaking to one another. There was a reception at the nunciatura last Friday with a lot of people from different offices of the government, and they were touched very much with this event, with the will of the Holy Father. It seems to me that we are now in the stage of creating a new climate, and we have to try to do our best in this development that God wants.
So you feel the response from the Orthodox has been positive?
In his remarks during the liturgy Saturday, Alexy said he hoped the return of the icon would signal a change in policy from the Vatican. What did you take that to mean?
I don't know. I would like to see this event in positive terms. Of course, we have to cooperate, we have to speak, we have to stay together. These four days we spent together were not just intended to transfer the icon to the Russian Orthodox Church, but to promote mutual dialogue. We touched a lot of problems in speaking with one another, even if we didn't make any decisions. We know better one another's positions. If you are speaking you can find things out, there is a chance, there is a future, there is a hope. If you're not talking, it's very bad.
How many Catholics are there in Russia?
Well, actually before 1917 there were about 800,000. There was data, we can check. Now we say there are around 600,000. On the other hand, for the last five, six, seven years, we see the results of polls that say the number has to be one percent of the Russian population, which would be one and a half million. We don't know, but it could be, because of the dispersion.
So it could be as many as one and a half million, and as few as 600,000? Could it be less?
No, I don't think so.
Is that number growing?
Let's take the example of Moscow. Before all the changes, before the beginning of the 1990s, there were only three Masses in Moscow. Now on Sunday we have 27 Masses in 12 languages.
That seems like growth.
It's difficult to say. No one knew before about our situation. It's difficult to say if the numbers are growing. The Germans, for example, are leaving. But I'd like to underline something else. There's a joke from the 1930s, when a five-year plan for the destruction of the church was announced. Nothing must remain. Nothing of this tradition should remain. Two officials went to the church, and saw just some Babushkas, some old ladies. They thought, it's a very easy task we have received from our government. After five years, all those women will die and everything will be solved. Five years later they go back and again there are Babushkas. One says to the other, how long are these Babushkas going to live in the church? Meanwhile, obviously, they had been preparing the next generation. Eventually it will be more than Babushkas in the church. It's a bit like that for us. In the early 1990s, we were baptizing young people in their twenties and thirties, even middle-aged adults in their forties and fifties. Probably 80 percent of our baptisms, even 90 percent, were in such ages. Now it's completely different. Basically, we are baptizing babies. The quality of the church is changing. That for me is important.
Because the faith is being transmitted naturally from one generation to the next?
Yes, yes. It gives hope, and it's a quality of the Catholic Church that is sort of different. We don't have statistical data, because a lot of people are afraid to be counted. That's why it's very difficult to say. They're afraid because they remember old times. But this other change is itself a kind of growth that I believe is very important.
I asked about growth because, as you well know, the Moscow Patriarchate has repeatedly expressed concern about Catholic 'proselytism.' Their perception is that Catholicism is growing very rapidly. Is that real?
Well, I do not agree with this accusation, and that's why we have to discuss each case. Not to just say things in general, but please give us a concrete case. Let us start there. In general, we have no such policy. Personally myself, after the Second Vatican Council declared that Orthodox churches have the same sacraments and the same means of salvation, there is no need for such a policy. On the other hand, if someone comes to me and says I would like to be a Catholic, what can I do? Can I send him out? It would be against my conscience as a bishop, as a priest. But it's not proselytism. We are not standing in front of the Russian Orthodox Church and asking them to not go there, but to come to us. Absolutely not, absolutely not. That's why we need to discuss every case. We also need to accept a common definition of what proselytism means. In part, there seems to be a different understanding of freedom of conscience. We say that, according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, freedom of conscience is based on the recognition of human dignity. America is a very special country, but let's take Germany. If a German says tomorrow he'd like to be Orthodox, who can stop him? That's why I have this response. Let me put it this way: if we have this policy of proselytism, if it's the policy of the Vatican, the Holy Father should remove me immediately from Moscow because I've not done anything!
Of those cases you described, an Orthodox person exercising freedom of conscience and coming to the Catholic Church, does that happen very often?
No. If we have them, it's largely people who are not baptized. But they have to go for one year of catechism, and this is a time to make a decision.
My impression is that it doesn't happen very much.
It's very rare.
Any sense of how many?
No, not really.
No, I'd say in these 13 years maybe several hundred. But it's very difficult to say.
You mentioned the need to talk about cases. In speaking with Orthodox officials, they cited several cases: orphanages in which Orthodox children are exposed to Catholicism, for example, or Spanish nuns who teach the catechism along with the Spanish language. Are such cases real?
