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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Vodka and Evangelization in Russia

MARYKNOLL Father Joe McCabe provided the second part of our monthly "Food for Thought" series in the Founders Room, speaking of the situation in Russia. He brought several Russian books and artifacts. Many employees and several Maryknollers attended, each supplying their own lunch.

Joe was the last Maryknoller to go to our Russia mission. Maryknoll formally completed our commitment there in 2007. It started when the late Father Ben Zweber met with Archbishop Hurley of Anchorage, Alaska in 1991 to establish Maryknoll's presence in eastern Russia. Thanks to the generosity of Maryknoll benefactors, Zweber was able to build what is now considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in the Russian far east, although he did not live to see its completion, dying in 2000.

Pointing to a map to demonstrate the vastness of the country, Joe says it was a nine-hour plane ride from Moscow to his parish in Khabarovsk. The Transiberian railroad took a week. Adapting to the legendary Russian winter was, Joe says, the hardest challenge. "You learn to dress for the winter," Joe says, "even in September." Drinking copious amounts of vodka—as is the Russian custom—to get through the long, cold, winter nights "beyond Siberia," Joe reluctantly became inculturated. Many of Joe's parishioners were ex-prisoners of the Soviet Gulags, originally from Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and other eastern Europe countries, who were prevented by law from returning to their native towns after their release. There had been no official Catholic presence there for six decades and most were Catholic in name only.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the first missioners to return to Siberia made the mistake of thinking they were going to "re-convert" Russia, an attitude not appreciated by the Russian Orthodox, since Russia has been Christian for more than 1100 years. How to open a new mission where nothing existed since 1933 when the last Catholic parish was suppressed was another challenge Joe faced. His parish covered a territory larger than France and Germany combined.

Even today, all churches in Russia must be registered. Although it only takes ten signatures to apply, nine of the 10 people who petitioned to register the parish not only were not Catholic, they were KGB agents. Remnant of the czarist and Soviet systems, the practice of "looking after" one another continues to this day, according to McCabe.

Trying to present themselves as "Catholic but not Polish" was another difficulty for Maryknollers, as there is no love lost between the Russians and the Poles. This was complicated because McCabe's first assistant was from Poland. They communicated in their broken Russian, convincing the eavesdropping spies they were using some kind of strange code.

Relations with the Russian Orthodox, who claim to comprise 85 percent of the population, posed another difficulty. They bristled when missioners attempted to work with ethnic Russians instead of the minority peoples there. Given the shaky history between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy, each continues to view the other with suspicion. It took five years, but McCabe and Father Fern Goselin eventually established a friendly, working relationship with the Orthodox priests in their cities. These were cultivated over many dinner parties with copious amounts of vodka. Sacrificing his liver for the sake of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, not to mention the Kingdom of God, was worth it, McCabe insists.

One day an Armenian Catholic from his parish brought over a classmate from medical school who was depressed. It was the first anniversary of his father's death and, in addition, he had just lost his first patient as a doctor. Smelling of vodka, he wanted to know why people die. Joe suggested he come back in a few days to give the man time to sober up and give himself time to figure out the correct Russian phrases. After many weeks of discussion, the man asked to be baptized into the Catholic Church. The following New Years' Day he gave Joe a gift: a compass, with the inscription: "Before I met you, my life had no direction; before I became Catholic, I didn't know where my life was going."

Incidents such as this convince Joe Maryknoll's short time in Russia was worth it. Joe and Fern left behind well-trained catechists to carry on the work of evangelization.

We wish Joe all the best and our prayers as he begins his new assignment as SPF director for the Rockville Centre diocese!

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