Catholic church endangered in Pskov, Russia

Editorial Note: One of our Russian readers sent us via our contact form the following piece on the serious situation of Catholics in Pskov, Russia. Before you read this piece we would like to add some information which might be interesting to you in this context: According to one quarter of the whole population of Russia belong to a church. There are 35 million Orthodox Christians, 500.000 Catholics, 250.000 Lutherans, 150.000 Baptists, 150.000 Charismatics, 120.000 Pentecostals and 70.000 Adventists. On 1th. October, the Swiss Basler Zeitung did an interview with the Russian philosopher Michail Ryklin, who criticised the Orthodox Church. Here is the translation of the relevant passage of this interview (originally in German language), where Michail Ryklin says: “The Orthodox Church is hotbed for nationalists. She wants to be a State Church and refers to the tradition: Since Peter the Great the Church has been a State institution. She has no experience with independency. The official Church and the Sowjet Authorities worked together. The few priests who were dissidents were thrown out by the Church. Many sat for years behind bars, and the Patriarchate in Moscow kept silent. It is a myth that the Church fought against the Power of the USSR. The Church is deeply anti-democratic. She says: Democracy is not a Russian tradition, we are a collectively shaped people. One of her core concepts is Sobornost, a spiritual union, in which the individuals only go together with the collective.”

Catholic church endangered in Pskov, Russia
by Vladimir Berezin
The 1100-year-old city of Pskov lies in the westernmost part of what is now the Russian Federation, and since its very foundation it was the place of close contacts between the Slavs and the various Northern and Western European nationalities. Not far from there lies the birthplace of Princess St. Olga, a saint equally venerated by the Catholics and the Russian Orthodox. She was baptized in 955 AD in Constantinople and later invited a bishop, St. Adalbert of Magdeburg, a German Benedictine, to preach the faith of Jesus Christ in her country.

Trinity Cathedral and Bell Tower in Pskov Kremlin. Pskov, Russia, August 8, 2004

His mission was not successful at that time for St. Olga’s son, Sviatoslav I of Kiev, was a staunch pagan. Here in Pskov, Prince Alexander Nevsky, whom the Russian Orthodox Church commemorates as a Saint much because of his active opposition to the (greatly overstated) invasion of German Crusaders, decided in the 1240s to erect a cathedral church for the Latin-rite faithful with a personal permission of none other than Pope Innocent IV. Much water has flowed beneath the bridges of the Velikaya River since then. In 1852-56 the local Catholics have built in Pskov the church of the Holy Trinity.

This was their place of worship until 1930, when the church was closed down by the atheist Communist regime.

In the 1990s, the years of religious renaissance in Russia, Catholics, too, re-emerged in Pskov. Many churches and other pieces of property confiscated by the Communists were restored to their rightful owners, but not the Holy Trinity Catholic church. It is still there, but the building is now occupied by a state-run production and training center. Instead, the local Catholic community was offered a plot of land near St. Dmitry’s Cemetery which used to have a Catholic section with a chapel. In the jubilee year of 2000 the foundation stone of a new church was solemnly laid there. However building the church was not an easy task. It was not all about money (that was donated by the parishioners and the faithful from many other places, and procured by the parish priest, Fr. Krzysztof Karolewski). Bureaucratic obstacles at times looking more like direct sabotage by the powers that be were much worse.

Bp. Eusebius (Savvin), the Russian Orthodox metropolitan of Pskov and Velikiye Luki, was very active in his opposition to the construction of the church. He went as far as writing a letter to Vladimir Putin, at that time the President of Russia, saying: “No to the Catholics acting freely in our country! Russia does not need Catholic missions! Do not offend our nation with Catholic presence!” He also wrote to the then-Governor of the Pskov Region, Eugeny Mikhailov, demanding to “prevent the erection of a grandiose Catholic kosciol” (a Polish word for “church”, at times used in the Russian language to show Catholicism as something foreign and alien), and to do everything possible to “stop the triumph of the destroyers of our motherland and of our nation, the Pope of Rome and Catholicism, which is repulsive for our people, in the holy land of Pskov” [1]. That was back in 2002.

The building process was then suspended by the authorities and could only be resumed after the Catholics promised to make the dome of the church much lower than it was originally planned, which made the building look somewhat dejected. Why? Simply because a “foreign” church must not be taller than a “Russian” one – the Russian Orthodox cathedral bearing the same name.

In any event, the church is now almost ready. Everything seems to be all right – or, rather, seemed to be all right. In 2005 the Catholic Archbishop Thaddeus Kondrusiewicz consecrated the main building of the church, there are only some finishing works left to be done. For the time being, the services are held in a chapel at the rectory. As for the plot of land the church stands on, the situation is as follows.

According to the law, once the church is finished, the land it occupies must either become parish property or be rented out to the parish for 49 years. Until then, the rental contract is to be renewed annually, which was the case until May 2010, when, all of a sudden, the Pskov Region Property Committee announced that there should be no religious buildings in this area. The Committee refers to the 2003 resolution of the Pskov Duma (local parliament), according to which the town is divided into different land tenure zones. The area where the land rented by the parish is located belongs, according to that resolution, to the water protection and recreational zone. Strangely enough, the same resolution says very clearly that it is still possible to endorse religious buildings being erected in that zone. Besides, all the required endorsements have been obtained before the resolution came into force. This means that the cancellation of the already granted authorization by the regional bureaucrats lacks any legal ground, and the construction is virtually hanging in the air…

Another interesting aspect of the story is the fact that the new Governor of Pskov Region, Andrei Turchak, has recently offered his apologies to the new Catholic Archbishop, Paolo Pezzi, for all the bureaucratic delays in the work of his subordinates, and promised that the issue will be resolved as soon as possible. After that, the attitude of the regional administration became in fact even more negative, and the problem of land tenure even more tangled. Whether it is another outburst of interdenominational hostility or the usual
bureaucratic sluggishness, we know not.

What we do know is that the Holy Trinity church is currently one of only two Catholic churches in the whole Pskov Region with the area of over 55,000 square kilometers (21,200 square miles – considerably greater than, e.g., Switzerland) – compared to more than a dozen churches and many private chapels before the Soviet era. It is a place of worship for locals, inhabitants of surrounding towns, and visiting foreigners, as well as a notable center of charity, donating 100 free lunches to homeless people and 40 to disabled children every day, helping families in need with medicine, and so on – all this
regardless of the individual’s religious affiliation. But most important, it is a church of Our Lord. All this is now being threatened.


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