Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, appointed apostolic administrator to European Russia by Pope John Paul II in 1991, has been faced with tough challenges in Russia's emerging democracy. A measure enacted by the government last fall has posed serious threats to the Catholic Church's continued existence in the former Soviet republic.

During the archbishop's recent visit to the United States, Register assistant editor Peter Sonski spoke to him about the so-called “religious freedom” legislation, Catholic relations with the Orthodox Church in Russia, and the effects of political and economic transition on the Russian people.

Personal: Ethnic Pole, born in 1946 in Odelsk (part of Belarus); entered seminary in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1976 and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Vilnius, (Lithuania) in 1981. Ordained titular bishop of Ippona Zarito and appointed apostolic administrator or Minsk (Belarus) by Pope John Paul II in 1989; made apostolic administrator of European Russia in 1991, a 2.5 million square-mile jurisdiction.

Education: Studied physics and mathematics at the Pedagogical Institute of Grodno until 1962, when as a practicing Christian, he was forced to leave by the Communist Party; later studied engineering at the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute; received a licentiate in sacred theology (STL) from the Kaunas diocesan seminary in 1985.

Background: Founded two seminaries and a Catholic college (to educate catechists) and re-opened more than 125 parish churches in former Soviet Republics; has overseen the distribution of tens of thousands of copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Roman Missal in Polish and Russian translations.

Sonski: You've stated that since the enactment of Russia's “religious freedom” law there hasn't been much change for the Catholic Church there. Do you foresee changes coming?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: We haven't had any difficulties with the new law. In practical terms, the Church has been without too many obstacles. It is not as though there may not be some problems, but we have no norms of application [statutes of the law] as yet.

But they're being drafted?

The government will draft them, but unfortunately, up to today, they have not. So, the law is in a static state. It doesn't work yet [because the norms haven't been defined]. We now need to prepare for the future re-registration of the parishes, and so on. We will face some difficulties with re-registration but I hope we will be able to re-register all our structures.

I have already prepared a proposal for the apostolic administration's status. I am ready to go to the minister of justice when it is announced that it is possible to do so.

Do you think that the Church will have some input on these statutes or decrees? Will the government take your recommendations into consideration?

Well, they sent us proposals and asked for our recommendations. I met with some officials in the Russian government a few months ago and I feel that we will be re-registered, with some difficulties, as I mentioned. We will face difficulties with the re-registration of religious orders, and practically speaking, I am very, very doubtful that all the religious orders will be re-registered, maybe except the Jesuits, Franciscans, and some others that were in the current territory—the current borders of the Russian federation—before 1917.

To be re-registered as an apostolic administration, or as a religious order, first you need to re-register at a centralized location. In order to do this you need to have three already-registered parishes or religious communities. Currently, we have 96 parishes, so I feel we will not have difficulty. But, to re-register independent religious orders—for example, the Jesuit order in Russia—you must have three monasteries. They [the Jesuits] don't have even one—so that is a problem.

Technically, they would have to stop [their ministry] and wait 15 years [to re-register]. But they have been in Russia for a long time—before 1917—so I believe they have a right to declare this fact and to continue their work. For other orders, such as the Salesians-new orders, that had never been in Russia before 1917—it is very, very difficult.

We are lucky, in some cases, because the Church is centralized. All 96 parishes belong to the apostolic administration and new parishes, which were established two, three, five years ago, which never existed before 1917—we have such parishes—do not need to wait 15 years, because these parishes, though newly erected, belong to the apostolic administration, which is a Russian centralized religious organization. I emphasize that term: Russian centralized religious organization. We are lucky in this case, because paragraph 27 [of the law] is very, very difficult for all religious establishments that do not belong to a centralized religious organization. They face enormous difficulties.

In hindsight, do you think the Catholic Church did all it could during the debate and discussions about this bill to forestall any adverse effects?

We did what we could. Immediately after it was approved [in the Russian Parliament] last July, the Holy Father sent a letter, and the U.S. Congress and bishops' conference protested. Also, I sent a letter to President [Boris] Yeltsin urging him not to sign it. He didn't sign.

He vetoed the bill?

