Life is still tough in Russia. Just ask Father Dan Maurer — the second publicly ordained Catholic priest in Russia since the 1917 revolution.
He currently serves Most Holy Mother of God parish in Vladivostok, in the far east of Russia, and is one of only two Catholic priests in their region. Father Maurer recently spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.
Where are you from? Tell me about your family.
I'm originally from Benton Harbor, Mich. I have a twin brother David and another brother, Roger, who is 11 months older. One month out of the year all three of us are the same age, so there is some sibling rivalry in the family.
My father is a retired stockbroker and my mother was a housewife.
What led to your vocation?
My vocation has always been to religious life first, and secondly as a priest. What led to it was daily Mass in Catholic grade school as a child. I loved Mass and felt it was a special place, so I wanted to continue that. I had two aunts that were Sisters of St. Joseph of Nazareth and two uncles that were Dominican seminarians. My grandmother was a Third Order Dominican.
I was going to be a Dominican, but during seventh grade a Crosier priest came to my school and I fell in love with the habit of the Crosier. After that I went to Our Lady of the Lake Crosier seminary in Syracuse, Ind. I had no idea where Syracuse was, but as it turned out it was only 75 miles away from my home. I loved every minute of it and graduated as the valedictorian.
What led you to Russia?
Following the upheaval after the Second Vatican Council, I left the Crosiers. A fellow Crosier and friend, Father Myron Effing, founded a new order of Canons Regular of Jesus the Lord. I decided to join him in the new order. Originally we were going to serve on the island of Guam, but our proposal was turned down. Father Effing had read in an Aid to the Church in Need newsletter that there would soon be a great need in the Soviet Far East and so that was our original inspiration to go to Russia.
We went to Russia because we wanted a place that needed the charism, and where we would be free to establish the charism without obstructions. We wear a full habit and we are completely faithful to Tradition and the magisterium. Yet, we are not throwbacks. We're in the modern Church, but we want to be Catholic. In 1987 there were few places in the modern Church where you could do that and obtain the sponsorship of a bishop. …
We asked to go to Russia before the fall. We wrote to the Vatican and submitted our references in 1990. We finally heard from the Vatican in June of 1991, obtained our visas, and went to Vladivostok in February of 1992.
Explain what Russia was like when you arrived.
I had absolutely no preparation and was very naive about everything. I knew that this had been a Catholic center, and I thought we were going to find Catholics. Vladivostok had the largest Catholic parish in the Asian part of Russia, so we knew that our first job would be to find the Catholics and invite them back.
We now know that there had been probably 15,000 Catholics in that parish. After more than nine years we have only been able to find six baptized Catholics who remember the Church before it was closed in 1930. Everyone else has been either killed or dispersed, so we really had to start from scratch.
Those six Catholics were little girls at the time of the repression and they grew up without the faith. When we got there they were all over the age of 70 and didn't know anything. They knew only that their parents had baptized them Catholic, that it was important to them and that if they ever got the chance they would return.
Russia is the only place in the world today, except for Communist North Korea, where the Church has to begin again from nothing. There were 300 Catholic parishes before the revolution of 1917 and during the Communist period there were two that were allowed to remain open in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The only reason that those two were allowed to remain open is because they were the property of the French government and the French government insisted that they remain open as a condition for having diplomatic relations with Russia. So they were open but they didn't always have a priest and when they did have a priest sometimes the priest wasn't allowed to talk to Russian citizens.
What have you found are the most pervasive problems in post-Communist Russia?
The problems are so pervasive it is hard to explain them without depressing others. Communism killed the spirit of the Russian people. There is no spirit left to them. There is a glassy look in their eyes and no hope, especially in the older generation because they are the ones that gave their lives to Communism and now they understand that there was something wrong with that. Yet, they don't want to understand how deeply there was something wrong with that. The average life expectancy during the last 10 years, since the fall of communism, has dropped down to 57 and I think that it is because people do not have any hope.
Another problem is the family is completely destroyed. The family is the main unit of culture where you learn how to love and share and how to connect with people. We just attended a family conference to try to understand the problems of the Russian family and the statistic that kept being repeated at this conference was that 80% of Russian marriages will end in divorce in the first four years.
About five or six years ago, someone asked me what Russian family life was like. They asked, “What do fathers do with their children?” Almost every Russian I know does not know who their father is. If 80% of marriages end in divorce in four years, who would remember their father? When the father leaves, they have no input into their children's lives. The mother raises the children.
Russia was the first country in the world to legalize abortion, in 1921. It was the only way to limit the size of the family throughout the Communist period. There was no contraception or family planning. Now, because Russians are so demoralized with such a lack of hope for the future, the average Russian woman will have multiple abortions during her childbearing lifetime. I have talked to women in the confessional that have had as many as 35. That is a holocaust of the spirit. The whole country is post-abortive and angry.
Another difficulty is alcoholism. It's rampant and at least three times higher than it is in the U.S. Traditionally, there was no way of dealing with alcoholism because the only real way we have found of dealing with it is through AA. AA is based upon a higher power and in Communism there is no higher power.
How are you responding to these problems?
We have started the first crisis pregnancy centers in all of Russia. We were able to open the first one in Vladivostok three years ago with the help of trainers from Dayton, Ohio. Since then we have opened two more in other outlying parishes. Our hope is that we might open one in each of our 11 parishes. We estimate that it will cost between $7,000 and $10,000 to start each center.
Currently there are four AA groups in Vladivostok. Outside of Vladivostok the nearest AA group is perhaps 5,000 miles away.
Do people seem to be returning to the faith?
Not in any numbers. Our parish has grown from those original six women to 400 people. While that is nice, we are in a city of 1 million, so that's a 100th of 1% of the population.
The Communists did a very thorough job of convincing the general population that religion is superfluous. They taught people that you have to be weak or stupid or crazy to need to believe in God and who wants to be thought of as weak or stupid or crazy? Therefore people are not flocking back. The group that is coming back the most are the young adults with children because they have the least to lose. The hardest group to get are the elders because they gave their lives to Communism and it is very difficult for them to admit to themselves that they were so deeply wrong and what they always knew to be true is now false.
How has your presence there positively impacted individual lives?
I have had the privilege of giving first Communion to people in their 70s that were baptized as Catholics as babies, but who were never able to make their first Communion because the revolution came. They receive the Body and Blood of Christ with tears streaming down their faces. It is a wonderful privilege to feel that the Lord has used us to complete the initiation process for these Christians.
In addition, our parish combines the corporal and spiritual works of mercy by feeding the elderly poor, feeding children on the streets, providing clothing and medicine distribution, and sending home-health-care nurses to visit the elderly poor in their homes.
The Communists always told people that the Church is just out to get what it can get, not for what it can give, so when people see Catholic Christians of any kind really giving of themselves and their time, it is an argument for the faith that they cannot ignore completely.