Kazakhstan’s Deep Christian Roots
Interview With Bishop Athanasius Schneider
KARAGANDA, Kazakhstan, 28 JUNE 2010 (ZENIT)
The childhood experience of slipping past Communist authorities to attend Mass taught the auxiliary bishop of Karaganda a particular reverence for the Eucharist that he urges others to practice.
Bishop Athanasius Schneider is the general secretary of the Kazak bishops’ conference, and the author of a book, “Dominus Est — It is the Lord: Reflections from a Bishop in Central Asia on Holy Communion” (Newman House Press, 2009), in which he discusses ways of receiving the Eucharist with reverence.
He was born in Kyrgyzstan, where his German parents had been exiled by the Communist regime. In 1973, he immigrated to Germany, and soon moved to Austria to enter the monastery of the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross.
Bishop Schneider has been teaching theology at Mary, Mother of the Church Seminary in Karaganda since 1999. His episcopal ordination took place in Rome on June 2, 2006.
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 bishop spoke about his experience of the Catholic Church while living under the Communist regime, the path that led him to his present assignment, and the needs of the community in Kazakhstan.
Q: When we hear of Kazakhstan, we don’t necessarily think of Catholics, but in fact, the Catholic Church has deep roots in Kazakhstan. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the Catholic Church in Kazakhstan?
Bishop Schneider: I would be more precise: not the Catholic Church per se, but Christianity has very deep roots.
Even in the 3rd and 4th centuries there were signs of Christians in Central Asia, and in the Middle Ages there were even missionaries from the Latin Rite, but the big presence of Christians and especially of Catholics were connected with the Stalin regime.
In the ’30s, Stalin deported millions of Europeans to Kazakhstan; Kazakhstan was a big concentration camp during those times, and suddenly there appeared almost half a million Catholics.
This appearance however, was in a situation of suffering and the Church had to exist underground.
Q: You are German. How did you come to arrive in Kazakhstan?
Bishop Schneider: My parents were from the German settlements in the Black Sea, near Odessa, and at the end of the Second World War, the German Army took all these German people — 300,000 of them — to Berlin to protect them from the Russians.
And when the Russian Army occupied Berlin they took back these people as “forced labor” to three places — Kazakhstan, Siberia and to the Ural Mountains.
My parents where sent to the Ural Mountains. They were forced to work there and it’s a miracle that they survived. When they were freed they moved to Central Asia, which was then part of the Soviet Union, in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, a little republic close to the Chinese border, just below Kazakhstan.
There I was born and spent my childhood. Then we moved from Kyrgyzstan to Estonia, which was still part of the Soviet Union. There I lived for four years.
We had a church which was 100 kilometers [62 miles] away and we had to travel that 100 kilometers to attend the Holy Mass.
Q: Every Sunday, 100 kilometers?
Bishop Schneider: Once every month, because it was too expensive for us. We are four children and the parents.
Q: How would you go, by car?
Bishop Schneider: By train. But even so, it was dangerous, because during those times, the Communist government forbade children from participating in the Holy Mass.
Only adults were allowed to go, but we were four children, and therefore my parents chose to take the first train in the morning when it was still dark so we wouldn’t be visible for others to see us. And then we travelled with the first train; it was, for me, unforgettable.
I was a child of 10-12 years and these excursions and journeys for the Holy Mass were unforgettable. And then we would return with the last train in the evening, in the dark.
These Sundays we spent with our parish priest who had a little room only — not a house, but just a little room; it was his kitchen, sleeping room, and library in this one room. We spent our time [there] because we were the family who travelled from afar.
There I made my first confession and first Communion with this holy priest who was also imprisoned in Karaganda earlier.
Q: When you were in Brazil your superior sent you to Rome to further your studies: a doctorate in patriology. During your stay in Rome, you were appointed general councilor of the order, and you always dreamt of returning to Brazil when your mandate was finished. But then, you met somebody else, which meant you took a turn in your life?
