RUSSIA: Greek Catholics - The Last Underground Church?

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 29 January 2001

All Greek Catholic parishes in Russia are underground, Bishop Yulian Gbur of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church told Keston News Service in Lviv in September 2000. When the Moscow community attempted to register, he maintained, they were told by officials - in line with the 1997 law on religion - that this was impossible without the supporting signature of their Catholic bishop. Since the Greek Catholic exarchate in Russia is under a Vatican-imposed ban, he said, the hierarch in question is the head of the apostolic administration of European Russia, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz. `He refused to sign,' Gbur told Keston, `saying it would be viewed as proselytism by the Moscow Patriarchate, and the consequences would be bad for the Catholic Church.'

Speaking to Keston by telephone from Omsk on 23 January, Greek Catholic parish priest Sergi Golovanov confirmed this was indeed the situation west of the Urals: `We are not allowed to exist in western Russia.' Thanks to his website on the Greek Catholic Church in Russia, said Golovanov, he frequently receives messages from Greek Catholics all over European Russia who lament that when they try to form official parishes, `they are told they cannot exist, or there will be bad relations with the Moscow Patriarchate.' `It is currently easier to be a Greek Catholic Russian in Munich or Paris than here,' he told Keston, `where we have become victims of this policy.' Golovanov is unsure of the number of Greek Catholic formations in European Russia, but knows of their presence in Vladimir, Tula, Moscow, Perm, Samara and St Petersburg.

In an official 2000 directory of the Catholic Church in Russia, the Moscow community of Greek Catholics is referred to not as a parish, but a `pastoral point'. On 22 January the community's priest Andrei Udovenko - the only one in European Russia - confirmed to Keston it has the status of a religious group under the 1997 law on religion. (The only legal rights of a religious group are to worship on premises provided by its members and to teach its own followers.) When Keston asked if Archbishop Kondrusiewicz had refused to sign registration papers, Udovenko simply replied that the archbishop had suggested it would be better to wait before trying to obtain legal status.

Udovenko told Keston that the community was formed in 1990 and had never had state registration, although it became part of the Catholic Church in Russia in 1992. The approximately 40, mostly Russian, regular attendees meet for worship in the chapel of Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity on the eastern edge of the capital. In Udovenko's view this situation gave Moscow's Greek Catholics `enough' freedom: `We don't need to trade or anything. All we need to do is gather.'

Udovenko claimed the Moscow community is content to be `invisible and quiet'. If it obtained its own church building, he said, `the priest would not be free, nonbelievers would come and try to get baptised, there would be financial issues to deal with.' He estimated, however, that if there were a Greek Catholic church building, it would support a parish of several thousand people. If the community were never able to obtain such a church, he said, `there are no prospects for us – it will all end with my death.'

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz was not available for comment when Keston contacted the Moscow curia. However, on 11 January chancellor of the apostolic administration, Fr Igor Kovalevsky, confirmed to Keston that there were no Greek Catholic structures in the administration. The Moscow community - which, he stressed, was not a parish – existed within the Latin-rite structure, said Kovalevsky, and was quite content not to be registered: `At the moment everyone is happy with the status quo so there is no reason to change it.' On 15 January a Roman Catholic source in Moscow told Keston he understood the Greek Catholics had not been registered because it was `too controversial to legalise them'.

Although Fr Udovenko told Keston that seasonal workers from Ukraine formed a significant part of the Greek Catholic presence in Moscow, he thought the parishes in Siberia were openly tolerated since they were `ethnic Ukrainian'. Fr Kovalevsky also made this link: `There are of course Greek Catholics in Russia because there are a lot of Galicians [west Ukrainians] here, especially in Siberia.' Fr Golovanov, however, denied this was the case. The difference between Siberia and European Russia was not the number of Ukrainian Greek Catholics, he maintained, but the attitude within the apostolic administrations:

`Bishop Iosif Werth [of western Siberia] takes responsibility upon himself and is of truly catholic views, whereas in Europe they are trying to keep on the right side of the Moscow Patriarchate.' In Siberia, he said, it was the policy to register a Greek Catholic parish under the apostolic administration if it had a priest, and there were now four registered and reregistered parishes (a total of approximately 400 parishioners) in Novokuznetsk and Prokopiyevsk (Kemerovo region), and Omsk and Sargatskoye (Omsk region). Fr Golovanov told Keston that his Omsk parish even had its own church building - a former mosque bought with funds from German Catholic foundation Renovabis.

On 25 January Igor Vyzhanov, spokesman for Orthodox-Catholic relations at the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations, told Keston the Russian Orthodox Church would naturally view an open Greek Catholic presence in Russia negatively, `but it isn't very strong right now - thank God.' As far as he knew, the Moscow Greek Catholic community did not wish to register. If a hundred Greek Catholics said they needed a church and a priest the Moscow Patriarchate would not complain, he said: `We can't stop them - it is for the state to decide.' If they built the church first, however, this would constitute proselytism, thought Vyzhanov.

Fr Udovenko told Keston his community was not experiencing concrete obstruction from the Moscow Patriarchate `as yet', while Fr Golovanov said local Orthodox had tried to warn people about Uniates five years ago, `but they stopped when it became clear they were merely advertising our presence'. He added, though, that the current situation meant those wishing to form Eastern-rite Catholic parishes were turning away disillusioned. `A group forms, sees that there is no future and splits up, some go to the Latin-rite church - although it is an alien place to us. Others attend Orthodox churches but are afraid to say they are Greek Catholic, they pray for the pope in secret.'. (END)