Russia Is Free. What Now?

As papal nuncio to Russia, Archbishop John Bukovsky represents the Pope in a post-communist country that had legally rejected almost all religious activity in its borders except that of the Russian Orthodox Church. The law has now been changed, but challenges remain for the Church. During a recent visit to Dallas, the archbishop spoke about the Catholic Church in Russia with Register correspondent Ellen Rossini.

Rossini: How have Russian Catholics fared after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.?

Bukovsky: With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, we lost most of the Catholics to the Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania. I would say in Russia at the present moment, between the Catholics that are found and organized and the Catholics that are still waiting, there must be over 1 million Catholics. Of those who are found and practicing, those who come weekly to holy Mass and receive the sacraments, there might be about 100,000.

Last July, the Holy Father was able to name two new bishops. Now we have four Catholic bishops, total, 190 priests and 170 sisters. Most of these nuns and priests are not Russian, but come from the United States, Mexico, Argentina and Europe.

Often, the Pope points to three things as contributing to the strength of the faith: the family, the laity and the Church. Yet you have said these are “challenges” in Russia.

I would say the greatest challenge is toward finding a real Christian family. Due to the Communist system, the family was destroyed, more or less. There are many divorces, many abortions. We have many street children who are missing their parents.

The second is to prepare lay people. Still now the tendency is to be clerical. We have to build up lay people who can substitute, who can help in the catechesis and the education.

The third task of the Church — and I'm sure the bishops will do it — is to organize our Church. Our Church is dispersed all over … due to the exile activities of Stalin. My impression is that the majority of the Catholic population is in Siberia, due to the exiling of different nationalities and religions there.

What is the state of vocations in Russia?

Naturally, I would say also the vocational aspect is important. Most of our priests and religious are foreigners, and we have only 10 Russian priests, five in Siberia and Kazakhstan. We have Jesuit fathers who were born in Russia — about five of them. … We need about 400 priests for Russian work, and it takes about 30 years to fill this [need].

There's also the legal aspect. [But] the Russian government is flexible — if we discuss with them, we can work it out.

Ninety-five percent of the priests and nuns are not Russian, and we have great difficulty in obtaining residency for them. They have to go back every three months to renew their visas, or every year if they are from a country that was formerly part of the Soviet Union. It's an economic burden, and also psychological because they have to go in and out.

This will be a long process, but I want to be optimistic — it will be done. The Church is small, and in my belief it will always be small. According to the new laws we have the right to remain in Russia, and we will do that.

What limits are placed on the different religions by the new law?

We can live by it. The new law makes all kinds of categories of the religious groups and then requires all kinds of registrations … by the Ministry of Justice. I don't know how much this is known in the West, but the application of the law in Russia depends very much on the individual. It's a very subjective interpretation of laws.

In Russia we have 87 republics, all independent territories. Some of the provinces are quite friendly, some are very hostile. It complicates the whole thing. Eventually we have to resolve this juridically and politically.

You indicated that an even greater danger from the West than materialism are religious groups seeking to win Catholics away from the faith. How serious a threat are they?

They are coming in very strongly. The last law on religions was inspired by the politicians and also by the Orthodox church to stop the coming of the sects into Russia. [At first] the law was not clear enough, and it would have affected the Catholic Church and Protestants. The Holy Father wrote to [President Boris] Yeltsin to have them respect our rights.

The sects are very, very active in Russia. Most of them are coming from America. As far as I know, the ministry approved the Mormons, the Catholics, the evangelicals, and, naturally, the Orthodox church. The Orthodox church, according to the new preamble, is the “church of merit” for the Russian people and the Russian culture. It's not a state religion. Christians, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam are recognized as traditional religions of Russia — the Catholic Church is covered under the Christian church.

The Church has charities, and we help. We take care of the street children and the old and dying. We have sisters who are doing wonderful, charitable work. [But] with 5 million people in Moscow and 6 million in St. Petersburg, we do not have the personnel and we do not have the means.

The sects have a real personal approach. They have the means to help the people, and they have quite a bit of success. Jehovah's Witnesses have a great success; also — if you call them sects — the Pentecostals and the evangelicals.

Do the Catholics offer much resistance?

If you have a million Catholics in a nation of 47 million, what does it mean? It's a fraction. We are in groups, in clusters in Siberia, in Moscow, in St. Petersburg. In Siberia they are in small groups, you find them all over, and it's very difficult to say how much the sects have impacted Catholics, [but] it's a real danger to us.

What is life like in Russia now?

Economically, like in all aspects, Russia is a country of contrasts. You will have, for instance, the Bolshoi Theater with first-class performances. You have universities and institutions in Moscow, so you have a high level of culture. On the other hand, you have men on the streets who are begging and drinking. You have millionaires and billionaires, and you have poor people, begging. You never see it like this in any other country, and I have traveled a lot.

What role does the Church see in serving these problems?

The Church has charities, and we help. We take care of the street children and the old and dying. We have sisters who are doing wonderful, charitable work. [But] with 5 million people in Moscow and 6 million in St. Petersburg, we do not have the personnel and we do not have the means.