Bishop Schneider: Yes, someone told me that there was a priest who just arrived from Kazakhstan (I’ve never been to Kazakhstan, rather to Kyrgyzstan). And I was told that he wanted to speak to me. I did not know this priest nor did he know me.
Then this priest told me: “We have established a seminary in Karaganda and we have no teachers. Could you come and help us?” So he invited me.
Q: Can you tell me: How would you describe the faith of the people?
Bishop Schneider: The faith of the people is characterized by the sadness of our martyrs — confessors of the faith, the situation of the persecuted Church. And so the people keep this faith alive and try to live this, to have a great appreciation of the sacraments, of the sacredness, of the reverence of the priest.
Q: The former Soviet Union suffered 70 years of State atheism. Can you still see the scars of State atheism on the hearts of the people?
Bishop Schneider: As a consequence of this atheism, which was intrinsically materialistic, it destroyed the supernatural, spiritual values and therefore, this phenomenon. For example, alcoholism spread even more because the people’s lives had no sense without spirituality, without spiritual value.
There was a vacuum, but even during the Communist times, this was growing. The family was destroyed by this materialism; there was the practice of divorce, and abortion.
This materialism destroyed that sense of spiritual values.
Q: You have written a book: “Dominus Est — It is the Lord: Reflections from a Bishop in Central Asia on Holy Communion,” in which you argue that we should reconsider the question of [receiving] Communion [in the hand]. Whether we should receive it on the hand or it would not be better, as it was, in the mouth and kneeling. How did you come to this new understanding?
Bishop Schneider: For me it’s not a new understanding. I, all my life, lived this because I received the Holy Communion in such circumstances of persecution, and this reverence, it was so natural for me as a child to receive.
I was told, this is God here present really, and it was so natural to kneel; “This is the Most Holy” as we say “The Most Holy — Sanctisimum.”
Even my mother who lived during this times of persecution, once she saved a priest from the police in the Urals where she was deported. And then her mother, my grandmother was very ill. And when the priest was departing, my grandmother asked my mother to ask the priest prior to his departure, to please ask the priest to leave a Holy Host — a consecrated host in case she [grandmother] died, so that she could receive the Holy Communion. And my mother told the priest this request. And the priest said: “Yes, I will leave you one consecrated host on the condition that you administer this Holy Communion with the most reverence possible.”
My mother gave her [mother] the Holy Communion and to do this my mother took a pair of new white gloves, to give, to administer the host so that she would not touch the host with her bare hands. She would not dare touch the Holy Sacrament with her bare hands, and she took a spoon to administer it.
And this was so profound and so natural for us, and therefore, when we came and saw this in the Western Churches, I was not so astonished, but we felt so much sorrow in our soul. I do not judge the person receiving Communion with their hands, this is another question because they can still receive it with reverence and love, but the objective situation of distributing the Holy Communion; you cannot deny this, that it has turned so banal, so less reverent, like distributing cakes.
This is the Lord; when the Risen Lord appeared to the three women and they saw him, they knelt down.
Q: They fell on their knees.
Bishop Schneider: They fell on their knees on his feet and adored him.
And even the Apostles did the same when the Lord went to Heaven. Why should we not do the same?
Here is the Lord, real, present as it was for a thousand years in the Catholic Church. Why should we change this?
Q: What would be your appeal to the Catholics? What does the Church in Kazakhstan need?
Bishop Schneider: Of course prayers, because by prayers we are giving the most precious gift to one another and a sense of solidarity with the local Church, which is very far and in a difficult situation. We have very few means: personnel, material and so on, but to pray for local priestly vocations.
This is necessary that we have local clergy, and only then can the Church take root. And please, if possible to support us in the building of more churches, to make the Church more visible in this world in which we are living and as a sign of evangelization.
We are grateful for all these signs of fraternity and solidarity.
Originally appeared in EWTN.