The Church in the Soviet Union

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern
photos: U.S.C.C.

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When Catholic Near East Welfare Association was established by Pope Pius XI in 1926, it was mandated to assist the people and churches of the Soviet Union. Until recently, there were very few opportunities to do so because of the political situation.

Under President Gorbachev’s innovative policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), direct communication and assistance to churches in the Soviet Union is now possible. On the occasion of his visit to Pope John Paul II in December of 1989, the suppressed Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church was allowed to begin to register its local congregations.

In response to the pope’s appeal for assistance to the churches of central and eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States set up in May of 1990 an ad hoc committee for aid to these churches. During the summer months, three fact-finding missions were sponsored by the committee.

Because of Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s role and competence, as secretary general I was invited to serve as a consultant to the committee and to accompany the fact-finding visit to the Soviet Union.

Purposes. Catholics in the Soviet Union are concentrated in the western part of the country, with the exception of those internally displaced and exiled.

Our delegation visited those areas where a Catholic hierarchy is established. Our objectives included initiating contact on a national hierarchy to national hierarchy basis or at least on a bishop to national hierarchy basis; informing the bishops in the Soviet Union of the potential assistance from the church in the United States; making a very preliminary needs assessment; and setting up a mechanism for future communication.

Additionally, we planned to meet with the Russian Orthodox patriarch and Soviet officials.

Participants. The delegation was headed in Moscow and Lithuania by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago. It was otherwise led by Archbishop John L. May of Saint Louis, chairman of the American bishops’ ad hoc committee and also a trustee of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Other members were Bishop Paul A. Baltakis, bishop for Lithuanians outside of Lithuania; Bishop Basil H. Losten, Exarch of Stamford; Dr. Francis J. Butler, president of FADICA; Mr. John Carr, secretary of the United States Catholic Conference Department of Social Development and World Peace; and myself.

Milan. Before going to the Soviet Union, we traveled first to Milan, to meet with the president of the Council of European Episcopal Conference, Cardinal Carlos Maria Martini, S.J., and its secretary general, Fr. lvo Furer. In Milan, we also were briefed by the secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, Dr. Gerhard Meier.

They shared the assessment of leaders of the western European churches concerning the pastoral situation in central and eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. They also informed the delegation of their activities to date and future plans.

Moscow. Our visit began in Moscow. We were briefed by American embassy officials; received in formal audience by Alexei II, the newly elected Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia; and met with officials of the All Soviet Council for Religious Affairs.

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