National Catholic Register


Running the World’s Largest Jesuit Region

BY Jonathan Luxmoore

December 15-21, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/15/96 at 1:00 AM


Polish visitator faces huge cultural, material odds

Father Stanislaw Opiela, 58, has been Moscow-based Superior of the Independent Russian Region of the Jesuits since August 1992, covering all the former Soviet Union except the Baltic states. Born at Zamosc, Poland, he joined the Jesuits at age 16, and was ordained in 1970 by Cardinal Jean Danielou after studying in Chanteuil and Lyon, France. After obtaining his doctorate a Rome's Gregorian University, he edited the Polish order's re-founded Przeglad Powszechny monthly, as well as ministering to interned opposition activists under martial law. He was appointed Jesuit visitator and superior of the new region four years ago, after serving as Jesuit provincial for central Poland. He spoke with the Register during a visit to Gdynia, Poland.

Register: When you arrived in Russia in 1992, as head of the world's geographically-largest Jesuit organization, you had only 27 Jesuits under you. Calling it a “region” ratherthan “province” reflected this lack of personnel and resources. How much has been achieved in these four years?

Father Opiela: Even today, we still have only 35 Jesuits to cover the whole of the former Soviet Union. This number includes 12 currently undergoing formation and four beginning the first stage of initiation. Not all are from abroad; there are some Russian-German Jesuits who recently began acting openly again after many years in hiding. Most are working in parishes, although there are also small communities in Moscow and Novosibirsk. In Novosibirsk, they're helping Bishop Joseph Werth with his apostolic administration of Siberia. Besides the bishop himself, the vicar-general is a Jesuit, while other Jesuits are running the pre-seminary school and assisting with financial matters.

We decided to open a spiritual-cultural center in Novosibirsk deliberately—not only for Catholics, but for other religions too. It's still only at the beginning. In a city of 2 million, where Catholics are thrown over a wide area, our work is physically difficult, but it's gradually becoming more efficient.

We hope to organize a similar center in Moscow. However, there are administrative and financial problems there. Although we have official authorization, we haven't been able to obtain premises yet, since we're being asked to pay $3,000 per square meter of a derelict building.

In 18th century Russia, Jesuit centers in Moscow and St. Petersburg were known for their great erudition, and Jesuits were sought after as teachers and counselors. In 1820 though, the tsar closed the order and expelled its priests. How much of that original Jesuit legacy survives today?

There is a very low opinion of Jesuits in Russia—we are known as the “black devils.” When people see that we're not actually black, they usually change their view. We've needed a lot of time to overcome these bad, negative stereotypes. Those who come to our events and get to know us have a more positive attitude. But at the first meeting, they always look carefully to see if we aren't hiding knives behind our backs.

after as teachers and counselors. In 1820 though, the tsar closed the order and expelled its priests. How much of that original Jesuit legacy survives today?

There is a very low opinion of Jesuits in Russia—we are known as the “black devils.” When people see that we're not actually black, they usually change their view. We've needed a lot of time to overcome these negative stereotypes. Those who come to our events and get to know us have a more positive attitude. But at the first meeting, they always look carefully to see if we aren't hiding knives behind our backs.

You have worked in various countries besides Russia, including Poland, France and Mexico. How do conditions here compare with the Jesuit order's work abroad?

Our tasks are the same in Russia as everywhere. However, the particular circumstances must also be taken into account. Religious awareness isn't very developed here. Most people were taught to see religion in a negative light. Though the need for deeper knowledge and faith is being expressed by both Orthodox and Catholic Christians now, there's only one Catholic seminary in our region—it moved to St. Petersburg this year—so we still face great problems in forming, educating and supporting enough priests.

The fact that most Jesuits are living and working by themselves is one particular feature of life here. The communities in Moscow and Novosibirsk are small— they number two, three and eight respectively, depending on the time of year.

So most order members are unable to experience life in community. This would be exceptional in most countries.

Another special feature is that most priests are foreigners. This makes life more difficult and isn't good for local people. It will continue to be the case for some years though, while we wait for those now training to start work. As foreigners, we have to acculturate ourselves and accept local Church customs. This is by no means an obvious or automatic process. I think the Catholic liturgy needs more local elements in Russia. But these can only be introduced by Russian priests who come to work here.

As visitator in 1992, you also criss-crossed the ex-Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia. In July, Turkmenistan became the last former Soviet republic to open diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Is this a sign that prospects are improving for the scattered Catholic communities there?

