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BELARUS
from issue no. 05 - 2010

CATHOLIC CHURCH. Meeting with Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz

It is the world that asks us to dialogue


The Archbishop of Minsk tells us of the life of the Catholic community, the encouraging relationship with the Orthodox and a look of hope toward Moscow


Meeting with Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz by Giovanni Cubeddu


The Catholic Archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, starts talking about himself in very simple fashion: “I was born and lived in Belarus, I served as a priest there and then as bishop from 1989 to 1991, the first two years after my Episcopal ordination. Then I spent more than sixteen years in Moscow, and now here I am in Minsk again. There are a million and a half Latin rite Catholics in Belarus: the largest number after Lithuania, in the area of the former Soviet Union”.

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz during the liturgy of Palm Sunday, Minsk, 28 March 2010 <BR>[© Reuters/Contrasto]

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz during the liturgy of Palm Sunday, Minsk, 28 March 2010
[© Reuters/Contrasto]

The Belarusian law on religious freedom recognizes the Orthodox and Catholic Churches as “historic”.
TADEUSZ KONDRUSIEWICZ: The current law recognizes the primary role of the Orthodox Church in the spiritual, cultural and historical development of the Belarusian people and in that of the State constitution, and at the same time recognizes the spiritual, cultural and historical role of the Catholic Church in Belarus. We greatly appreciate these norms, that allow us not to be considered as intruders. During the persecutions of the Soviet era, the Church experienced moments of great suffering and at the same time showed signs of heroism...
And now?
KONDRUSIEWICZ: There are four dioceses – among these Minsk-Mohilev is the Metropolitan See – six bishops, and two seminaries, where today ninety young men are training to become diocesan priests. To these a further sixty seminarians from religious congregations can be added. The priests in all are 462, of whom 278 are natives, and the others come mainly from Poland.
Suited to the needs of the Catholic community?
KONDRUSIEWICZ: Let me stress that we are witnessing splendid growth, because twenty years ago there were only sixty Belarusian priests. We therefore need new churches, especially in the large cities, Minsk first of all: out of two million inhabitants, 300 thousand are Catholics and the parishes just four. The public authorities are cooperative: in the last few years in fact we have received six new building permits, and this year two more should arrive. But the problem is how to build, that is, where to find the money...
Is the Catholic faith part of the lives of the younger generations?
KONDRUSIEWICZ: The young people are very lively. Compared to Russia, young Catholics in Belarus are more numerous, and their traditional religious sense is deeper. During the persecution, the only Catholic churches open in Russia were in Moscow and Leningrad; in Belarus, however, although there were only sixty priests, there were about one hundred and twenty churches open, and there was a continuous vital exchange with neighboring Lithuania and Poland.
I like to make opportunities for the young people to meet. Every Thursday at the Cathedral of Minsk there is a Mass that is celebrated for them and a meeting follows. During the year we have our fixed dates: before Christmas and Easter, with the participation of about four hundred young people. During Lent there are the Stations of the Cross organized by them. Each year a youth meeting is held for three days, with the participation of two or three thousand young people. They also flock to the various pilgrimages, which are popular and well attended. Such as that of Our Lady of Buzlav, a “national” sanctuary 120 kilometers from Minsk. On 1 July the faithful come from all over Belarus and, after the night vigil, crowd the morning mass. The State newspapers declare that the turnout is 60 thousand people: for our Church this is a great thing...
How are relations with your Orthodox brethren?
KONDRUSIEWICZ: After the years spent in Moscow I can claim to know something about relations with the Orthodox Church; here in Belarus relations are truly encouraging. The Metropolitan Filarete is a very open man, and every time the Catholic archbishop holds a public meeting for discussion, he or his representative never fails to participate actively. The same applies with the invitations I receive from the Orthodox: we continuously exchange views and suggestions on the people to invite. All this in addition of course to our meetings at Christmas and Easter. The fact of having many families of mixed denomination in the country also helps us significantly. Moreover, there is a concrete spirit of ecumenism and a practice of interreligious dialogue that includes Protestants, Jews and Muslims. It is a blessing for this land. I celebrated Filarete’s seventy-fifth birthday with him...
