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: John Paul II, youth minister

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.