Yes, he vetoed, and we were very happy. But in three months he signed. I participated in maybe five or six meetings discussing some changes—I was not able to participate in all meetings. It was so difficult—practically impossible. What I achieved was in the introduction to the law; the preamble was changed. They changed it to include a definition of Christianity. That was my idea.

Another thing, we avoided so-called “pan-Russian religious organizations.” In previous texts, such a description existed, but now, there is no mention. It is very important for us because, in our current state, we never would be able to accept such status, in Russian religious reorganization. It was very difficult, but I was supported by Muslims. There are about 20 million, maybe 22 million, Muslims in Russia, but they are not present in more than half of the Russian federations, in only 45 or so regions of Russia, so they supported me in the centralized approach.

The Orthodox did not invite you, or the papal nuncio, to participate in their Christmas celebrations last year for the second straight year. Dialogue continues, but issues of proselytism and confiscation of churches remain sources of contention between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church.

Yes, you're right. I was not invited; the nuncio wasn't invited. We were not invited last Easter and last Christmas. I don't know what happened, but nevertheless, we do what we can do.

Are the Orthodox more cooperative with other religious denominations in Russia? It seems to me that they are more friendly with the Muslims and Buddhists in Russia than they are with the Russian Catholics.

Well, as I mentioned, there are 20 million or 22 million Muslims in Russia, and they play quite a remarkable role in Russian society. Now, we have a lot of contacts, but…. Maybe it's not significant that we were not invited to participate. I don't know; I don't know why we were not invited. I don't know about the Protestants—whether or not they were invited—but I have never seen them at the celebrations before.

How are you handling the relations with the Orthodox in terms of their anxieties about proselytism?

I made a lot of statements and I don't agree with such accusations [of proselytism] against the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church in Russia has not existed for just the past five, six, or seven years. Some of its parishes were established in the 12th century. It's true that we have been, and are currently, in the minority, but I do not agree with these accusations and I am against such [a practice]- especially after the Second Vatican Council announced that the Orthodox Church is our sister Church.

But on the other hand, it is a choice, for each person, to go to one Church or to another Church. And every Russian, pure Russian, has a choice to go to the Orthodox Church, or to the Catholic Church—or to be a Buddhist or a Muslim. It is his choice, and now more and more the Eastern religions are coming to Russia. I know a lot of Russians who belong to these religions.

Is it your understanding that the Church in Russia is there to shepherd the Catholic faithful exclusively, or do they serve the additional objective of assisting the needs of the Russian people—the spiritual needs of those people?

First of all, I see my service and that of the Catholic Church as being to Catholics, but we are open to others. We do not say “Don't go to the Orthodox Church, come to us.” But we are open. The doors of our Church are open for everybody and I can't say to pure Russians, “I do not baptize you; please go out from my church and go to the Orthodox Church.” This would be a violation of his right. [The churches] are open for everybody. First of all, they are for the Catholics, but we are open for everybody.

And the second thing, I see the mission of the Catholic Church to help the Russian Orthodox Church, especially in the area of catechization-because under the communists, during the three generations, the 70 years of persecution, all the Churches were suppressed. All the Churches were persecuted, but especially the Orthodox Church. She was closed, so they had no means for catechization. They had no developed social teaching. A lot of people are coming to us, so we can help with this—and also with charitable activities. In many cases we are helping.

Recently I met with local [Orthodox] authorities, and the archbishop, who was very pleased with the translation of the new Catechism into the Russian language. He asked me, “Please send us as many copies as possible to the seminary and to our parishes, because we can use this material.” He was ecstatic. This is also our service—for the Universal Church, for the salvation of the people.

A lot of people, including the Orthodox hierarchy, have asked for copies [of documents] of the Church's social teaching. It is very useful to them also. For example, in our college of Catholic theology in Moscow, dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas, about 30% of students are Orthodox. I don't know another theological school in Russia with such openings for everybody.

No one came to me and declared, “I don't like to be Orthodox, I would like to be Catholic.” They remain Orthodox, but they are receiving some knowledge. It's the same in the West. I don't know about America, but I hope that there are not only Catholics in Catholic universities. It seems to me that it is true here as well.

I would like to underline once more, we are for the Catholics, but we are open for everybody.

Catholic and Orthodox celebrations this past Christmas attracted unprecedented numbers. Is there a religious revitalization going on in Russia?

