Kazakhstan, Bishop Dell’Oro: beauty and charity, ways of dialogue

Kazakhstan, Bishop Dell'Oro: beauty and charity, ways of dialogue

Archbishop Adelio Dell’Oro recounts the challenges of the Catholic minority that await Pope Francis. In his testimony, he recalls the visit of John Paul II to the country in 2001, the example of so many Christians persecuted by the Soviet regime, and his disappointment at the absence of Patriarch Kirill from the Congress of World and Traditional Religions .

Antonella Palermo – Vatican City

On Tuesday September 13, Pope Francis will leave for Kazakhstan. Of the 19 million inhabitants, 70% are of the Muslim faith, 26% are Christians, mainly Orthodox; the country has nearly 120,000 Catholics. At one time, Catholic communities were made up of various ethnic groups, including former deportees from the Soviet regime, but after independence many of them returned to their respective countries of origin and even today, in Because of the economic situation, this phenomenon of migration continues.

The arrival of Catholics from the former Soviet republics

The expectation of the Sovereign Pontiff among the Catholic faithful is high. They are divided into four dioceses, each bearing the name of the cathedral that stands in the place and not the geographical territory (diocese of Mary Most Holy in Astana – Nur-Sultan, diocese of the Most Holy Trinity in Almaty, diocese of Karaganda and Apostolic Administration of Atyrau) for a total of 70 parishes, and are assisted by a hundred priests. Groups of pilgrims are also expected from St. Petersburg, Moscow, Novosibirsk, Omsk, and even Kyrgyzstan. In this numerically tiny ecclesial reality, there is a significant bubbling, as Bishop Adelio Dell’Oro explains from Karaganda, from a diocesan territory two and a half times larger than Italy. He has been a pastor here for seven and a half years, having lived here since 1997 as a fidei donum priest.

The vastness of the territory of Kazakhstan poses major challenges in terms of evangelization. In the light of the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate evangeliumwhich emphasizes the missionary aspect of the Church in all contexts, how do you experience this additional stimulus in a country where you have worked for a very long time?

That’s what worries me the most. As everyone knows, the Soviet regime experienced seventy years during which all forms of religious expression were prohibited and believers of different religions, not just Catholics, were forced to live the experience of faith in a clandestine. And we have great testimonies from this period. For example, six years ago, in September, a priest who was a friend of Pope Wojtyla was beatified, among others, Father Władysław Bukowiński, who served 13 and a half years in the Gulag and then, when he was released, in Karaganda, he was very active there because they couldn’t leave. Survivors of the Gulag lived there, including many Catholics. There was also a woman, Gertrude Detzel: she too spent 13 years in the camps and when she was liberated she secretly organized many Catholic communities right here in Karaganda.

Last August we opened the diocesan process for his beatification. Then, in 1991, independence arrived and everyone was finally able to come out of hiding. Many priests also came here, invited, especially from Germany and Poland, to organize ecclesiastical structures, build churches, organize parish life. I see here, on the one hand, the courage of the first missionaries and, on the other hand, a limitation, namely that they addressed themselves, say, only to Catholics of their nationality. In addition, it happened that after independence many Catholics, especially Germans and Poles, returned to their country of origin. Thus, these communities, which were very lively and very numerous after 1991, have diminished over time.

In light of this history, my greatest concern is whether all the sacrifices that have been asked of the generations of believers who have gone before us were worth it or not. Are we destined to disappear? Or is the Lord asking us for something?

What’s your answer to that?

What I seem to glimpse is that we should rejoice in the fact that in a once atheistic land we could and can live the faith, a faith that makes our life beautiful, attractive, joyful, and how we can then be open – as Pope Benedict repeated, repeated by Pope Francis – be attractive to everyone, including the Kazakhs, who represent 78% of the population and who are of Muslim tradition.

The two paths that I have tried to propose to the priests, sisters and laity of the diocese during my seven and a half years of service are beauty and charity. An example I give is that in the Cathedral of Karaganda is the only large and beautiful organ, a gift from Austria, (two others are in the music academies of Almaty and Astana). We usually organize concerts of sacred organ music from April to October, about twice a month. The cathedral is crowded, with people standing.

