A Childhood of Persecution Prepared His Ministry

Author: ZENIT


A Childhood of Persecution Prepared His Ministry

Part 1Interview With Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz

MINSK, Belarus, 22 NOV. 2010 (ZENIT)
Growing up in a situation of discrimination due to his Catholic faith only strengthened his love for the Church and prepared Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz for a ministry to persecuted Christians.

In this interview given to the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, the archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev spoke about his vocational story and the challenges of working in a communist environment.

Born in Odelsk, near Grodno, in Belorussia, or modern-day Belarus, in 1946, he was ordained a priest in 1981. In 1989 he was ordained a bishop.

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz has served as head of the Minsk-Mohilev Archdiocese since 2007.

Part 2 of this interview will be published Tuesday.

Q: You grew up in Belorussia under an atheist regime. What was it like to live as a believer under such a system?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Well, it was a difficult time especially for believers. I remember in school, several times, the teacher asked me to stand in front of the school, before my class and he was always bothering me, accusing me of going to Church, of being a believer, of praying and celebrating religious feasts etc. It was not easy.

Q: It was known that you were a Christian, that you were a Catholic?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Yes, yes. In our village we were practically all believers. I was serving as an altar boy.

The priest was very active, playing soccer with us, and often I was helping in the organization. Everybody could see that I was always with the priest.

Q: And for this you would be called up and discriminated against? How was this?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Well, for a young man it was difficult to hear these accusations.

At the same time it prepared me for my future role as a priest during the Soviet times — a time of persecution. It was hard. You must believe and you have to serve the Church despite the difficulties.

Q: What about your parents? What sacrifices did they have to make as believers?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Oh! So many times they were summoned to the school.

Usually parents were called to the school because their son or daughter did something bad, which is a normal thing, but my parents were called because I was a believer, because I spoke to somebody, a colleague, about Church and that we were to go and serve as an altar boys.

I was like an agent of the Church and they always summoned my parents and warned them that I was not doing well because of my beliefs. My parents went several times to the school and finally my parents decided not to go back, telling me that they were not going back to the school: "If you did something bad, yes, you will be punished, but for such things, we are believers, we're not going."

Q: Did your father suffer, for example, as a consequence of his own faith during the Soviet times?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: We did not have a priest in the village and in our parish for a very long time, and everybody suffered.

My father was very active. He usually traveled a lot to Lithuania, to Latvia, where there were more priests or neighboring parishes, looking for a priest to celebrate Mass during the important feasts. Eventually he was asked by everybody to find a priest for our parish because he knew where to go. It was practical. He was a simple man and worked in agriculture and the officials could not punish him. He was already in the fields.

Q: Was there a Church in your village? How would you celebrate Mass?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: We had a Church. The Church was open, but for five or six years we had no priest. The old priest died and we did not have a replacement.

Through the strong faith of my grandparents, my parents, and then I, our faith survived and this was the same with the others. It was a custom on Sundays — despite having no Mass — we went to Church.

Q: And what would there be?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: We prayed the rosary, litanies and the stations of the cross and so on. I grew up in such an environment and such a mindset that on Sunday I must be in Church.

Q: How was prayer life at home?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: We prayed together every day in the evening with our parents. It became a custom.

After that our grandparents and parents taught us the catechism. It was a very simple question and answer format and it was every evening, every day. It was very good. It was my formation.

Today I ask the parents and children openly: "Are you praying together? Are you going to Church together? Do you practice and receive the sacraments and are your children witnesses to this?" It is a difficult question to ask.

Q: Your persecution for the faith was not just being pulled up in front of the class. It also cost you one year at the university. Was it the department of physics and mathematics at the university? What happened there?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: I started university in mathematics and physics. I like these subjects very much.

Later on, some papers, some articles were written about me: "How can he be a future teacher of young people?" I knew then that I was not going to finish my courses.

They found many excuses, accusations to blame me for something — I don't know. I liked the university, the professors and the rector and I did not want them to be in a difficult situation. I took my papers and worked for one year. I then went to Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — and enrolled at a Polytechnic University.

Q: And there you could complete your studies?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Yes. It was a different situation in Leningrad. Later on as a bishop I also felt this.

Leningrad is a city of religious tolerance. And it was during the same (Soviet) time. Actually, my first step in enrolling to the Polytechnic could have been my last. I brought all my papers with me. I did not send it via post.

When I arrived at the Polytechnic I took my papers from my jacket and presented them to this lady. She looked and asked me to hold out my hand. I did not understand the request. I did as she told me and she placed something in my hand and told me not to show it to anybody. It was the cross from my pocket. I don't know how it happened but somehow it got mixed with my documents and it came out. She could have dismissed me immediately.

Q: You're a relatively late vocation. You entered the seminary at age 30. When was it that you had a sense of your vocation?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: It was difficult times and the numbers of priests in Belorussia were declining. I knew a lot of priests and I started to think and pray.

Once I came home to Grodno. I took a prayer book from home and went to Church. I thought it was my prayer book but it wasn't. All the books look the same because it came from Poland. It was the prayer book of my mother.

I opened this prayer book and I found a small icon and a prayer of a mother for a priestly vocation for her son. My mother never talked to me about it. She never mentioned even one word but I understood that she was praying.

My father said several times that I was not going to be married, so maybe I was going to be a priest, but my mother never said anything. I discovered that she was always praying for my vocation.

I too prayed and one day in Vilnius, in the Chapel of Our Lady of Mercy, I made my decision. Later on I was made the assistant priest in this same chapel.