In April you met with Lukašhenko. What does the president think about the presence and activity of the Church?
KONDRUSIEWICZ: As I said, permits for new parishes are never denied us. He has already come personally to the Cathedral three times, to find out our needs directly from us. Also after the recent tragedy of Katyn he came again, bringing flowers and lighting a candle in church. He heeds the fact that, exactly as the law reminds us, the Orthodox and Catholic churches are “historic”. The president has several times repeated: “I will not permit a religious war in my country”, and this for us Catholics is really a great help. On Easter Sunday – this year the holiday fell on the same day for the Orthodox and for us –Metropolitan Filarete held a meeting. At a certain point Lukašhenko arrived, as last year, to pay his respects to the Metropolitan. I was also among the guests, and seeing me, the president publicly rejoiced at the presence of the Catholic archbishop and the Church’s show of unity.
On the institutional front the facts are encouraging, so...
KONDRUSIEWICZ: Two years ago His Holiness Benedict XVI’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, visited our country, meeting with the President, the Foreign Minister and the Minister of Worship, the Metropolitan Filarete and the faithful, attracting much attention in the media. But in our country Pope Benedict XVI’s welcome created more of a stir when, last year, he received our president in audience. It is no secret that an agreement between Church and State is being prepared. That would greatly help the Catholic Church to proffer its services.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attending the ceremony for the seventieth anniversary of the massacre of Katyn, 7 April 2010 <BR>[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attending the ceremony for the seventieth anniversary of the massacre of Katyn, 7 April 2010
[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Were there any moments of misunderstanding?
KONDRUSIEWICZ: Last year, for example, we had some difficulty in renewing the visas of foreign priests residing in the country. Then things were clarified on both sides, everything was resolved: it is always good to dialogue with the government.
How was the Katyn tragedy viewed from Minsk?
KONDRUSIEWICZ: The massacres of the Stalinist period have always had an impact on relations between Russia and Poland, and now the forest of Katyn has gathered new victims. However, in the aftermath of this second Katyn, it seems that tensions are really melting: who knows what God’s plan is. Today we see that the tragedy did not occur in vain, and the participation of the Russian President at the funeral was very, very significant in expressing the feeling of Russia toward Poland and vice versa. It shows that there is a road open to reconciliation. Before this tragedy the Moscow Patriarchate and the Catholic Church in Poland had already recommenced talks. You see, the world today is like that: we must dialogue, we must approach each other! Belarus also immediately opened its airport in Vitebsk to allow the Poles to reach Katyn, and the presence of the President of the Beluarusian Parliament at the funeral of the Polish President was yet another sign of renewed relations between Russia, Belarus and Poland.
Do you believe that this generation of Russian political leaders cares about the good of the Church?
KONDRUSIEWICZ: Yes, the good of the universal Catholic Church.
How do you remember the years in Moscow?
KONDRUSIEWICZ: There were so many episodes... For example, my meetings with Patriarch Alexei II, and the numerous encounters with Kirill, then Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad and president of the Department for External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, and now Patriarch... In 1993 there was a wonderful event: the meeting, jointly decided by the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church and other religions in Russia, to which representatives of various Churches and Christian religions of the former Soviet Union were invited. The outcome of that event was an interfaith advisory committee, that worked for another four meetings between the various Churches. In that way a climate was created in which we could be and work together. There was then an interruption that lasted several years, but now the committee has resumed its work. For the Great Jubilee of 2000 we organized the joint meeting of young Christians: Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants.
What is the best way to dialogue with Orthodoxy?
KONDRUSIEWICZ: For theological dialogue there is a special committee, for all the rest there is daily life. During the war in Chechnya, for example, our Churches spoke with a single voice. Everyday life offers us the best opportunities for dialogue.


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