I was told about these Spanish sisters. If it's the case, it was in Vladivostok. I don't know exactly. They teach the Spanish language, okay. I don't know what they said. We have to speak, we have to discuss. That's why I'm very grateful to His Eminence Cardinal Kasper, who was able to persuade, to manage to create, this commission. It was his idea to create this mixed commission, this joint commission, to look at the cases. I don't know what happened. For example, if I go to the university, if I were to be invited, I can imagine that the students would ask me about the Catholic Church, about some aspects of the church. Probably some students were also asking them.
An Orthodox official also told me about priests going into the state schools and bringing children small gifts around the time of the Catholic Christmas. This was seen as an example of proselytism. That could seem normal pastoral work.
Yes. About this orphanage, the best solution according to me is to invite Russian Orthodox priests to come to this orphanage and to take care of the children.
They said this is happening in Yaroslav.
Well, what's happening not far from Yaroslav is not an orphanage, but a center to help people get off drugs. Now for example here in Moscow there is a religious community of the Catholic Church, the Sisters of the Holy Family, who take care of children and young people from difficult families, families struggling with divorce and drugs and so on. They take these children to the Orthodox Church. It's a very good example. I saw even some photos, when the Orthodox priest was baptizing these children, and our sister was standing there watching. Of course she had prepared these children, she brought them, so she wanted to be there. We have these good examples also. Using this commission, we have to discuss these problems. I do help it will help us.
Is the commission meeting now?
In September, here in Moscow.
Who is on it?
There are three members from the Russian Orthodox Church, and three members from the Catholic Church. Fr. Jozef Maj, for example, who was here from the Vatican, is on our commission.
Are you on it?
No, these are only priests. The last time the commission met, it discussed our problems. For example, many times it can be difficult to meet with an Orthodox bishop. So now it was decided that when a Catholic bishop would like to meet with an Orthodox bishop, he will send a copy of the letter also to the patriarchate. Maybe it will help.
Should the Catholic Church be growing in Russia?
We are here for Catholics and for those who in conscience, with good will, would like to be Catholics. That's my answer. How many will that be? Who knows?
So it's not important that the Catholic Church in Russia get bigger?
Well, we have to take care of our Catholics. If the poll says there are a million and half and we don't know them … we don't know how to reach them. We don't find how to find them because the communities are dispersed, there's not so many communities, and so on. We are preaching the gospel. We are not carrying out this 'mission' of which we were accused very often, meaning proselytism. We are not going to do this, and we did not do this. But the church is missionary by its very nature, preaching the gospel.
What would be among your pastoral goals?
Look, in Moscow there are 27 Masses every Sunday and we have only two churches. How do we hold 27 Masses in two churches? We have to say Mass in the American embassy, in the German embassy, and other places. We are trying to open some pastoral points here in Moscow. For sure, if there are more pastoral points, more churches, in Moscow, there will be more Catholics. They'll come because right now it's difficult to get to a Mass. But this is a matter of serving Catholics and those who would like to be Catholics, without any policy of proselytism. I myself am against such a policy. I've repeated this 100 times, so now let it be 101. In Russian we say that until 100 it's not so big, but 101 is very big.
What about the restitution of the third traditional parish in Moscow, Sts. Peter and Paul?
It's very, very difficult because the church was privatized. Now it's private property, it belongs to the coal company.
In the short term, it's not going to happen?
You're looking for other space?
We bought one house, but it needs to be remodeled, fixed up.
I know that you have been helped on several projects by major donors such as Renovabis and Kirche-in-Not from Germany and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Not just those three …
Sure, sometimes you're preaching someplace and someone offers support.
Is money a constant struggle for you?
Yes. Maybe it's the difference between bishops from the United States and Germany, and those of us in Russia.
You're a fundraiser much of the time?
Yes, we have to take care not only of our pastoral work but also pay the bills.
Do you have a dream of how the financial situation could be stabilized?
It's very difficult, and I don't know how to solve the problem. Most of our people are poor. Very rich people are not eager to help. I don't know about other churches, but that's our situation. I don't see how we can manage on our own. I think we're going to continue to need help from abroad.
Is there donor fatigue these days?
It's the financial crisis that we see abroad, especially in Europe. If I have no money, or less money, to give you, I may be willing to help you, but perhaps I can't give what I gave last year.
What are the two or three main projects for which you need help?
In my diocese, 37 percent of parishes have no place for worship. We need to build new churches or new chapels, it's one of the priorities.
How many parishes in the archdiocese?
