WASHINGTON — The changes for Christians in Central and Eastern Europe have been steady since the fall of communism, and a Lenten collection has played a major role in that.
Parishes take up a second collection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Aid to the Churches of Central and Eastern Europe on Ash Wednesday or any Sunday in Lent.
The needs are many and varied. Churches turned into warehouses under the old regimes have to be rebuilt and destroyed ones replaced. Seminarians need support. People must be catechized, communication programs renewed, and elderly and orphans helped.
Msgr. R. George Sarauskas, who until last July headed the Office for Aid to the Churches of Central and Eastern Europe for 13 years, pointed out how dire the situation is in many places.
“When we first went into Albania, there were only 11 priests alive in the country, and they were all over 70,” he said. “You can't have a [local] Church without leadership.”
Latvia's seminary in Riga, for example, lacked a proper faculty. With the office's help, Father Paul Klavins was able to study at Catholic University of America in Washington under theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles and returned as vice rector of the seminary.
And priest-physician Father Andrius Narbekovas could study bioethics and family issues at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family. Today he's teaching and speaking on Lithuanian TV.
Currently, Father Benone Farkas is studying for his doctorate in canon law at Catholic University. From Romania, he spent four years in Moldova, where he will return to be vicar general after receiving his degree this summer.
“It's the poorest country in Europe right now,” Father Farkas said.
His diocese of Chisinau, established in 2001, covers the entire country. It serves about 20,000 Catholics among a mostly Orthodox population of 4.5 million.
Father Farkas listed several vital projects in need of the aid office's help.
“First, to build churches, which for a Western mind might seem kind of useless,” he said. “But we could-n't build any church for more than 50 years. The old ones are badly in need of repairs. And after the economy collapsed, the possibility of people building their own churches decreased dramatically. They could hardly support their own families. The Greek Catholics were celebrating Mass in the squares.”
“Also, there is a very ugly face with the new freedom in Moldova — a lot of human trafficking,” he said. An organization is bringing back and helping women, now prostitutes in Italy.
“It's very difficult and dangerous work” made possible by the funding, he said.
Need for Buildings
Some critics have complained the funds should be spent on social programs rather than church structures.
“We did try to avoid putting all the money into bricks and mortar,” Msgr. Sarauskas said. “But in Russia, the churches were turned into warehouses. Literally there was no place to gather. That was one place we started to make an exception for church buildings. In Romania we celebrated the Byzantine Liturgy outdoors even in winter next to a church the Orthodox took over and the government didn't return [to us].”
In Moscow, the aid office helped to restore the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, one of only two Catholic church buildings there. Today, 11 parishes meet in that one building.
Seminaries are in the same straits. Jesuit Father James McCann, the new head of the Office for Aid to the Churches of Central and Eastern Europe, describes a Latin-rite seminary in Lviv, Ukraine, converted from an old Soviet resort. The library is in the swimming pool.
“The students and staff have to lower themselves on ladders to get to the books,” he said. “Clearly, there's a great need.”
Father McCann experienced the needs firsthand. Before heading the office, he worked at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Astana, Kazakhstan, a parish Pope John Paul II visited. He said even in the usual 40-below-zero weather people came to church on Sunday.
“They walk a considerable distance,” he said. “It's something to see. It's very moving to celebrate Mass where there was great danger before.”
Realizing the dire needs of the Eastern European countries after the fall of communism, the U.S. bishops instituted the collection in 1991 to help tackle the massive task of rebuilding the Church and the faith there. To date, more than $75 million has been collected to help thousands of Church projects in 27 poor Central and Eastern European countries.
But the needs far outweigh that amount. In 2002, for example, the office received requests for aid totaling nearly $13.5 million, or about double what was collected.
“The decisions where the money is to be spent are made almost entirely by the bishops in those countries,” Msgr. Sarauskas noted. “The choice of projects has always been theirs.”
The funds stretch over vast expanses, literally and figuratively.
Because the Catholic population is so widespread, radio and TV communications are urgent.
“In those early days it was to get the message out — ‘We're back, we can worship again,’” Msgr. Sarauskas said. Now it catechizes and evangelizes.
In 1993, the collection launched Latvia's TV Studio Emmanuel. Today, its weekly show is the only Catholic program other than the weekly Mass that's aired. It broadcasts programs about the sacraments, the rosary and other aspects of the faith.
“We also put on people strong in the Catholic faith who are strong, prayerful witnesses and who got answers from God in dark situations,” explained Inta Zegenere, one of the show's producers. “We say the Church is alive and God's presence is here; prayers are answered here.”
The program is broadcast throughout Latvia on a prime time Sunday afternoon spot on free air-time on one of Latvia's two national channels.
After each program, some viewers call asking for a copy to show their children, Zegenere said. About half the population of Latvia is Catholic.
“Without aid from the office's collection the show wouldn't be possible at all,” she said.
The office funds training for lay catechists and things as simple as providing large print prayer books for elderly people or supporting nuns.
“One of the most striking things about the collection is that American Catholics are giving a witness to the support of the larger Church,” Father McCann said. It gives the recipients “a sense of the universal Church.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.