Rebuilding the Church in Eastern Europe: Good News from the U.S. Catholic Conference

Up on the third floor of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC), in an ordinary, nondescript set of gray offices along the south side of the building, sits a major cornerstone for the future of Catholicism in the former Communist world.

In spite of a job so daunting it seems impossible, the Office to Aid the Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Europe and the USSR has a mission that is short, simple, and successful: to resurrect the Eastern European Church after the ravages of Communist rule.

“This is a program meant to assist with the rebuilding of the pastoral infrastructure of the Church,” says assistant director James O’Beirne. “That’s a fancy way of saying our investment is with people rather than in buildings.”

In mid-1990, as the dust was still settling from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. bishops sought to seize a unique opportunity to help salvage the Church in Eastern Europe after years of oppression. By the end of the year, a temporary, three-year aid office was established and a national collection was authorized. By the time the first-year collection was counted, the office had nearly $6.5 million and was already well on its way to funding a wide range of projects all over formerly Communist Europe.

A sampling of the office’s handiwork: Warsaw now has a U.S.-trained Catholic press corps; Sopron, Hungary now has a parish-run kindergarten; Catholics in Kaunas, Lithuania, have a printing press; sisters of Saint Basil the Great in Lviv, Ukraine, have transportation for distributing catechetical materials; a Greek-rite church in Remeti, Rumania, has heat; Plovdiv, Bulgaria, has six parish centers; dozens of theological students have scholarships to study in Rome. In all, the office funded more than 100 projects in 1991, and it expects to have disbursed about $7.4 million this year from its annual collection.

“Our bishops have said: We will entertain any legitimate request that comes from the bishops of the country for what they feel they need,” says O’Beirne. “The bishops wisely decided they would not force-feed solutions from a purely American perspective. Instead, they established a program which puts itself at the disposal of the Church leaders of Central and Eastern Europe.”

The Office has three main goals: first, the training and formation of priests and sisters both in and out of country; second, to promote evangelization and help distribute religious materials; and third, to improve—and in many cases, create—mass media capabilities for Catholic groups in Eastern Europe.

Though it seems inevitable that the needs of the countries will always outweigh the available funding, the office reports that in the first-year-and-a-half, nearly every request was met. Most recently, $400,000 of computer equipment for desktop publishing found its way to dioceses in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Russia.

The way the office operates is simple: literally any person in Europe’s former Communist countries can apply for USCC’s program. “The applicant could be the bishop himself, it could be the rector of a seminary, a parish priests, a Catholic doctor who wanted to start a pro-life group, or a person who wanted to open a home for unwed mothers,” says office director Father R. George Sarauskas. Applications are initially reviewed by a local bishop, who then passes them on to the country’s National Catholic Conference. In countries like Albania or Russia, where no national governing board exists, it is the papal nuncios who pick the most worthy applications and send them to the American bishops’ conference.

The USCC then expedites the requests. Most of the applications that reach USCC are eventually funded, at least partially, according to O’Beirne. And since the paperwork is essentially completed before it reaches the aid office, applications are saved from much of USCC’s notorious bureaucracy.

For example, at the end of August, two Lithuanians, Gintautas Vaitoska and Dovile Macikenaite, contacted the aid office because they had been awarded scholarships to pursue masters degrees at the John Paul II Institute, but each needed an additional $7,500 for living expenses. The office processed their applications in time for the fall semester.

“Importantly, the application process also forces cooperation among a group of bishops who have never before worked together because they were in hiding,” says O’Beirne. “Many of them have no experience in the open.”

The biggest difficulty of this application process, O’Beirne and Sarauskas say, is convincing Eastern European bishops to show more initiative when it comes to discarding unworthy applications. “Under Communism the people learned they weren’t allowed to make their own plans, and it’s reflected in them not wanting to make the final decision on anything,” says Sarauskas.

Projects and needs range in cost from the $800,000 national Catholic radio network in Poland to the $600 computer modem in Russia and include everything in between. A cathedral in Albania that was turned into a gymnasium during the Communist era is now being restored for $200,000. A Catholic hospital in Armenia received $100,000 to stay open. In Prague, a home for unwed pregnant women opened last year that cost $32,000 and was the first in the area. To facilitate the distribution of religious readings, the office has sent numerous $4,500 duplicating machines to all corners of Eastern Europe.

One difficulty for the Church in the former Communist countries is the number of bishops, many of them martyrs and enduring symbols of the Church’s perseverance, who have never dealt with the administrative end of their ministry. Until very recently, the mission of the religious was to lead through example and silent suffering. Now a new, very public mission has been thrust upon the priests, and they are being called to take charge from the pulpit. The public wants leaders, and the priests want to assume responsibility. But for many, the abrupt change continues to be hard.