Yes. I never have seen so many people during Christmas. I was present in two churches in Moscow. Later, I visited several churches and received information from different regions that there the participation during Christmas was very, very big. Our churches and chapels were overcrowded. You're right. It is a sign, not of revitalization, but evangelization.

On the other hand, it was in 1992 or 1993 that a lot of people left our services. Those who remained, I believe, know why they come to the Church. Now it is not enough to say that God exists, and that it is very useful for people to believe in God, and so on. The people, especially young people of intelligence, like to have presented profound Church teaching or catechization.

What has been your relationship with Bishop Joseph Werth SJ in the Siberia region? Do you desire a closer cooperation and is there hope of forming a bishops' conference of sorts?

Well, to create a bishops' conference, we need some more bishops. We are only two, so it is difficult. But we have a lot of common problems. We share the diocesan seminary in Moscow, about which we meet very often. When he travels there he stops at my house. We have many things in common: Caritas, and some other things.

If not a bishops' conference in Russia, what about in the ex-Soviet republics?

I had such an idea even in 1991, but it was very difficult to realize. It was a time when many republics were struggling for freedom, and to organize such a conference, practically, was impossible. Maybe in the future we will have something.

We have some meetings. Quite often I go to Lithuania. I have close relationships with the bishops in Belarus and Ukraine. From time to time we have meetings to discuss or develop pastoral direction. It is very important to us because of personnel. Most of our priests came from different countries, from abroad. They come from different traditions and have different mentalities than our people, so it is very important to have some guidelines, some common direction, especially in catechization.

We have printed several books on catechization in Russia. There are handbooks for children and also some guidelines for nuns and other religious teachers. Because if one sister is from Poland, the second one from the Czech Republic, the third one from the Slovak republic, and another from Korea or Mexico or France, it is very difficult for them even to know how to organize and present the material. That is why it is important to have not only the handbooks for the children but also some direction for religious teachers.

What is the Church doing to help the Russian people who are experiencing hardships as they move from communism to democracy and a market-driven economy?

There are a lot of difficulties- economic difficulties—for the people, so we have Caritas, something like Catholic Charities in the United States. And we have a very good relationship with Caritas Germany, Caritas Italy, and also with Catholic Relief Service. Now we are developing a national Caritas of Russia, so there is also close cooperation between Moscow and international programs.

Another problem is the spiritual needs of the people. Because nearly 70 years of persecution in Russia has left us in a spiritual vacuum. The sensibility of people for religion is very great but, as I mentioned previously, they like to receive very profound teaching from the Church. We are occupied not only with the building of churches, not only with material or financial help, but first of all with spiritual help for the people. I mean not only catechization, not only religious services in churches and parishes, but also special programs, such as family programs.

About 48% of families are affected by divorce in Russia. It is a very difficult problem, especially for the young people. We used to organize, every year, days in parishes in different regions as well as in Moscow for young people. Every year we try to organize a pilgrimage for young people though it is very difficult without support—often impossible because it costs too much money.

Speaking of pilgrimages, last year the international Pilgrim Virgin statue from Fatima toured all of Russia. It was there nine months. You spoke afterwards, in your homily at Fatima, about the joy the people experienced. This was a pilgrimage of Mary, of sorts, throughout your country.

Yes, it was amazing. People were so enthusiastic—and not only Catholics but also Orthodox. It was very, very important for us and especially for religious education, especially with spiritual development, because it was not only a pilgrimage of the statue in this parish and that parish, but before the statue came to every parish, three days of recollection took place. It was a spiritual preparation of the parish, spiritual preparation of the people. It was, I would say, a kind of recollection of all Catholics in Russia.

On the anniversary of the very day when the revolution took place in St. Petersburg, the statue was there. After the principal Mass we went to the site where the revolution began and prayed. Later on we went to the Winter Palace, and to the very famous prison where thousands and thousands of people were killed in the revolution. We prayed with the statue.

It was very moving and impressive. We put the statue in Red Square. Later on I brought a photo of it there to the Holy Father. He was so emotional at seeing the image of Our Lady being venerated [in the former heart of communism], that he didn't know how to respond other than to recall the words of President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic: “It's a miracle.”

—Peter Sonski

------- EXCERPT: Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz leads a people learning to live after communism