From the launch of the Russian Revolution in 1917 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the communist regime did everything they could to remove God from society: they murdered Christians by the thousands; destroyed churches, monasteries and seminaries; and intentionally unraveled the fabric of the family.
“From the very beginning, communism was atheistic and wanted to destroy the Church completely,” explained Father Daniel Maurer, 63, a native of Michigan and priest of the Canons Regular of Jesus the Lord (C.J.D.) serving in Russia. Father Maurer visited the Archdiocese of Denver earlier this month.
Since religion could not be practiced freely, or passed on in families for nearly 70 years, the militant atheists of the communist party succeeded and Christianity was virtually snuffed out. The effects persist in Russia today.
“When you take away the Gospel, maybe that first generation will be OK, and the second generation a little bit worse,” Father Maurer said. “But look at four generations when it’s been repressed and you find out what human nature is really like.”
Child abandonment and abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse and elder abuse are commonplace—as well as divorce. The majority of marriages in Russia end in divorce according to United Nations’ statistics: in 2011 there were 669,421 divorces and 1.3 million marriages, resulting in a 51 percent divorce rate.
Father Maurer reported seeing a much higher rate in the far eastern region, estimating a 94 percent divorce rate, with 80 percent occurring in the first four years.
Additionally, abortion has become commonplace since Russia became the first nation in the world to legalize it in 1920. According to 2010 U.N. data, the abortion rate for women 15 to 44 is 37.4 abortions per 1,000.
“The average woman in Russia will have eight to 12 abortions,” Father Maurer said. “I have spoken to women personally who have told me they have had as many as 35, it is a terrible tragedy.”
Despite the darkness, Father Maurer has spent the last 23 years helping to rebuild the Church in Russia to bring the light of the Gospel back to its people.
Last Catholic standing
While the predominant religion in the early 1900s was Russian Orthodox (a branch of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church), there were also at least 20 million Roman Catholics in 550 parishes.
“Russia was a very Christian nation before the communist revolution of 1917,” said Father Maurer.
Vladivostok, where he lives, is located in the extreme southeast part of the country, on the Pacific Ocean, near China, North Korea and Japan. In Vladivostok, there were 28 Orthodox churches, one German Lutheran, and one brand new Neo-Gothic Roman Catholic church: Most Holy Mother of God.
In 1923, Most Holy Mother of God became the cathedral of the newly formed Diocese of Vladivostok, and its parish priest became Bishop Karol Slivovsky. It had thousands of parishioners and a vibrant organization of charitable initiatives. Within 10 years, however, the last diocesan priest would be arrested and sent to Siberia, the bishop forced into exile and the parish community would be left to fend for itself.
“The communist government completely destroyed all 28 Orthodox churches, they no longer exist,” said Father Maurer, two of the largest were blown up on Easter.
However the communists didn’t destroy the then-new Catholic church. There was an easier way of dealing with the “Catholic problem,” he said.
“We only made up one and a half percent of the population,” said Father Maurer. “So they killed us all; the entire parish wiped out.”
It is estimated the Soviet communist government murdered 46 million of its own people, hundreds of thousands for their faith, Father Maurer said.
“Altogether there are more martyrs for their faith in the Soviet Union in the 20th century than in all the other countries in the world in the 2,000-year history of Christianity put together,” he added.
Rebuilding the Church
When the communist party was dissolving in 1991 and the city of Vladivostok was on the verge of reopening to foreigners, Bishop Joseph Werth, S.J., of Novosibirsk, Siberia, received a letter from a small remnant of the city’s Catholics, asking for a priest to come reopen Most Holy Mother of God Church.
About the same time, Father Myron Effing, C.J.D., 63, an Indiana native, arrived in Novosibirsk to inquire about the possibility of serving in Vladivostok. With permission from Bishop Werth, Father Effing traveled 2,300 miles to Vladivostok and celebrated the parish’s first Mass Nov. 10, 1991. The liturgy was held outside the church because the building was still under state control. Temperatures hovered in single digits that day.
When Vladivostok officially reopened in February 1992, Fathers Effing and Maurer arrived to stay. There were three priests in Russia at the time, making them Nos. 4 and 5.
Following an extensive search, they were able to locate 15 descendants of the former 15,000 members of the parish.
“We started with our 15 descendants and now we have a thriving parish of about 550 people that we ourselves have baptized,” according to Father Maurer.
They have founded 12 parishes in the Diocese of St. Joseph of Irkutsk, which was formed in 2002, an area two-and-a-half times the size of the continental United States, now served by 35 priests.
“We are making progress,” Father Maurer said. “But please continue to pray for the conversion of Russia, I don’t want to give false hope for the future.”
After almost 23 years of religious freedom, 99.5 percent of the population of the largest country in the world, which spans 6.6 million square miles and 11 time zones, is still not practicing any religion.
“It is a society without God,” he said. “You can imagine how many problems there would be in America if only 0.5 percent of the people knew anything about God at all.”
A Pew Research Center study released July 9 indicated Russia is “broadly unpopular” in many countries, including the United States where it is “increasingly disliked.” More than three-quarters of U.S. respondents feel the Russian government does not respect the personal freedoms of its people.
Regardless, the faithful in Vladivostok credit the prayers of many in the West who have asked Mary’s intercession for the conversion of Russia for the return of faith, albeit small, in their country.
Additionally, generous supporters of the C.J.D. order’s Mary Mother of God Mission Society have allowed the community to continue to build churches, establish catechetical, liturgical, social and pro-life programs; and open eight crisis pregnancy centers, three orphanages and a hospice.
They have also launched a seminarian sponsorship program to help carry their mission into the future. Currently there are 25 brothers from the Philippines and Indonesia in the community of Canons Regular of Jesus the Lord founded by Fathers Effing and Maurer, and eight of the men are studying to be priests.
“These are wonderful young men,” Father Maurer said, “(who) want to give their lives for the rebirth of this tragic Church in Russia.”