“For years we had been trying to prepare for the day when Ukraine would be free,” says Sonia Soutus, the press secretary for Cardinal Lubachivsky in Lviv, Ukraine. “But still, it’s very difficult for Cardinal Lubachivsky to go from leading during his exile in Rome to addressing millions of faithful all at once. A period of transition was needed for all leaders. But you can’t come into Ukraine and say to all those men who have suffered so much for the Church, ‘You don’t know anything about theology; I am going to lead you.’ They have suffered, they are living confessors of the faith. Everyone must learn to work together.”

The Church, O’Beirne emphasizes, though it has been badly weakened by the persecution, is the only credible institution left in many former Communist countries, and more people than it can handle are rushing to it. According to Soutus, over 3,000 Greek rite churches have opened in Ukraine in the past two years, and 325 more are currently under construction.

But even with such unprecedented swellings of the ranks, the U.S. bishops explicitly refuse to use financial aid to impose an American style of Catholicism on the fledgling ministries. “We should not interfere in how they create or recreate the Church in their countries,” intones Sarauskas. “It’s not our mission to go and tell them how to be a Church. We have not, in a sense, earned our red badges of courage the way they have.”

With Catholicism essentially frozen out of the public sphere for 45 years—or in the case of the former Soviet Union, 75 years—only now are some priests learning about the changes of the Second Vatican Council. Updating is desperately needed. But to push the eastern Church toward any kind of Western standards while it’s still in the embryonic stage of rebirth would be a mistake, O’Beirne and Sarauskas insist.

“Their ordination process was so difficult that the spiritual and theological preparation of a priest was done, in some cases, by meeting another priest in secret, walking through the woods on a Saturday and perhaps having a conversation about an important subject, and this done over many years,” says O’Beirne. “That was the totality of the preparation for a man to become a priest. One man whom I respect very highly told me that in some cases all the theology one of these men might know is in a notebook in his back pocket: a well thumbed-over notebook with a rubber band around it.

“There is a great deal of updating to do,” he adds. “But who are we to do it? Maybe we should first learn from them a bit about suffering and endurance. Western influence may be worse because it is so seductive to the spirit.”

At the same time, it is generally believed that the force of Communism in these countries still exists, albeit more subtly, and the American Church is wary about its spread. “The fast version of what’s going on says Communism fell, the dictators are gone and now it’s all light and freedom. Far from it,” warns Sarauskas. “People don’t identify themselves as Communists, but Communism in some places is as strong as it was a year ago or even two years ago. The heads are gone, but the middle management is still very much in charge.”

Persecution against the Church continues to exist as procedural violence. In some areas, television time-slots for airing Catholic programs are changed every week to make viewing difficult. In the former Soviet Union especially, city administrators are slow to diffuse growing tensions over the Church property issue. The aid office tries to avoid the polemics: “We don’t do politics,” says Sarauskas.

With only a three-year life span (the possibility of a one- or two-year extension does exist), Sarauskas says one of his initial tasks was to make his program known in the remote areas of Eastern Europe. Now he hopes to spend the remainder of his time establishing a more permanent support network that is based on grass-roots relationships at local levels.

“We are becoming a clearinghouse and facilitating center,” he says. “We put people in touch with each other and hope partnerships develop that will transcend the life of the office.”

Parish-to-parish partnerships, like the one already under way between parishes in Saint Petersburg, Florida, and Saint Petersburg, Russia, are one way of establishing an enduring means of support for the churches in Central and Eastern Europe. “Their support has been a bedrock for us,” says Lubachivsky’s press secretary, Soutus. “One of the major things we need to start using is the resources of the U.S. Church to develop these kind of diocese-to-diocese programs. Money is not the only answer to our problems; we need experts with the patience to come along and teach.”

The aid office also hopes to open channels of communication between American universities and the former Communist countries. Eastern Europe can provide the classroom if America can provide the teachers, and the aid office will play the role of the school bus by bringing everyone together. “We know there is a great reservoir of talent in the Catholic universities, and we call upon it to do whatever it feels it can.” says O’Beirne. “We will gladly act as intermediary. If you can give two weeks to lecture on dogmatic theology, we will find you a suitable audience and we will get you there, if possible.”

Already the business school of Iona College in New York has volunteered to visit Lithuania and do a needs-assessment of youth issues. The University of Chicago and DePaul University have expressed interest in doing a similar case study in Ukraine. The School of Social Work at Loyola University wants to help in the Baltics. Professors in various fields of study—from theology to economics—have gone over and lectured for several weeks.

“We need to concentrate even more time on the American college and university community,” says Sarauskas. “We need teams of experts or professors coming from a Catholic context who want to be more involved. An essential need is the development of a Catholic intelligentsia.”

A handful of Catholic universities and centers like the John Paul II Institute and the Notre Dame Institute in Arlington, Virginia, now offer several scholarships for Eastern Europeans pursuing theological studies. “These students will be the founders of a new generation of theological thinkers.” says O’Beirne. “That’s what we’re doing here; we’re starting from scratch.”

With this article, Crisis is pleased to mark the return of a popular feature from the past, “USCC Watch.”


  • Peter Mullen

    At the time this article was published, Peter Mullen was the Washington correspondent for the National Catholic Register.

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