This means that the heart of every man, beyond his nationality, beyond his religious affiliation, has an enormous thirst for beauty. A beauty that leads you to mystery, to God. The other example is that on weekends, all the young couples – Muslims, Orthodox, Protestants – come to have their picture taken with the cathedral in the background, which was built in a modern Gothic style, very beautiful and impressive. . Sometimes they don’t even know where they come from. I meet them to wish them good luck and ask them: but why did you come here? And they are amazed: where can we find such a beautiful castle in our cities? And so that becomes a reason to start a dialogue with them too.

Then there is charity. Outside the confines of our parish churches, we can do nothing as a Church. This also applies to the other religions in the city. When we organize meetings of priests or nuns, we cannot, as was possible in the 1990s, rent spaces (sanatoriums, nursing homes…) which were still used in Soviet times. We have to organize ourselves within our structures, because freedom of religion is not quite there yet. But when a man comes with an urgent need, I am sure that through this piece of bread or this medicine that we manage to give them, it is the love of Christ for them that comes through.

Can you tell us a personal memory of what struck you the most when you began your mission on this earth? And what have you been able to appreciate most over time about this people, a crossroads of other peoples and cultures?

When I arrived here, I found great destruction, the fruit of the agony of the Soviet Union. You got up in the morning and didn’t know if there was cold water or hot water or even if there was water. I remember one week, 40 degrees below zero in the streets, no heating. The city was not lit at night, the electricity was there and it was not… What shocked me the most was the destruction of the responsibility of the human person. The Soviet man, in his last years, was no longer responsible for anything. It was in adults, but in young people it is the opposite. And it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve come across. I had the opportunity to teach Italian language and culture at Karaganda State University for six years. I remember the desire, the thirst that young people had to give meaning to their lives. Not with books, but with popular Italian songs, with Italian cuisine, preparing spaghetti, pizzas, tiramisù, they felt there was something they hadn’t found until then. and they started coming.

We met, we studied, we sang, we rented a room where I went every Friday. And from there, a flood of questions arose. This is in my opinion the greatest miracle that I have seen, and that is that their life has changed. They did not know why, the fact is that their life has become beautiful. I remember a young man from Kazakhstan who, after ten years, said: “It is Jesus, it is Jesus who changed my life, I ask for baptism!”. And with him many others. I would add that the Kazakh people are people of very, very great humanity, with a very great capacity to welcome, especially the elderly. It’s impressive. Word “Kazakh“means in slang”vagabond”,one who moves in the steppe”, “nomad”. It is likely that in the living conditions of their ancestors, they inherited these human values ​​which somehow remained.

What memories do you have of John Paul II’s visit to the country 21 years ago? And how has Kazakhstan changed in ecclesial, ecumenical, social terms?

This visit, which no one had expected in recent days, was impressive. There was the tragic episode of the terrorist attack of September 11… Everyone appreciated, from the president to the simplest people, the Pope’s decision and courage to come, despite this situation of global fear. One thing must be added: no one knew who the Pope of Rome was, the leader of Catholics all over the world. At that time, the telephone and the internet were just beginning to appear. After all, in Europe we didn’t even know where Kazakhstan was. But curiosity and the desire to understand have mobilized so many people. And there must have been about 40,000 people at the mass. Many things have changed in recent years.

How do you react to the announced absence of Patriarch Kirill from the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions?

With great sorrow and pain, because on the sidelines of this Congress of Religions, if they had both been present, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill would inevitably have met. And after the meeting they had online [à Cuba, ndlr], it really could have been a very, very effective and incisive opportunity to pass judgment on what is happening, from an apolitical but really religious point of view. I am also thinking of Muslims, from this point of view: if God is one, we are all his sons and daughters and therefore brothers and sisters among us. And so, as the Pope cries out, war is the most horrible, the most inconceivable thing there is. Especially when it happens between Christian peoples.


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