400 KILOMETRES ARE A STONE’S THROW
Artur Stelmasiak talks with Bishop Cyril Klimowicz about the Catholic Church in Siberia
ARTUR STELAMSIAK: – The Diocese of Bishop is full of paradoxes. Territorially it is bigger than all countries of the European Union and the number of believers is estimated as 50 thousand. It is as much as there are biggest parishes in Warsaw. It is further from Irkuck to some parishes than from Poland to Portugal. How does Bishop visit his believers?
BISHOP CYRYL KLIMOWICZ: – I drive till a thousand of kilometers. When there is a further journey, I travel by plane.
– Does Bishop drive a thousand of kilometers by himself? After all, Siberia is a dangerous wilderness!
– It is possible to get used to it. I set off at 2 a.m. and I get to my destination in the evening. Indeed, there are roads on which there is no asphalt within the distance of 300-400 km. I drive there because I do not have a driver or a secretary. I would have to take away a priest from his pastoral duties but we cannot allow for it in the diocese.
– And what kind of car does Bishop drive to Siberia?
– The diocese has 2 cars which are about 10 years old. Some time ago I managed to buy a few-year-old Subaru forester. This is a kind of a higher kombi with a drive on 4 wheels.
– Wouldn’t an all-terrain vehicle be better?
– Surely, it would. But it is costly.
– What is the temperature in Siberia?
– In winter in Irkuck there is 40-degree frost. But there are places where there is over 50 minus degrees.
– Beside administering the diocese, Bishop has many other duties….
– In Irkuck the Bishop is a person who can be seen while holding a hammer or an axe. I have an unlimited range of work.
– And what about pastoral duties?
– Beside it, I travel all over the diocese and visit parishes, as I must ‘patch holes’ in the lacks of pastoral ministry. I go to parishes and celebrate the Holy Masses, otherwise believers would not have Sunday Eucharist.
– Are there many parishes in which the Holy Mass is celebrated more seldom than once a week?
– We are making efforts so that the Holy Mass would be celebrated in bigger parishes every week, but there are also such places where the Holy Masses are celebrated once a month. In the diocese there are such areas where one priest is supposed ‘to serve’ to 15 pastoral points. In order to celebrate the Holy Mass for 10-15 people, we must travel a few hundred kilometers. In our diocese 400 km are a stone’s throw.
– Don’t you even get any financial return for petrol?
– It is difficult to speak about the financial issue. The Catholic Church in Siberia is a very deficit venture. Most priests do not have enough means for the basic needs. In our diocese the biggest parishes include 250-300 people. Although people are poor, they share what they have with us. However, parishes are not self-sufficient.
– Humanly speaking, the work of priests in the diocese of Bishop is hobby-like, not paid.
– Exactly. Priests who are going to Siberia, are not thinking about any salaries. However, the beauty of pastoral ministry is just based on it.
– Although Bishop has too few priests, they must also come to Poland for retreats to ‘earn’ for renovation and maintenance of their parishes. Are there parishes in Siberia which maintain themselves on their own?
– There are a few parishes which are able to pay for electricity and taxes, but none of them will manage with the costs of renovation, for example. Most of them cannot afford even to pay the basic bills.
– When in 2002 pope John Paul II established the diocese in Iruck, there appeared voices of outrage from the Moscow patriarchy. At that time it was said that the Church in Russia is treated as a ‘sect’. And how is the Catholic Church perceived in the Russian Federation now?
– The situation has improved to a large extent. Contacts of the Catholic Church with state authorities and with the Orthodox Church have been formed. Today there is more understanding and there is no more such tension.
– Does it mean that the Catholics are not ‘agents of Vatican’ any longer?
– We are rather stopping being them. The belief that Catholic priests are an unfamiliar body in Russia is disappearing.
– How did it happen that such a thaw in mutual relations came?
– There is a completely different atmosphere from the Orthodox Church. The change arrived with taking over the authority by the patriarch Cyril. Another level is represented also by the Orthodox clergy.
– But probably Catholic priests have also changed their attitude. What is the difference between their attitude from the 90s of the last century and the current one?
– Indeed our pastoral attitude got changed. Catholic priests are more reasonable and open to the cooperation. We do not interfere into national issues and we say that the Catholic Church is open to everybody.
– The Orthodox Church in the 90s of the last century felt endangered by the ‘assault’ of well- prepared and educated Catholic priests. Do orthodox priests see in the Catholic clergy their partners, not enemies, when they have just rebuilt their orthodox churches and educated the generation of better-prepared priests?
– The attitude has got changed. Orthodox priests are more carefully formed and educated. And it also brings fruits in relationships with other religions. Besides it, the example comes from up. If bishops of Churches have normal relationships with one another, also priests start talking and cooperate with one another.
– How many priests does Bishop have in his diocese? Where do they come from?
– In total there are about 40 of them. At present I have a big cultural mosaic. Among them there are also Poles, as well as the Argentinians, Americans, Koreans, Slovaks, Brazilians and priests from India and Indonesia, and the local ones – the Russians.
– Indeed, it is a big cultural melting-pot. And what about believers – what is their nationality?
– In the very district of Irkuck over 120 various nationalities have been registered. I am not able to mention all of them. Among Catholic believers, there are a few descendants of Polish families, mainly the exiles. There are also the Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Russians and indigenous inhabitants of these lands (Buraci and Evenks, etc.)
– So many nationalities are also the effect of the policy of tsars and later Stalin. History caused a lot of commotion here…
– I often hear a question from clerks: why are there the Catholics in Siberia? I answer that it is necessary to look at the history of this place.
– Siberia is, however, a missionary area. Does one still feel spiritual desolation which was caused by the communists here?
– For decades people have lived here without God. There were not any priests or any divine services, and the whole social-cultural system was directed against God. When I talk with people accidentally, I notice that their religious level is very low.
– What language are divine services celebrated in?
– Our divine services are celebrated mostly in Russian, thanks to which they are understandable to everybody. However, liturgy in orthodox churches is celebrated in the Old-Orthodox language. We are trying to catechize in an understandable and simple language.
– This pastoral work is specific. How does it differ from the one which we know from the Polish realities?
– It is completely different than in Poland, where a priest can expect believers on Sunday. In our country a priest must go out to people, because if he does not do it, he will have an empty church. In Poland faith is passed from generations to generations, that is, from a grandmother and grandfather to parents and from parents to children. The most important Christian formation takes place in the family. Whereas in Siberia it is completely the other way round. First we form and catechize children, who later bring their parents and grandparents to us. Our preparation for baptism of adults takes a year. So, we try to educate conscious Christians who will be able to bring others to Christ’s Church.
– So, the Church relies on children….
– Family relations are very weak. People do not usually know what the sacrament of marriage is. There are a lot of single mothers. So, we must take care of their children so that they would not live in the street. At present we are working with children of the streets, with rejected youth. These are very good and talented people. But if they are not given any perspectives and possibilities for their development, they will drown in addictions and other pathologies.
– What can we do here, in Poland, for the Church in Siberia?
– First of all, we ask for a prayer. We are open and we invite priests and nuns to work here. However, our pastoral ministry also requires material support. If it was not for money gained outside Siberia we could not maintain our parishes, priests or churches. On my and believers’ behalf I thank for every help.