By Robin Gomes
The tiny Catholic community in Kazakhstan has made use of the Extraordinary Missionary Month October to renew its spirit and bear witness to Christ by serving the people and learning the country’s official language, says Father Leopold Kropfreiter.
The Austrian priest of the Servants of Jesus and Mary Congregation has been a missionary in the largest of the central Asian republic since 2008. Currently, he is serving the Archdiocese of Astana in the capital Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana),
Though a Muslim majority country, Kazakhstan’s Christian population saw a rise in the 19th century, with many Poles, Lithuanians, Belarussians, Ukrainians and Russians being deported to the Kazakh steppes under the Russian tsars.
Under the Soviet regime, atheism became the official ideology and doctrine of the state and the elimination of existing religion became its objective. This added a new wave of Christians to Kazakhstan with hundreds of thousands deported to the Soviet labour camps under Stalin in the 30s and 40s.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a large number of deportees returned to their homes and countries and homes. At least four million people emigrated. Of these, 500 thousand were Catholics, according to Archbishop Tomasz Peta of Astana.
While the Christians population depleted, the Muslim population almost doubled during the last 30 years.
Today, over 70 per cent of the country’s some 18 million people professing Islam. Christians come next with over 26 per cent, mostly Russian Orthodox Christians. They are followed by Buddhists and others.
Catholics make up just 1 per cent of the country’s population, mostly of Polish, German and Lithuanian origins.
Missionary Month – new life
According to Fr Kropfreiter, the local Catholic community is now experiencing a new life, rediscovering the lives of the saints and the country’s cultural traditions, which the missionaries are called to learn if they want to speak to “hearts of the people". For this reason, he told AsiaNews, the Extraordinary Missionary Month is very important for the Church in the vast central Asian republic.
In the run-up to the Extraordinary Missionary Month, Fr. Kropfreiter said, the Church in Kazakhstan has been laying great emphasis on the four aspects that Pope Francis said should mark the month: a personal encounter with Jesus Christ in His Church, missionary testimony, missionary formation and missionary charity.
Speaking their language
The official languages of Kazakhstan are Kazakh and Russian, and traditionally Russian is still used as the liturgical language.
From the beginning of the World Missionary Month, Fr. Kropfreiter said, courses in Kazakh, which are obligatory for missionaries, were made available throughout the Archdiocese of Astana. According to him, it is a way to promote a more intensive dialogue and closer contact with the Kazakhs, whose population of around 12 million forms the great majority of Kazakhstan’s 18 million people. Catholics hope to reach the hearts of the people by speaking directly to them in their own language.
Saint Thérèse - a missionary model
One of the highlights of the World Missionary Month, Fr. Kropfreiter said, was the missionary pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus in Pavlodar, which is situated in the northeastern part of the country.
In 1927, Pope Pius XI declared St. Thérèse the co-patron of the missions along with Saint Francis Xavier.
Fr. Kropfreiter said the stops at Ekibastuz and Shalbakti provided a great opportunity to the pilgrims to come in contact with many missionaries and Catholics, whose life stories and testimonies proved to be a great inspiration.
The pilgrimage concluded with a Holy Mass celebrated by Archbishop Tomasz Peta of Astana. A colourful cultural event followed with Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians, Germans and Poles singing folk songs dressed in their traditional costumes. For Fr. Kropfreiter it was a demonstration of the Church’s universality and catholicity.
The next great task of the Catholics of Kazakhstan, the priest said, will be to invite people even with an Islamic background in a more open and courageous way to become more deeply acquainted with the Church of Christ.
The Kazakh Church
Under Soviet rule, Christians kept their faith alive, secretly gathering in their homes to pray. In the words of Archbishop Peta, “In the years of Soviet domination, when Catholics were forced to live without churches, priests and sacraments, Catholics created a sort of the "eighth sacrament": the Rosary. The only thing they could do during the Soviet persecution was to baptize their children and pray the Rosary. “In some ways, the Rosary replaced the lack of shepherds.”
In 1978, the government relaxed the rules and people began to profess their faith more openly. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Catholic Church in Kazakhstan was restored and Catholics felt free to worship publicly.
Pope Saint John Paul II established the Apostolic Administration of Kazakhstan on 13 April 1991, covering all of Central Asia. Diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Kazakhstan were established in 1994.
In 1997, the four “sui iuris” missions of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan were established.
In 1999, the Apostolic Administration of Kazakhstan was divided into three new Apostolic Administrations of Astana, Almaty and Atyrau and the Diocese of Karaganda.
The reborn Church of Kazakhstan received a much-needed boost with the visit of Pope John Paul II in September 2001. According to Archbishop Peta, the visit showed the world a living Church in Kazakhstan, with some 40 thousand people attending the Pope’s Mass.
“Without exaggerating, I can say that the papal visit opened a new chapter in the history of our Church. From that moment, every three years a Congress of religious representatives of all faiths is held in the capital.”
The Pope’s visit was also an occasion to raise the Marian sanctuary of Our Lady Queen of Peace, in the village of Ozyornoye, to the national shrine.
Youth meetings have been held since 1999 next to the tall cross on the hilltop in Ozyornoye. According to Archbishop Peta, they help to deepen the young people’s Christian faith and reflect on their future, on marriage and the family.
The Marian shrine, he said, reflects a strong character of the Church of Kazakhstan, namely, a strong Eucharistic adoration and a special devotion to the Virgin Mary.
The cross bears an inscription paying homage to the martyrs and victims of the Soviet repression. Today, Archbishop Peta said, “Kazakhstan is a blessed country, perhaps thanks to that blood and those tears of millions of martyrs.” He said the Church looks to the future with hope. (Source: AsiaNews)