Catholic Dioceses in Russia

Author: LOR


L’Osservatore Romano

Some insist on accusing the Catholic Church of having "invaded" Russian territory, which they claim is "Orthodox". In fact, this phenomenon began in past centuries and did not come about on account of any desire of the Catholic Church. On the contrary, it was a very unhappy event, since the deportations that first the czars and then Stalin brought about, affected the Catholic faithful coming from European nations, forcing them to be scattered throughout the vast Russian territory.

Catholic dioceses in the 18th and 19th centuries

For a first detailed and documented account of such a Catholic "invasion" of Russia, one should consult the annual directory of the Archdiocese of Mohilev for 1858. Among other things the following stipulation appears: "Printing is permitted on the condition that the number of copies prescribed by law is presented to the Censure Committee".

According to this directory, in 1858, 112,799 Catholic faithful lived in the territory of today's Russian Republic. They belonged to the Archdiocese of Mohilev, and had 21 parishes on the European side and about ten on the Asian side.

On 3 December 1773, Empress Catherine II had established the "Byelorussian Episcopate", by decree and without prior agreement with the Holy See, and the chief diocese was Mohilev.

Later, anticipating the Holy See's decision, Catherine the Great, with a decree of 28 January 1782, suppressed the "Byelorussian Episcopate". To replace it, she created the Archdiocese of Mohilev, destined to include the entire Russian Empire within its boundaries. Having established diplomatic relations with Czarist Russia, Pope Pius VI, with the Bull Onerose pastoralis of 15 April 1783, authorized Archbishop Giovanni Archetti, Apostolic Nuncio in Poland, to proceed to the canonical establishment of the Archiepiscopal See of Mohilev. The Nuncio completed his task. With the document Pastoralis sollicitudo of 21 December 1783, he established the Archdiocese of Mohilev that became the world's largest ecclesiastical province, corresponding to the boundaries of the Russian Empire and including all the governorates, even those in its Eastern regions.

It must be kept in mind that Orthodoxy was commonly held to be the Russians' traditional religion. As a consequence, since the creation of the Holy Synod to replace the Patriarchate of Moscow, that was suppressed in 1720, the Orthodox Church had been regarded as the State Church.

Edict of Toleration of Nicholas II

The civil authorities, and especially the Czar, in incorporating the Orthodox church into the structure of the State, defined relations between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. Indeed, with the Edict of Toleration of Nicholas II of 28 April 1905, the basic criteria were formulated to regulate relations between the two Churches in the Russian Empire. However, the period of toleration was too brief to allow a platform for collaboration to be worked out.

Modern increase of Catholic faithful

The increase in the number of Catholic faithful in the Russian Empire should be ascribed to various factors: the Russian occupation of the great territories of the Polish-Lithuanian State as a result of the three partitions of that country; the arrival of German colonial farmers; the mass deportations of Catholics from the Kingdom of Poland to the territories of the Russian Empire; the emigration to Russia of Poles and Lithuanians, looking for work. In the territories of Siberia, the German colonization and mass deportations, mostly of Poles, were crucial factors in the arrival of Catholics.

Number of Catholics in 1915 and number od dioceses in 1920s

Thus Catholicism continued to spread in these territories, first of the Czarist empire and then of the Soviets.

In 1915, in the European part of today’s Russia, there were more than 80 parishes with almost 220,000 Catholic faithful, and, in the Siberian region, there were more than 40 parishes, with almost 140,000 faithful. We exclude from these figures the Diocese of Tiraspol, with headquarters in Saratov since the territories of the Volga (Povolze) and of Southern Ukraine belonged to it, and it is therefore difficult to distinguish between the statistical data of Russia and that of the Ukraine.

At the beginning of the 1920’s and already after the first victims of the Bolshevik regime, the administration of the Catholic Church in the Russia of today was divided as follows:

1. The Archdiocese of Mohilev extended over the whole territory of European Russia and Eastern Byelorussia;

2. To the Diocese of Tiraspol, with Saratov as the See city, belonged the territories of the Volga (Povolze) and Southern Ukraine;

3. The Diocese of Vladivostok, established on 2 February 1923, extended over the territory of Central Siberia and to the Far East;

4. The Apostolic Vicariate of Siberia, established on 1 December 1921, included the regions of Irkutsk, Tomsk and Omsk.

All in all, one can say that at the beginning of the 1920s, there were about 1,650,000 Catholics in the territory of Russia, belonging to 580 parishes or churches and served by 397 priests.

Even into the 1950s, the number of Catholics increased considerably, for millions of people were forced by violence and terror to move to the territories of Siberia and Kazkhstan, and, after these deportations, large gatherings of Catholics were also formed in Siberia.

Present numbers of Catholics and need for pastoral care

In the present state of affairs it is still difficult to define the exact number of Catholics who live in the territory of the Russian Federation.It can be asserted, and it is close to the truth, that today there are about 1,300,000 Catholics in the entire Russian Federation.

By raising the four apostolic administrations to the rank of dioceses and by creating the metropolitan see in the Russian Federation, His Holiness John Paul II wishes to respond concretely with pastoral solicitude to all who have freely chosen and recognized the Catholic Church as their own "home" or "family". It is not a case of introducing new ecclesiastical structures in these territories; rather, it is a case of restoring those that already existed, adapting them to the present situation.

The current increase in the number of Catholics in the Russian Federation is certainly not caused by the transfer of Orthodox faithful to the Catholic Church. The new Catholics tend to come from backgrounds that are usually far from religious practice. Having come into contact with the Catholic Church, they ask to be baptized and to belong to her. This should be enough to lead one to discard the hypothesis or accusation of proselytism, often formulated with a certain amount of guesswork and obviously based on an inappropriate or partisan interpretation of the facts. Moreover, the idea of some that the phenomenon of proselytism and the Church's missionary obligation are equivalent is unacceptable. Disciples of Christ cannot forget the Lord's mandate to the Apostles: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28,19).

It might also be pointed out that in the religious and cultural debates in Orthodoxy, many hold that Russia can benefit from the presence in its territory of small but religiously motivated Catholic communities. In no way do they intend to overwhelm the cultural identity of a country that is traditionally regarded as Orthodox nor could they ever do so.

Right of an autonomous church to establish structures for faithful in countries of another tradition

In the past, the icy torment of religious persecution was unleashed several times in the territory of which we are speaking. The ecclesial rebirth, following upon the collapse of State legal order opposed to human dignity and freedom, is an undertaking that requires a union of minds and hearts in order to bring the word of life and the gifts of grace to those who do not know Jesus Christ and the Gospel, in the communion that flows from the one Baptism.

Russia is a signatory of international conventions that provide, among other things, for the rights of freedom of conscience and of religion which they do attribute not to the territories but to the human person. Indeed, for the international juridical order, it is the individual human person and the community of believers who are entitled to this right, and not territories or nations. Moreover, in this regard, and in fidelity to the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church respects the initiative of the Orthodox Church in establishing the structures for pastoral government which it deems necessary to assure religious assistance to its own faithful scattered throughout the world outside the territory of the Russian Federation. Likewise, the Catholic Church asks for the same respect when she must organize adequate religious assistance for her own faithful who, although the majority are born of parents or grandparents of different nationalities, for all intents and purposes, are Russian citizens and for the most part speak only Russian.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 February 2002, page 10

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069