We Speak with Bishop Athanasius Schneider

Bishop of Karaganda (Kazakhstan)

His Excellency Athanasius Schneider has been the auxiliary bishop of Karaganda, Kazakshstan for close to one year now. He is originally from Kyrgyzstan (Central Asia), where his German parents were deported as prisoners and forced to work in the Ural Mountains in the 1950’s.
In this interview he describes the local situation and challenges of his diocese.

How and when did you feel your vocation to the priesthood and religious life?
A vocation, as the great pope John Paul II said, is a mystery and a gift at the same time. We often cannot explain a vocation with human logic. It is a mystery because God touches the soul.

I remember that when I was ten I would go with my parents and siblings to Mass. We lived in Estonia which was part of the Soviet Union at that time and we had to walk 60 miles to attend Holy Mass. We counted on an exemplary priest who had suffered greatly in the persecution. I remember that this priest impressed me greatly when I was yet a child, above all for his priestly, holy, and apostolic appearance. I did not think at all about a vocation to the priesthood.

On one occasion I asked my mother (I still remember the place where I did so), what I had to do to become a priest. In reality I asked this question just out of mere curiosity, as children do, and not because I was thinking at that time of becoming a priest. My mother gave me a response that remained impressed upon my heart. She said: In order to be a priest, God has to call you. At ten years of age, I did not understand this response and I didn’t ask more at the time. Later, however, when I was thirteen, I began to feel this call from God in my soul.

With a vocation it is important to consider the many people that we perhaps do not even know, but who are at the root of our vocation. Perhaps we will only know so in Heaven and yet they have contributed in one way or another to our call. For me, one of these people was a holy priest, a martyr who died in Karaganda in 1963, Msgr. Alexander Chira, beatified by the Holy Father in 2001. This priest knew my parents very well and visited them whenever he could during the persecution. On one occasion, my mother even saved his life by hiding him. He was very thankful and promised to pray for our family in all his Masses. On one occasion he visited us secretly and celebrated Mass in our house in Kyrgyzstan. I was a small child at that time, still in the crib, and he blessed me. I am convinced that this priest has some relation to my vocation.

What apostolic work have you done after your ordination to the priesthood?
I worked in Brazil, first in some parish communities, and then as the spiritual director of our community in Brazil (the Order of the Holy Angels). I also worked apostolically giving spiritual retreats. Later I was sent to Rome to study theology and obtain a degree and doctorate in Patristics. After having finished all this, I was elected General Counselor of the Order, a position which I held for practically ten years. During this time in Rome, I met a priest who had come from Kazakhstan and who invited me to go to that country to help in the formation of priests in the diocesan seminary, the first Catholic seminary in that region. With the permission of my superiors, I went there and in 2001 the bishops of Kazakhstan asked our Order to free me from my work in Rome to be able to remain in Kazakhstan. I thus went there. I was the spiritual directory of the seminary, the director of studies, teacher, and also parish priest of some communities throughout that territory. I was also the Counselor of the diocese and editor for the monthly Catholic magazine. I was consecrated bishop this past year when the Holy Father named me Auxiliary Bishop of Karaganda.

Could you briefly describe your diocese to us?
Kazakhstan is a country in Central Asia, between Russia and China. It is a bridge between Europe and Asia, an ex-soviet and ex-communist country. During 70 years the country has lived under Communist and atheist dictatorship. The Church was underground, but alive in souls. The Kazakhstan people are a Mongolic race, of Muslim religion, but with a large part of the population of European origin, perhaps one third, descendents of Poles and Germans who were deported there. There are also descendents of Koreans, Chinese, and other nations. Today people of over 100 nations live in Kazakhstan.

From the religious point of view, the majority are Sunnite Muslims. They are rather tolerant and moderate and we have a good relationship with our Muslim brothers. There is a strong presence of the Orthodox Russian Church. Catholics are 2 percent of the population. The Catholic Church is a small flock that arises forth from the catacombs. Only 15 years ago there was only one Catholic bishop for all the countries of Central Asia. In 1997 these countries were separated and received their ecclesiastic authorities. In 1999 Kazakhstan was divided into four parts and about four years ago it became an ecclesiastical province with a metropolis in the capital. We have a major seminary, which is the only one in the entire region of Central Asia. Last year we had the first native ordinations. Little by little we take small steps. Our method of evangelization is through sacred buildings and through the culture since we cannot evangelize directly, out of respect for the Muslims who live here. We build churches because for 70 years there have been no churches or sacred buildings. The oriental nations have a great sensibility for the sacred, for beauty, and for culture. In this way we offer our contribution as the Catholic Church, building beautiful churches, promoting Catholic cultural values, and also carrying out charity work and social aid.

At present what are the main challenges in your diocese?
One of the main challenges is the lack of priests. We have a very vast territory but few priests. In addition to this, there is the lack of so many means that the Churches in Europe have without a problem. We are a Church poor in means and in people, capable of promoting different apostolate works. I consider this a great challenge.

Another great challenge, which is always present, is the proclamation of the Gospel in a Muslim majority country. Even though we do not have great problems with them, our evangelization is more an evangelization through our presence, through our testimony.

You are building a Shrine to Our Lady. Why have you begun this and what is the people’s response?
The region of Karaganda was previously called the Gulag capital, because of the great concentration camps of the Soviet dictatorship. Around Karaganda, there was a great network of concentration camps. Karaganda was thus a symbol of repression. That is why we thought of building a worthy church. First of all because we still do not have a Cathedral. Secondly, we have the intention of building a sacred temple as a sign of expiation for so many churches which were profaned and destroyed during the soviet regime, as a sign of the presence of the Catholic faith. It will be a place of expiation for the victims of so many nations. It will be a church of prayer, of memory, and also of pilgrimage. We wish to dedicate it to Our Lady of Fatima because she has a relation to Communism in Russia. We will add the name of Mother of all nations, because people from all nations have suffered in these territories.

Certainly we are lacking the means because we are a very poor Church and it would be beautiful if people from other places in Europe with more capacities could give us a contribution to make this shrine a reality.

In reference to the future, what would you like to do in the diocese? Do you have more projects?
The most important project that I have is the growth of faith in the souls of so many faithful, that their faith be strong, that Christ live in their souls. This is the primary concern for every pastor. We also need more vocations; we need to work to promote vocations, above all through prayer. We still need to build more churches because, as I have already explained, it is our means of evangelizing and the government is open to this initiative.
In conclusion, these are our needs, our projects, and desires: that Christ be better known, that the greatest number of souls possible may live, and that others may get to know and love Christ and the Church.

Originally appeared in Home of the Mother.