Seventy. Later on, I have to finish this curia building at the cathedral. Later on, we have to pay big attention to the pastoral work with youth, organizing some events for them, some discussions, some pilgrimages. All this costs money. We need help for pastoral activity in many different directions. Mass media, for example. We are facing a lot of financial difficulties with our Catholic newspaper. It would be good to have not just this centralized paper, but others in other regions. My diocese is divided into three regions, with the central one here in Moscow, then St. Petersburg and Kalinigrad. It's sort of an enclave, so it would be nice for them to have some support. It's also important to train lay people with some courses. In Moscow we have a college, but in other regions we don't have the possibility.
Do you also need help with the seminary?
Sure, yes, also the seminary. Thanks to God, right now we're able to support it with Renovabis, Kirche-in-Not and the American bishops' conference. But we haven't finished renovations in the seminary, and it's the highest priority. This year in my diocese we have nine candidates for the seminary.
Yes, Russians. I don't know if all nine will be accepted, but we have nine applications.
Is that a high number?
For the last few years, yes.
What's the average?
Three or four.
How do you explain the growth?
It seems to me that during the last three or four years we started active work with altar boys. Twice a year we organize retreats for them with liturgical experiences, sport, and so on. We visit the villages twice a year, so six times a year. Basically these vocations are from altar boys. The Holy Father also mentions this in one of his recent documents.
All of this sounds like normal pastoral activity.
Of course I know abroad no one likes to hear about construction. But my aim is not just to build nice buildings with walls, but also inside those walls to provide the necessary pastoral activity.
It's a special challenge, isn't it, because you have to think not just about which things to do, but how they will be seen by the Orthodox. You don't want to do anything that would be seen as aggressive.
Yes, yes. That's why, for example, we are inviting Orthodox and Protestants for different meetings, and for ecumenical prayer. That's also why this commission was established.
So that when you open a church, it's clear that this is not about trying to steal believers.
Yes, that's one of the aims of this commission. For example, one month ago we had our meeting, a Youth Day, of Russian young people in Irkursk. We sent official invitations to the Russian Orthodox Church. We informed them that we are organizing this and if you wish you can attend.
Did they come?
Officially no, but there were some people who came, who wanted to be with us … young people. There is a problem here. How will it be judged from the other side? Next year we will have this World Youth Day in Cologne. From my experience, we will have a lot of requests from young Russian Orthodox people to go. It would be good to send some Orthodox priests with them to stay. So we are going to discuss this, what to do. I'm sure the young people will come. Sometimes they come by themselves, and they join us later on. Even I don't know. Usually I'm invited by the Pontifical Council for Laity for preaching, for catechism. I started in 1991 in Czestochowa, and I don't know if I'm going to Cologne or not but I haven't missed even one. I have this experience that suddenly they appear, they come. They are Orthodox, they are Russians, and they appear, saying we would like to stay. What can we do? I can't tell them to go away. It would be very good if the Russian Orthodox Church can send their priests. It's my proposition for the commission. I don't know if they're talking about this now, because we have a lot of problems here and they have just started.
Do you ever feel that the local church is too timid to carry out its pastoral life for fear of not giving offense to the Orthodox?
Once more we come back to this commission. We have to explain that this kind of pastoral activity is not a sign of proselytism, of a policy of proselytism. Very often our activity has been charged as a form of proselytism.
You don't feel that concern is stopping you from doing anything?
No. We are preaching the gospel, we are catechizing children and young people, our commissions are working as they worked before. I can't say that things are going as they should be going, because we don't have enough facilities, but that's another thing. It's a matter of material resources and also our possibilities. We don't have enough Russian priests.
In your diocese, how many priests are there?
There are about 120 altogether. Ninety percent of them are foreigners.
How many in religious orders?
More than sixty percent. All these priests are from 22 different countries.
What number of priests would be right for the pastoral activity you're trying to carry out?
If I had another 20 priests, it would be good, very good. There are some places where the priest goes once a month, where we have no parish, only a pastoral point. Maybe he goes once every two or three months. This is very, very difficult. Another problem is when the priest stays alone, in places far distant. This too is very difficult. For example, in Murmansk. It's very, very difficult. But the basic problem is to prepare native priests, to have a good number of vocations. That's the pastoral work of vocations.
Your numbers are up this year. Is there a similar increase in other dioceses?
In 1991, in all of Russia, there were only seven priests. Two of them were older than 80. Today there are 270 priests. It depends on the size of the diocese, it depends on the ability of the bishop to find priests, and so on.
Of those 270, most are not Russians.
Oh yes, 90 or 92 percent are not Russians.
What has to be done?
Well, to intensify pastoral work among young people, vocations pastoral work. Taking care of altar boys is important. Now we try to send, in the last two or three years, our seminarians and professors in the seminary to the different parishes on Sundays to present the seminary, to allow these young people to see the seminarians and ask questions, and so on.
