A new generation of Catholics for Russia

Four generations of atheism couldn’t kill God

Julie Filby

The original consecration of Most Holy Mother of God, the cathedral of the Diocese of Vladivostok formed in 1923.

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.”

For more information on the Mary Mother of God Mission Society, visit www.vladmission.org or contact the U.S. office at 209-408-0728 or usoffice@vladmission.org.

COMING UP: The Catholic Church has five new saints

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With 50,000 people in attendance from all continents, Pope Francis declared John Henry Newman, Mother Giuseppina Vannini, Mother Mariam Thresia Mankidiyan, Sister Dulce Lopes Pontes, and Marguerite Bays Catholic saints at the beginning of a festive mass in St. Peter’s Square, Sunday Oct. 13.

Mother Mariam Thresia (1876-1926)

Mother Mariam Thresia (1876-1926) was an Indian mystic and founder of the Congregation of the Holy Family. Her prayer life was characterized by frequent ecstasies in which she would sometimes levitate above the ground. In 1909, Thresia received the stigmata, after which she also suffered from demonic attacks.

Mother Thresia cared for the poor, sick, and dying in Kerala, visiting those with leprosy and measles. She also preached to the poor and the rich alike the importance of happy, healthy families to uplift all of society.  In 1914 Thresia founded the Congregation of the Holy Family, which has grown to have 176 houses around the world with 1,500 professed sisters.

“Our main charisma is family apostolate. We have schools, hospitals and counseling centers etc. But our main focus is the family apostolate. Making the families like a Holy Family of Nazareth,” Sister Dr. Vinaya of the Congregation of the Holy Family said.

Pope Francis recognized the second miracle attributed Mother Thresia in February. A grandmother of a dying child had a relic of Mariam Thresia and asked the nurse — a sister belonging to the Congregation of the Holy Family — to place the relic on the child’s heart and pray. From that moment forward, the young boy began to breathe normally and was cured.

Marguerite Bays (1815-1879)

This 19th century Swiss laywoman and stigmatist dedicated her life to prayer and service to her parish community without marrying or entering a religious community. As a Third Order Franciscan, she lived a simple life as a dressmaker and carried out a lay apostolate as a catechist.

When Bays was diagnosed with advanced cancer in 1853, she prayed to the Virgin Mary to be able to suffer with Jesus rather than to be healed. However, on the day that Bl. Pius IX proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Sept. 8, 1854, she was miraculously healed. Pius made the proclamation on Marguerite’s 39th birthday.

“From that moment on, after Marguerite was healed of her illness in a completely inexplicable way, she proclaimed the Passion of the Lord, because every Friday she had these moments of suffering in which there was blood and the stigmata, the very pain of the Passion,” Father Carlo Calloni, the postulator for Bays’ canonization cause, told EWTN’s Vaticano.

Blessed Marguerite died on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1879 at the age of 63. After her death the Vatican approved a miracle attributed to her intercession in which a two-year-old child was completely healed after being run over by an 1,800-pound tractor wheel. She was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1995.

Mother Giuseppina Vannini (1859-1911)

Giuseppina Vannini is a 19th century religious sister from Rome known for founding the congregation of the Daughters of St. Camillus dedicated to serving the sick and suffering. She is the first Roman woman to be canonized in more than 400 years, according to ACI Stampa.

Vannini spent much of her childhood in an orphanage near St. Peter’s Square after losing her father when she was four, and her mother when she was seven. She grew up among the Daughters of Charity sisters, who ran the orphanage. On the day of her first communion, young Giuseppina felt that she was called to a religious vocation.

This desire was not realized until 1892 when she was 33 because she was rejected by the Daughters of Charity after her novitiate due to her poor health.

Despite her own health problems, Vannini went on to find the Daughters of St. Camillus, whose charism is to serve the sick, even at the risk of their own lives. However, she did not live to see the congregation fully recognized by the Vatican. She died at the age of 51 in 1911.

Today the Daughters of St. Camillus have grown to 800 sisters in 22 countries. The Giuseppina Vannini Hospital in Rome is named in her honor.

Sister Dulce Lopes (1914-1992)

This Brazilian sister was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. Born as Maria Rita Lopes in 1914 in Salvador de Bahia, Lopes began inviting the elderly and those in need into her home at the age of 16. Two years later she joined the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God.

In 1959, she founded the Charitable Works Foundation of Sister Dulce, which grew into largest charitable organization in Brazil providing healthcare, welfare, and education services. Today the foundation includes Roma teaching hospital in Bahia and the Santo Antonio Educational Center which provides free education to 800 children living in extreme poverty.

Sister Dulce died in 1992 after 30 years of respiratory illness. After her body was found to be incorrupt, Sister Dulce was beatified in 2011 and was selected as one of the patrons of World Youth Day in Krakow as a model of charity.

She is now the first Brazilian-born female saint.

John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

St. John Henry Newman is the most famous English theologian in modern times. Born the son of a London banker, he was baptized in the Anglican church, began studies in Oxford at the age of 16, and was ordained an Anglican priest.

After joining the Oxford Movement, he sought to recover Catholic aspects within the Church of England. However, in 1845, putting aside his academic career, he converted to Catholicism and subsequently spent the last 40 years of his life as a parish priest in Birmingham. There, he cared for the poor and wrote works that have had a major impact on Catholic theology, including in the Second Vatican Council. Leo XIII made him a cardinal, but he never became a bishop.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Newman in London. Benedict noted Newman’s emphasis on the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, but also praised his pastoral zeal for the sick, the poor, the bereaved, and those in prison. Saint John Henry Newman’s liturgical feast is October 9.

John Henry Newman has been called the “absent Father of Vatican II” because his writings on conscience, religious liberty, Scripture, the vocation of lay people, the relation of Church and State, and other topics were extremely influential in the shaping of the Council’s documents. Although Newman was not always understood or appreciated, he steadfastly preached the Good News by word and example.

Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.

Featured image by Daniel Ibanez/CNA