Kazakhstan and Georgia were the first to establish diplomatic ties, and there's been a nuncio at Alma Ata in Kazakhstan since 1994, covering all the Central Asian republics. His job is merely a diplomatic one, as representative of the Vatican state, a contact man between two countries rather than between the Church and its capital. So these contacts by themselves won't do much to help the Church. While the presence of a nuncio may provide some added prestige for Catholics, it doesn't mean much as far as facts and figures are concerned, and isn't likely to reinforce the Catholic community's position in real life.

Since becoming independent in 1991, these countries have witnessed the reassertion of pre-Soviet cultural and religious traditions. They've also had to work out their own foreign alignments. How has this process affected Catholics?

Legally, although these are countries with a Muslim tradition, all religious minorities enjoy a good position, since the Soviet law guaranteeing freedom of conscience is still in force. There have been attempts to restrict this freedom, although nothing has formally been done until now. In practice, the situation depends on the particular republic. In Uzbekistan, for example, there's no Islamic fundamentalism, less pressure on Catholics and greater tolerance. In Tajikistan though, the “Whites” are all afraid. There is persecution there, although it's political rather than religious in origin.

In Kazakhstan, attempts were made to intimidate Christian minorities. They ceased when it was realized that the departure of the Christians, including Russians, would damage the national economy. But cases are often reported of better workplaces being offered to Kazakhs than to Christians.

Cases like these are clearly connected with the rise of Muslim feeling. Can the Jesuits help stem the steady hemorrhaging of the Catholic population?

It's difficult to tell how many Catholics there really are even in Russia. So it's even harder to say how many have survived in Central Asia. Most Catholics come from German families deported here after World War II. It's very difficult to estimate how many have kept their faith—particularly since many are now leaving for Germany. In Tajikistan, there were known to be at least 100 Catholics a year ago. There are now only four or five left. Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have only single Catholic parishes and one priest each—both Russian-German Jesuits.

What effect has Muslim and nationalist pressure against Christians had on Catholic-Orthodox relations?

There are no real clashes between Christians and Muslims, since both groups have such infrequent contacts. By contrast, ties between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are quite positive, since both have minority status. Indeed, inter-Church relations are better in Central Asia than in Russia itself. Joint meetings and gatherings are common, while Catholics and Orthodox often attend each other's services and confess their sins to each other's priests. I remember traveling to say Mass at a remote parish in Central Asia, where there were only a few local Catholics, and finding more than 100 people present. They were almost all Orthodox faithful, who'd come because their own Church's position was particularly bad in that area—as it is in most of Central Asia, where its revival began with perestroika.

Will Boris Yeltsin's re-election as Russian president have an effect on local communities like this, and on the work of the Jesuits?

Russia is an entirely separate country now, so it won't have any direct impact on Christian minorities elsewhere. It's hard to be a prophet in these matters. I foresee that the number of Catholics in these neighboring republics will continue shrinking as Sunni and Shia Islamic traditions are reaffirmed in national life. The Christian “Whites” are all leaving wherever they can.

In Russia itself, the only development that could affect the Jesuits would be a change in current laws. But I don't think this will happen. Perhaps we will have to face administrative obstacles, over such things as visa extensions. It's hard to imagine government attitudes suddenly becoming overtly hostile to Catholicism and the Jesuits.

In Russia too, however, pressure is growing for a greater reassertion of spiritual and cultural traditions. Last August, a senior government adviser, Anatoly Leshchinsky, admitted that many officials were worried by the “aggressive tone” of Orthodox groups. Is there really a place for Catholicism in the Russia of the future?

Of course! There have always been Catholics here, and Catholic milieus exist—even if we will always be a minority Church only. Despite all the stereotypes, there's still great interest in Catholicism—especially in educated circles, who see it as an element of Western culture. So I don't think our situation can worsen dramatically.

There is, however, a lot of talk just now, especially in the media, against sects. The Catholic Church is not a sect, but sometimes people really do see it this way. The atmosphere is bad at the moment for all minorities. The hostility comes from Russian Orthodox hierarchs and ordinary people though, rather than from the governing authorities.

The last man to conduct a formal Jesuit mission to Russia, the French Jesuit Michel d'Herbigny, who arrived in 1925 with Soviet consent, was accused of “coming to pick up the masses from the abandoned field of Russian Orthodoxy.” What personal hopes and plans do you have for your work in the independent region?

It's important to remember that these are all separate countries now. There's a great need for young Jesuits simply to get to know each other, since they'll be working together and taking responsibility for the order's future here. As for myself, all I know is that I've been assigned to work here indefinitely, without any timetable. Even when I stop being the region's superior—as I believe I will two years from now—this does-n't mean I'll leave Russia. I could be moved from Moscow. My future depends on the Jesuit order's general; and for now, there's no change of plan.

—Jonathan Luxmoore