I've interviewed sociologists of religion in Russia who described the growth in Protestantism. Why is all the attention on Catholic proselytism?
I have no answer.
Is Protestantism growing?
Yes, they have a lot of missions. In Moscow alone, I was told there are more than 100 Baptist communities. They are very active.
Is there still hope for a papal visit to Russia?
I hope so, I hope we will have the day when the pope comes here. Everything is in the hands of God.
What would it mean to the Russian church?
The Holy Father has always visited Catholic communities all around the world. He has not been to Moscow, to Byelorussia, to China, to North Korea, to Vietnam … there are only a few countries. He has visited countries not only with a Catholic majority, but ones with absolutely a Catholic minority, even places such as Azerbaijan. So the Catholic Church here in Russia, with a very long, very painful, but very proud history and tradition … the first Catholic parishes appeared in Russia in the 12th century. For us it would be very good if the Holy Father comes to us to strengthen our faith, to give us new hope in this secularized society. Everybody likes to meet his spiritual leader.
Surely his primary message would respect and brotherhood for the Orthodox.
Sure. Also to create a climate, to strengthen ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.
It would not be a triumphalistic pope riding into Moscow to declare a Catholic victory.
No, absolutely. Sometimes you can hear such opinions, like the Fatima message was about making Russia a Catholic country. No, as I've said many times, it spoke about the conversion of Russia but not making Russia a Catholic country. It's absolutely wrong thinking.
A couple of personal questions. Where were you born?
In Byelorussia. I was a bishop in Minsk in Byelorussia, from 1989 to 1991. I was apostolic administrator in Byelorussia. I studied in Kaunas in Lithuania.
Did you study abroad?
Where did you pick up your English?
You've never studied in an English-speaking country?
It was forbidden. We didn't have any possibility to go abroad. 1989 was the first time as a priest I went to Poland. I was carrying a lot of books, and the customs told me that I had the right to bring only two books. I had a whole sack of them. I discussed with them, about religious culture and so on, and they waved me through.
Your family is Polish?
Polish from Byelorussia.
Given the historical difficulties between Russians and Poles, has your background ever been an issue here?
I don't know. No one told me.
Is that antagonism still alive?
It's gone away. Here in Russia I never was told something about this. In Byelorussia, it was a very sensitive problem, with services in the Polish language. I started immediately with the Byelorussian language when I was bishop, even though I was there just one year and a half. I printed immediately about 100,000 cathechisms in Byelorussian, also the Order of the Mass, about 50,000. Here you can hear something sometimes, but basically no, it's not a problem. There are priests from Poland, but for them it's easier to enter into these circumstances, to get the language and the culture and so on. But altogether, priests and nuns here are from 22 countries. We celebrate Mass in 12 languages. Yesterday, we had Mass in Armenian, with a lot of people. We have Korean, and so on. We're searching for a priest who speaks Vietnamese.
How often do you come to the United States?
I go once a year, but last year I was not there so I leave tomorrow. I'll be in Washington a week, for meetings with the bishops' conference and also Aid to the Church in Russia. They're celebrating the tenth anniversary of the installations.
What kind of support do you get from the U.S. bishops?
We discuss projects. Sometimes they give a grant for a diocese and the bishop spends it, but we have to report how it is spent. It's good, substantial support. We receive support from Germany, the United States and Italy. The U.S. bishops have supported the seminary, which is for all Russia, and the building of the curia building here. Also St. Katherine's Church in St. Petersburg. The bishop of St. Petersburg in Florida is helping also. We have a twin relationship, between the 'real' St. Petersburg and the one in Florida. I was there once, I preached in the cathedral. Basically, I would say they have helped in many, many projects. When we are building a church, no one can pay the entire cost, so we take some from here and some from there.
Last question: How do you see the future of the Catholic Church in Russia?
The Catholic Church always was a church of a minority, and will remain the church of a minority. I would like to build our churches, our parishes. Also, the church must be developed according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. This means more activity of lay people, but with the sensus ecclesiae of the lay people, not just to say something but to do something. I'm pleased. We have not reached the highest point, but we are on the way of this development. Also, we need to develop our commissions for pastoral work. The other priority, and I have been talking about this since 1991, is to have a good relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, to help each other. We can bring our experience of the Catholic Church to our brothers. Together with them, we can develop Christian values and can promote inter-religious dialogue, which is very important. There is a huge Muslim community here, also Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, and so on. We also have a to build a bridge with the society. Society is very, very interested in the position of the Catholic Church. I am pleased with these relationships, including relations with academic society and the government.
National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 2004