A Childhood of Persecution Prepared His Ministry Part 2Interview With Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz

MINSK, Belarus, 23 NOV. 2010 (ZENIT)
Despite the challenges of living and ministering in an atheist society, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz says that the faith of the Catholics has remained strong amid persecution.

In this interview given to the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, the archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev spoke about the strength of faith of the people around him, and what they can offer the universal Church.

Born in Odelsk, near Grodno, in Belorussia, or modern-day Belarus, in 1946, he was ordained a priest in 1981. In 1989 he was ordained a bishop. Archbishop Kondrusiewicz has served as head of the Minsk-Mohilev Archdiocese since 2007.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Monday.

Q: How was it to live your life as a priest in this time (of communism)?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: You had to be very careful with what you said or even thought, but for several years I was serving as a priest in Lithuania. It was a different situation from Belorussia and Russia. It was a greater freedom.

We also had many more priests in such cities as Vilnius where I was serving. There were ten priests. It was not bad. Now there are fewer priests.  

Providing liturgical services in the Church was allowed but providing pastoral care in hospitals was difficult; visiting was not allowed. Very often doctors would not allow it as well. So we called the sick patients to come to our car outside and we would hear their confession. This was possible only if the patient could walk. For those who couldn't walk, we visited them in the hospitals as visitors. We had everything in our pocket. We listened to the confessions of everyone. It was not convenient but we had to serve them.

Q: Later when you were in Russia as a bishop you were obliged to bless a stone from the Church though there was no Church left. Can you tell us a little bit about this?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: It is a very interesting and a moving story. It happened in a city called Marx. The church was destroyed and we received permission to build a new one.

I arrived because I was to bless the cornerstone for the new church. I was presented with a simple brick requesting me to bless it and use it as a cornerstone. It was an acceptable request and surprising for me because it was a plain, ordinary, old red brick stone. Normally everyone searches for stones from Rome or Fatima to be used as cornerstones.

I was told the story: When the church was destroyed the people took the bricks and brought them home. This particular red brick became the symbol of the destroyed church and through the years people prayed, lit candles and put crosses and flowers beside it. The people wanted some continuation between the old church and the new one under construction.

Another incident happened in Grodno. The government wanted to close a church. When the officials entered the church, however, they found the people lying on the floor of the church in the shape of a cross.

The officials were not able to close this church. For 28 years there was no priest in this church — I was the first priest appointed to this church after 28 years. People for a long time requested for a permanent priest in this church and the officials always refused. The officials used to say: "Grass is more to likely grow on my palm than you getting permission to have a priest in the parish."

Now we have a cathedral and a bishop. People have always had a strong faith in God.

Another incident happened in Belorussia. A priest was serving several parishes and it was during Lent. The priest did not come. The people asked themselves what to do. A woman then told them: "We will confess our sins in the name of Jesus."

She took a cross and brought it to where confession was normally heard. They all made a confession to the cross and believed that this was acceptable because they'd been waiting for several hours and in this situation the confession was valid. You can find many similar stories indicating a love for the Church and the strength of faith.

Q: Communism has fallen. What would you say now, in retrospect, is the greatest damage that communism did on the hearts of the people?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Seventy years of communism characterized by persecution damaged the heart and soul of the people.

On the other hand, now we are witnessing the process of secularization, which is coming also to us. The effects are much more damaging. We are now searching for an answer to counter this process of secularization. What are we going to do?

In former times there was the external prohibition imposed upon the Church and the Christian faith. Now, however, people are rejecting their faith on their own volition. This is more dangerous.

Q: You are the Catholic Archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev. What is the Catholic population?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Belorussia (Belarus) has about 10 million people and 15% are Catholics, which is about a million and a half. We have four dioceses, two seminaries, 450 parishes and 440 priests. Some 270 are native or local priests. We still need priests, nuns and a great need for Church buildings.

The city of Minsk before 1917 was not as big as it is now. The city now has two million people. In 1917 it was a small city and yet we had 17 Catholic churches — now we only have four Catholic churches and two chapels for 300,000 Catholics. It was previously very difficult to ask permission to build new churches and secure land. Now, however, the situation has changed.

At the moment I have about six pieces of land to build new churches and another piece of land to build a curia. Last year I received building permits for four and building more is not going to be a problem. The problem is funding.

Q: There was one church, which was converted from a movie house. How many Masses do you celebrate there?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: It is called St. Simon and St. Helen Church but everybody calls it the Red Church. On Sundays we celebrate about 15 Masses and sometimes there are three Masses at the same time.

In any case we need these small churches. Now I have received permission to build churches — and not big churches that cost millions but small ones that cost around €300,000-€400,000 ($408,300-$544,400) in every district or region of the city.

Q: What can the Belorussian Church offer to the universal Church?  

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Our experience of being persecuted enabled us to preserve our faith and transmit it to the younger generations.

Our people today are trying not to subscribe to the ideals of secularization, moral relativism or this philosophy of post modernism, which does not recognize absolute truth — everything is relative.

When the Holy Father asks us to receive the Eucharist kneeling we do not have a problem in abiding with this rule because we have always received it kneeling.

Q: So it is the strength of faith?

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Yes, the strength of faith.

They also have not rejected the traditions of the Catholic Church such as the old prayers traditions, rosary, stations of the cross, litanies, processions like the Eucharistic procession.

Last year, for the Corpus Christi celebration, about 10,000 people marched on the main street of Minsk. The whole ceremony took three and a half hours from start to the finish. This is not happening in other countries.

This is a reflection of the Belorussian love for God — and many of them still remember the old times when there was only one priest in Minsk.

* * *

This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

For more information: www.WhereGodWeeps.org

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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