Page 5, 8th March 1991

8th March 1991
Page 5
Page 5, 8th March 1991 — Soviet faithful prepare anew for Easter

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Organisations: Catholic church
Locations: Vilnius, Moscow, Leningrad, Rome, Riga


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Soviet faithful prepare anew for Easter

TWO years ago the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Leningrad's only working Catholic church, was moribund. A dwindling and elderly congregation was ministered to by one old Lithuanian priest. There was no education in the faith and a minimum of pastoral work. The church was not marked on any Soviet maps of the city. The only young people at mass were students from "brother socialist" Poland.

Now the Catholics of Leningrad are emerging from their long night. Easing of the state repression of religion, and the cooperation of Leningrad's new democratically-elected noncommunist local council, have helped bring about a period of rebirth and renewal.

Now on Sundays Our Lady of Lourdes offers five masses in Russian and Polish; the crypt is full of children being prepared for their first communion by five sisters of Mother 'I'eresa's order; a team of young and vigorous priests preach topical and learned sermons; lay parishioners organise distribution of western European food aid.

Leading the resurrection of the church in Leningrad is Fr Evgenii Heinrichs. A native Leningrader in his thirties and a Dominican, Fr Heinrichs operated underground for almost a decade before being appointed priest in this parish in 1989.

Fr Heinrichs derives great hope from this good news: Rome has promised the appointment, around Easter, of a new Bishop of Moscow to head the church in Russia.

This, he expects, will give new Impetus to Catholic life in Russia. At present, he explains, the church is hampered by the awkward structure imposed by the state: Russia's two main cities fall within completely


is under the jurisdiction of Riga, Latvia, while Moscow is subordinate to Vilnius, Lithuania. So Catholics in Leningrad and Moscow have for decades been unable to coordinate their activities. "A Bishop in Moscow will make our lives considerably easier," he says.

Until the law on religious freedom was passed last year, nothing could be done without official authorisation. Now the parish can take on new priests, and institute new masses and catechism classes without bureaucratic approval.

But the bureaucrats are still at their desks, in expectation of a backlash. And recent events — army killings of peaceful demonstrators in Vilnius and Riga, the clampdown on the democratic press — indicate that a hardline communist backlash may not be far away. So Fr Heinrichs is cautious.

But while he avoids using the pulpit for political commentaries, he does not shy away from tough moral teaching where appropriate. "After (the shootings in) Lithuania, we prayed for victims, and 1 preached about the need to live in accordance with conscience, so that no one could be in any doubt where the church stands.

"We have to find the golden mean," be concludes, "neither excessive worldliness, nor passivity and Indifference. The church must remain true to its main mission: to be a witness to eternal truths."

The first priority for Leningrad, says Fr Heinrichs, is the opening of two new churches: St Catherine's and St Sviatoslav's. Almost all Catholic churches and buildings were nationalised in 1925, after the Bolsheviks murdered or exiled the clergy. Now Leningrad's local council has informally given these properties back to the church. All that is needed are priests for mass and money for repairs.

Supporting Fr Heinrichs is a group of vigorous laymen forming the parish committee, responsible for administering parish activities and finances including payment of the priest's salary. Over the last two years the committee has built up a small fund for church use. But solvency brings its own problems: various state organisations now request contributions from the church. "They try to shame us into giving up money which we need to spend on our own pastoral work and repairs," says Pavel Kadis, the parish auditor. "In your country, people ask for charity; here, they demand it."

Marc Polonsky

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