Rector of Central Asia's only seminary on changing mentalities in Kazakhstan
By Deborah Castellano Lubov
“I am a priest who comes from this nation, from this nationality, because my father's name is Kazakh and my mother comes from the Ukraine - but we Kazakhs always count nationality by father, so I feel and consider myself a Kazakh,” says Fr. Ruslan Rakhimberlinov from Karaganda, Kazakhstan, as he anticipates Pope Francis' arrival in Nur-Sultan on Tuesday.
Fr. Ruslan, 39 years old, was recently appointed as the new rector of Kazakhstan’s Catholic Theological Seminary, the only Catholic seminary in Central Asia, and the first-ever ethnically Kazakh rector to run it.
Pope Francis' visit 'an opportunity'
He had been baptized in the Catholic Church just two years prior to Pope St. John Paul II's visit to Kazakhstan in 2001.
Pope Francis' visit is the second time a Pope has visited "our Church" in these years since Kazakhstan's independence, which, says Fr. Ruslan, "is a double joy for our seminary community."
First Kazakh priest in the country
Also noteworthy is that Fr. Ruslan is the first Kazakh priest in the country. “I was introduced to the Catholic Church when I was about 15 years old,” he says.
"When I was 15-16 years old," he recalls, "I met the Catholic Church for the first time. I was baptized on Easter Sunday in 1999."
Two years later, feeling called to a vocation, and encouraged by his friend, relatives, and the priest serving as rector, Fr. Ruslan decided to enter the seminary in Karaganda.
Challenging long-standing stereotypes
In 2008, after years of formation, he was ordained a priest at the celebration of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29.
All these years, he served as a priest in various parishes of Kazakhstan, especially in the Karaganda Diocese.
With his baptism and ordination to the priesthood, he suggests he challenged long-standing prejudices that have been rather widespread in Kazakhstan, and which have often fueled mistrust between different religious communities.
More respect toward choosing religion freely
Fr. Ruslan, however, is grateful to see this mentality slowly changing.
Need to recognize the Gospel in Kazakhstan
Pope Francis, he goes on to explain, will find in Kazakhstan, "a Church that is familiar with the idea of synodality and puts it into practice," because “we all realise here that the community of Catholics in Kazakhstan is a small flock."
Catholics make up a mere 1 percent of Kazakhstan's 19 million Kazakhs. The country is approximately 70 percent Muslim, and 26 percent Christian, primarily Russian Orthodox.
"We are few in number, so we priests, and also men and women religious know that our future, as a Church, does not depend only on priests and deacons. It is very important for us that the laity, that is, our faithful, understand very well what their responsibility is for the Church in Kazakhstan, the Church of the future.”
Impetus for richer dialogue
To prepare for the Pope’s visit, the seminary is preparing itself spiritually, with some prayer groups and meetings in parishes, especially considering Pope Francis' teaching.
Fr. Ruslan expresses particular appreciation for Pope Francis' latest encyclical, Fratelli tutti, saying, "we are very close to dialogue among all our brothers, because in Kazakhstan so many different religions are represented."
Face-to-face moment with Pope Francis
The seminarians, the rector relayed, cannot wait for their personal meeting with Pope Francis on 15 September, where they will have “a unique opportunity - for many of them maybe the only one in their lives - to meet face to face with Pope Francis of Rome.”
Speaking about the seminary in Karaganda as the only Catholic seminary in all of Central Asia, he told Vatican News about its future priests.
Each seminarian, he says, carries a particle of the culture and people they come from; “there is this enrichment: everyone shares something”. This “grace” and “wealth,” he said, helps the seminarians.
Grace of God, embracing with faith
While he recognizes that some difficulties arise in understanding and accepting each other, the grace of God helps overrides any misunderstandings between seminarians.
“It is a richness, because these 10 students come from different countries and enrich each other as they prepare for the future ministry of God's People in their countries.”
As the rector of the seminary serving several countries, he feels a certain weight upon him, but embraces the responsibility with faith.
Trusting in God's providence
"It's a big responsibility for me, but on the other hand it's also an opportunity to serve our Church here in Kazakhstan, to do something with what God has given me," Fr. Ruslan says.
While the rector admits there are challenges, he is not afraid of them.