The Orthodox church now has a social ministry, and this has not been part of their tradition, so they are learning from [the Catholic Church]. Also, catechism is being introduced, and in this they are imitating us.

What do you see as signs of hope for Russia's future?

I wish and I pray that the bishop's conference will involve the [lay] Catholics. The graduates of the Catholic school, St. Thomas Aquinas College, will produce the people who will really help us. The Church, anywhere in the world, cannot rely on the priests only — not anymore. We need good fathers and mothers, women and men to help us.

As far as the good literature and catechetical materials, we can make it over there, we can have it printed and the people that know Russian very well can do it, but we do not have the finances. We would appreciate good books to be translated, especially on the family and pro-life, literature about abortion — not too many, but something representative, and then, if possible, secure the financing of it. People can contact me or one of the four bishops.

You hope and pray that the laity will be more involved. But are the negative signs overwhelming?

I personally can say I am very hopeful and optimistic because the communist system left a great, great spiritual vacuum in the people. The question is, will materialism fill this vacuum? The Church has to fill it with beliefs, principles and values. The Russians are very kind people, very friendly, very open-minded, but they are searching. If we don't fill them, they will find something else.

[The sudden fall of communism] is a miracle. Who would have thought of it before Gorbachev? We had two churches open in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Today we have dozens and dozens open and functioning.

How are your universities compared to the Orthodox Russians?

We have two seminaries, 17 men in the major seminary, about 12 in the minor seminary. We have the college, St. Thomas Aquinas, which was the bishop's college. We gave it to the Jesuits, because they are experienced in education and schools, and asked them to develop a special course for a master's degree in Christian social ethics, which is completely absent in the life of Russia today. We want this to be recognized by the Russian intellectuals and even by ordinary people.

The Orthodox tradition doesn't have too much in this respect. We need to develop something which will correspond to the needs of man. Western capitalism is not ideal, and communism is not ideal … but the freedom of man has to be guaranteed.

[Many] Russians are poor; they are struggling to survive. I sometimes admire Russian patience. I know university professors who live on $200 a month, I know teachers who haven't been paid for four months, and they continue. Life is tough.

What is the biggest obstacle to Pope John Paul's great hope of reuniting the Orthodox and Catholic churches?

There are very few doctrinal differences. The serious obstacle is the papacy. There is some question about marriage, because [the Orthodox] tolerate divorce. But the main obstacle is the papacy, to recognize the office of Peter. The Holy Father wrote about it and said the office as such cannot be touched; the chair of Peter is the foundation of unity, but the exercise of it can be discussed. More cannot be written, and more he cannot say. I sincerely hope the patriarchs — and there are 12 of them — can sit down and study this together.

Also, our dogmas needed centuries to fully develop. … The [Orthodox] believe in the Real Presence, but the Eucharist you hardly see. They come into the Church, they kiss the icon, they light the candle and they go. They never developed the devotion, the processions and so on. In the Latin Church, there is the development of dogmas. …

I admire their liturgy, which is very nice. They did not secularize it as we do. There is much more mystery left. They still have real sacrum. So we [Catholic priests] still have our full cassocks — the people want it, and it has to be beautiful. Our sisters and our priests accommodate this.

They have confession. For them, it's something divine, the liturgy and the sacraments. In this respect, we could learn from them, the spirituality and so on. We are really, as the Pope said, sister churches on account of the common patrimony which we have.

What does your new work mean to you personally?

I never thought [I would be here]. I wanted to be a missionary; I wanted to go to Ghana or the Philippines. I could not, because I lost my Slavic citizenship, and I did not return. I was sent to Washington and to Rome to study. I was teaching for 15 years. While in the [Vatican] secretariat, I had Thailand, Philippines, Japan, Togo under me. In 1972 I went to work in the Vatican. Maybe if communism had stayed, now I would be working in the secretariat!

It seems you get used to any kind of work. It's a very interesting thing.

Every nuncio, especially in Russia, Romania and Bulgaria, has three tasks to do. The first one is to follow the development of the Church and inform the Holy Father of the life of the church in these countries. The second is to maintain good relations with the authorities in the government. And the third is ecumenism, which in Russia, Bulgaria and Romania is a big task.

It's not always what you think, what you want to do. But at the same time, it's very satisfying work. There is not much bad will on either side [between Catholics and Orthodox]. But after 1,000 years of estrangement, to do it over is not an easy task.

Ellen Rossini writes from Dallas.

Personal: Native of Slovakia; naturalized citizen of the United States; a member of the Society of the Divine Word; speaks seven languages.

Studies: Studied liberal arts and philosophy at Divine Word College and pursued graduate studies in theology at Divine Word Theologate in Techny, Ill.; obtained degrees in theology and sacred Scripture at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C.; did advanced studies in Near Eastern languages and culture at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Experience: 18 years in the Eastern European Affairs section of the Vatican Secretariat of States. Nuncio in Romania.

Current mission: Appointed by Pope John Paul II as Papal nuncio to Federated Russia.