Jonathan Luxmoore meets Bishop Jan Lenga, apostolic administrator of Kazakhstan, who reveals what life is like for the faithful beyond the former Iron Curtain
BISHOP JAN LENGA, 43, was appointed apostolic administrator of Kazakhstan in April 1991. His responsibility for all Catholics in the ex-Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajukistan, Turkmenia and Uzbekistan. Born into an ethnic Polish family in the Ukraine, he trained at "underground seminaries" in Latvia and Lithuania, where he was secretly ordained a priest in 1980. After joining Lithuania's Marian Order, he arrived in Kazakhstan the following year.
Bishop Lenga was consecrated at Krasnoarmyisk in May 1991 by the Moscow-based Vatican Nuncio, Archbishop Francesco Colasuonno.
Luxmoore: Most Western Catholics, when they hear of Kazakhstan, probably imagine a vast, windswept plain, shared by nomadic herdsmen and Soviet nuclear scientists. Can the Catholic Church really find roots in a territory like this?
Lenga: Kazakhstan's population of 16 million comprises over 130 nationalities, and they've all brought different religious traditions with them. I read that the Kazakhs accepted Islam in 1301. But by then, Catholic missionaries were also making converts here on their journeys to Mongolia and China as were Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Nestorians.
By the 19th century, Poles had built Catholic churches in the southeast. And by the 20th, German Catholics from Odessa had established villages here.
We estimate the potential number of Catholics at around 500,000 though it would have been too dangerous to attempt to count them in the past.
Luxmoore: You are appointed, aged 41, to minister to Catholics spread over seven million miles. But you had no administrative training, university education or regular parish experience. How had you come to be here in the first place?
Lenga: My father was a simple Ukranian shoemaker; and I was left with just one sister after my two brothers died. Though my mother prayed a lot, I had no formal religious upbringing.
But one day, when I was 20, a priest visited our village; and that's when I began to feel I had a vocation. The government wouldn't allow me to go to the seminary in Latvia. So I trained underground, working in various jobs. I was secretly ordained while helping a priest in northern Lithuania.
I then went to Tajikistan, coming into the open as a priest, and worked with your people for six months till the Soviet authorities threw me out When I arrived
in Kazakhstan in 1981, there were 14 other priest.
But they were all elderly men, who had stayed on after years in prisons and labour camps. By the time I was appointed bishop a decade later, I was already the oldest the others had all died or returned to their home countries.
Luxmoore: How many priests have you managed to recruit?
Lenga: We now have 33, from six nationalities: Americans, Canadians, South Koreans, Poles, Czechs and Germans. And we have 40 parishes too. But these aren't ordinary parishes, grouped around some local church.
They mostly consist of separate communities, which the priest visits when he can. I usually travel by car or plane, But sometimes I hitch rides on lorries. All of Kazakhstan's original churches were destroyed under Soviet rule.
Luxmoore: Besides being Sovietruled for 70 years, these countries are also traditionally Muslim. Has this created problems for local Catholic communities?
Lenga: Kazakhstan's government doesn't impede our work; but nor does it formally accept us. It says our apostolic administration won't be recognised until there are more serious contacts with the Vatican. But I can't say this has resulted from Muslim pressure.
Under Communism, people were not allowed to speak about their religion or nationality.
Everyone was equally repressed. This, ironically, created good relations between the nations. Under Gorbachev's perestroika some national groups thought more about themselves. But nationalism has not taken an extreme form here. The formerly nomadic Kazakh Muslims were never very strong; and their Muslim religion was largely a question of inheritance.
Luxmoore: Have top-level Russian Orthodox objections to Catholic activi
ties found echoes in Kazakhstan?
Lenga: Compared to seven million Kazakhs, there are almost 6.5 million Russians, as well as 1.5 million Ukraniar* and 500,000 Germans. The Orthodox Russians have their own churches and priests; and there are generally no prbblems among ordinary people. Catholic and Orthodox priests meet each other and exchange Christmas and Easter invitations.
the Catholic Church, through the Pope, has said very sensible things about thii, question that it can't be blamed for the destruction of Catholic life under comunist rule, nor for the big Catholic diasMpora that resulted from it.
But the Russian Orthodox Church is not so dominant here anyway. Some petaple became Catholics here having knOwn nothing about Christianity before. .But no one "converted" to Catholicism from Orthodoxy. Nor, if they had done, would Catholic priests have dealt with tht m. It would be un-Christian to attract pe pie to our own confession, like sects do Luxmoore: Haven't you received advice from the Vatican and other Church leaders?
Lenga: No, the decision was taken that there should be a bishop here. But no !one checked if I should be the one to dol it. I can't ask the Pope for advice, since not even he knows the situation here. There should he some Church organisation which deals with problems like this.
en I was a priest in the worst of t es, life was actually much easier. I was always among people? and I knew what my priest's job entailed. But to this d4 no one has taught me anything about hoW to he a bishop.
Luxmoore: The Church in Kazakhltan is composed mostly of deportees people uprooted from their homelands and sent to work in this great wilderness on giant collective farms, or kolkhozi. Has this created a special kind of Catholicism?
Lenga: Unlike in the West, where everyone steps on each other's feet, our villages are far apart with vast fields, for sts, lakes and mountains in between. I'v already worked for 13 years here; but I'v seen only a small part of it.
The people who were moved here all br ght various forms of Catholicism wi them.
d today, the future will depend on them, if only we can find enough priests to work among them.