Catholics in Russia are called to be “an evangelical seed” that bears the fruit of communion and unity, especially with Orthodox Christians, Pope Francis said.
In a message published Oct. 10 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of four apostolic administrations in Russia after the fall of Soviet communism, the pope said it is important for Christians to walk together “to deepen our knowledge of one another and to advance, step by step, on the path of unity.”
“By praying for all and serving those with whom we share the same humanity, which Jesus united to Himself in an inseparable way, we will rediscover ourselves brothers and sisters on a common pilgrimage toward the goal of communion, which God points out to us in every Eucharistic celebration,” he said.
“A great thrill”
Father David Means, who was serving as a Catholic missionary in eastern Russia from 1996 to 2009, believes God has been answering the pope’s prayers for cooperation there for a long time.
Fr. Means is now pastor of Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in Chamois and Assumption Parish in Morrison.
While in Russia, he got to witness and play a part in the rebirth of Christianity there after the collapse of the Soviet government.
He ministered to people who remembered their Catholic faith but hadn’t been to church in over 60 years.
“It was a great thrill to get to know some of those survivors and to be part of the reemerging Church,” he said.
Catholics are definitely a minority in a nation in which many people equate being Russian with being Russian Orthodox.
But cooperation flourished between Catholic and Orthodox priests during most of Fr. Means’s time there.
“We were aware of the need for unity and prayed for the unity of the Eastern and Western arms of Christianity,” he said.
“Animated by hope”
In 1991, after the Soviet breakup, the Vatican established two apostolic administrations in Russia, one in “European Russia” and one in Siberia.
In 1999, each of those jurisdictions was split into two apostolic administrations.
In the wake of the Catholic Church’s post-communist restoration, St. John Paul II then transformed the four apostolic administrations into dioceses in 2002.
The move angered many in the Russian Orthodox Church at the time, who accused the Catholic Church of proselytism.
Pope Francis, in his message, said the anniversary was “not so much a remembrance of legal acts and formal realities” but rather a time for Catholics to “recall, with humility and gratitude,” the Lord’s goodness in their journey of faith.
Russian Catholics, he said, should aspire to become communities that are “animated by hope” as well as “open, in obedience to the supreme commandment of love, to meeting and sharing in solidarity with all, in a special way with the brothers and sisters of the Orthodox Church.”
Pope Francis said he hopes the anniversary inspires Catholics in the country to bear witness to God’s grace “with simplicity and generosity,” especially toward those “most in need and the neglected.”
“Let us remain united in Christ,” the pope said. “May the Holy Spirit, poured into our hearts, make us feel like children of the Father, brothers and sisters among ourselves and with everyone.”
Prayers in Russian
Fr. Means noted that the Catholic and Orthodox churches both suffered profoundly under communist rule.
He recalled how in 1991, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the bishop of Anchorage reached out across the Bering Sea to Magadan to see if there were Catholics there that still held on to their Catholic faith.
“That was the beginning of the Catholic Mission to Magadan,” he recalled. “Many former Catholics returned to the formal practice of their faith.”
At the same time, the Orthodox Church in Russia was also experiencing a resurrection.
Most Orthodox churches had also been confiscated and closed under Soviet rule.
“Now they, too, could reclaim their churches, begin their renovations and reopen seminaries to train a new generation of clergy,” Fr. Means recalled.
When he and fellow Catholic priests first arrived in Magadan, the Orthodox bishop welcomed them warmly, happy to have priests in town.
“He was open and cordial and even included us in a group visiting the sites up north of former gulags where people from both churches had suffered and died,” Fr. Means recalled. “Whenever the bishop of Anchorage visited, he would be welcomed by the Orthodox bishop there.”
“It was an exciting time, and I rejoice that I had the opportunity to be part of that great rebirth of Orthodoxy in Russia,” he said.
Fr. Means continues to pray for the Orthodox and Catholic Church in Russia, for cooperation and unity.
“When I pray my office alone, I’ve made a habit of praying the ‘Our Father’ in Russian as my prayer for the people of Magadan, the Church in Russia and the Unity of Christians,” he said. “May Pope Francis’s efforts bear fruit.”
Contributing to this article was Jay Nies in Jefferson City.