Stalin’s missionary work
Bishop Athanasius Schneider is Auxiliary Bishop of Karaganda, Kazakhstan.
He was born in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, a little Republic close to the Chinese border just below Kazakhstan. In 1973 he immigrated to Germany. After his studies in Germany, he entered the Monastery of the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross in Austria. After the novitiate, he was sent to Brazil, to the mission. There he studied theology and was ordained priest. His superior sent him to Rome to further his studies. Since 1999, he has been teaching theology at Mary, Mother of the Church Seminary in Karaganda. His episcopal ordination took place in Rome on June 2, 2006. Bishop Athanasius Schneider is the General Secretary of the Bishops' Conference of Kazakhstan.
Q) When we hear of Kazakhstan, we don’t necessarily think of Catholics, but in fact, the Catholic Church has deep roots in Kazakhstan. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the Catholic Church in Kazakhstan?
A) I would be more precise, not the Catholic Church per se, but Christianity has very deep roots. Even in the third and fourth century there were signs of Christians in Central Asia, and in the middle Ages there were even missionaries form the Latin Rite, but the big presence of Christians and especially of Catholics were connected with the Stalin regime. In the thirties, Stalin deported millions of Europeans to Kazakhstan; Kazakhstan was a big concentration camp during those times, and suddenly there appeared almost half a million Catholics. This appearance however, was in a situation of suffering and the Church had to exist underground.
Q) You are German. How did you come to arrive in Kazakhstan?
A) My parents were from the German settlements in the Black sea, near Odessa and at the end of the Second World War; the German Army took all these German people - 300,000 of them - to Berlin to protect them from the Russians. And when the Russian Army occupied Berlin they took back these people as “forced labour” to three places – Kazakhstan, Siberia and to the Ural Mountains. My parents where sent to the Ural Mountains. They were forced to work there and it’s a miracle that they survived. When they were freed they moved to Central Asia, which was then part of the Soviet Union, in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, a little Republic close to the Chinese border just below Kazakhstan. There I was born and spent my childhood. Then we moved from Kazakhstan to Estonia which was still part of the Soviet Union. There I lived for four years. We had a church which was 100 km away and we had to travel that 100 hundred kilometres to attend the Holy Mass.
Q) Every Sunday one hundred kilometres?
A) Once every month because it was too expensive for us. We are four children and the parents.
Q) How would you go, by car…?
A) By train… But even so, it was dangerous because, during those times, the Communist government forbade children from participating in the Holy Mass. Only adults were allowed to go, but we were four children and therefore my parents chose to take the first train in the morning when it was still dark so we wouldn’t be visible to others to see us… And then we travelled with the first train; it was, for me, unforgettable. I was a child of ten – twelve years and these excursions and journeys for the Holy Mass were unforgettable. And then we would return with the last train in the evening … in the dark… The Sundays, we spent with our parish priest who had a little room only - not a house, but just a little room; it was his kitchen, sleeping room, and library in this one room. We spent our time because we were the family who travelled from afar. There I made my first confession and first communion with this Holy priest who was also imprisoned in Karaganda earlier.
Q) When you were in Brazil your superior sent you to Rome to further your studies - a Doctorate in Patriology (1). During your stay in Rome, you were appointed General Councilor of the order and you always dreamt of returning to Brazil when your mandate was finished. But then, you met somebody else who meant you took a turn in your life?
A) Yes, someone told me that there is a priest who just arrived from Kazakhstan. I’ve never been to Kazakhstan but in Kyrgyzstan and I was told that he wanted to speak to me. I did not know this priest nor did he know me. Then this priest told me: "We have established a seminary in Karaganda and we have no teachers. Could you come and help us?" So he invited me.
Q) Can you tell me: How would you describe the faith of the people?
A) The faith of the people is characterized by the sadness of our martyrs - confessors of the faith, the situation of the persecuted church and so the people keep this faith alive and try to live this, to have a great appreciation of the sacraments, of the sacredness, of the reverence of the priest.
Q) The former Soviet Union suffered seventy years of state atheism. Can you still see the scars of state atheism on the hearts of the people?
A) As a consequence of this atheism which was intrinsically materialistic, it destroyed the supernatural, spiritual values and therefore, this phenomenon, for example, alcoholism spread even more because the people's lives had no sense without spirituality, without spiritual value. There was a vacuum, but even during the communist times, this was growing. The family was destroyed by this materialism; there was the practice of divorce, and abortion. This materialism destroyed that sense of spiritual values.
Q) You have written a book: "Dominus Est – Reflections from a Bishop in Central Asia on Holy Communion" , in which you argue that we should reconsider the question of hand communion. Whether we should receive it on the hand or it would not be better, as it was, in the mouth and kneeling… How did you come to this new understanding?
A) For me it’s not a new understanding, I, all my life, lived this because I received the Holy Communion in such circumstances of persecution, and this reverence; it was so natural for me as a child to receive; I was told this is God here present really, and it was so natural to kneel and; “This is the Most Holy" as we say “The Most Holy - Sanctisimum". Even my mother who lived during this times of persecution; once she saved a priest from the police in the Urals where she was deported, and then her mother, my grandmother was very ill and when the priest was departing, my grandmother asked my mother to ask the priest prior to his departure to please ask the priest to leave a Holy Host- consecrated host in case she [grandmother] died so that she could receive the Holy Communion and my mother told the priest this request. And the priest said: “Yes, I will leave you one consecrated host on the condition that you administer this Holy Communion with the most reverence possible". My mother gave her [grandmother] the Holy Communion and to do this my mother took a pair of new white gloves … to give, to administer the host so that she would not touch the host with her bare hands. She would not dare touch the Holy Sacrament with her bare hands and she took a spoon to administer it. And this was so profound and so natural for us, and therefore, when we came and saw this in the Western Churches, I was not so astonished, but we felt so much sorrow in our soul. I do not judge the person receiving communion with their hands, this is another question because they can still receive it with reverence and love, but the objective situation of distributing the Holy Communion; you can not deny this, that it has turned so banal, so less reverent like ... distributing cakes. This is the Lord; when the risen Lord appeared to the three women and they saw Him, they knelt down…
Q) …they fell on their knees…
A) …they fell on their knees on His feet and adored Him. And even the Apostles did the same when the Lord went to heaven. Why should we not do the same? Here is the Lord, really present as it was for a thousand years in the Catholic Church. Why should we change this?
Q) What would be your appeal to the Catholics? What does the Church in Kazakhstan need?
A) Of course prayers, because by prayers we are giving the most precious gift to one another and a sense of solidarity with the local Church which is very far and in difficult situation. We have very few means: personnel, material and so on, but to pray for local priestly vocations. This is necessary that we have local clergy and only then can the Church take roots. And please, if possible to support us in the building of more Churches to make the Church more visible in this world in which we are living and as a sign of evangelization. We are grateful for all these signs of fraternity and solidarity.
This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by the Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
For more information: www.WhereGodWeeps.org
 Patriology is from the Latin [Pater] meaning father, and Greek [logos] meaning word or discourse. In theological terms it is the discourse or study of the personage of the Father. It encompasses the theological study of His position in the Godhead, the essential attributes which make up what it means to be God, such as election, omniscience, omnipotence, etc., and how He is revealed both in the Old and New Testaments. (Glossary of Theologically useful terms)
 “Dominus Est” – It Is the Lord: Reflections of a Bishop of Central Asia on Holy Communion, Most Rev. Athanasius Schneider
Originally published in Italian by the Vatican Press, this book offers readers insights into the sacrality which ought to surround the distribution and reception of Holy Communion. Relying on accurate history and good theology, the author makes a plea for a return to distributing the Eucharist to kneeling communicants on the tongue – the practice now restored at papal liturgies by Pope Benedict XVI. The book comes with the endorsement of the two highest officials in the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments ( St. Augustine’s Press). In the US and Canada: Newman House Publishers, N J
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