|Mission Report: Belarus: September 2009|
Missionary Trip to Belarus — Reported by By Rev. Thomas Euteneuer, September 16-24, 2009.
Belarus has been known variously as Byelorusia, White Russia, and White Ruthenia, and has a distinct existence as a people dating back to the ninth century when it was part of the Kievan Rus’ Empire. The country achieved its political independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 but has been euphemistically termed a “hermetically-sealed Soviet time capsule” due to its almost pristine preservation of a communist-style government and social structure. However, the country is not what a westerner would expect in a post-Soviet country. There is nothing broken down. The capital city of Minsk and the surrounding countryside are immensely beautiful, clean and orderly. Interestingly, it is a country completely devoid of mountains.
The Belarusian people have known more hardship and suffering than the average person or nation could ever understand. During the Second World War, the country lost a full third of its population to the ravages of Nazi hatred for Slavs (over 2 million people), and I am told that there were more than 200 villages where the people were just rounded up and massacred in whole or in part. It is a little-known fact of that period’s history that there were over 200 concentration camps in Belarus, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. In 1944 they went from the frying pan into the fire. The Communists took over and imposed abortion soon thereafter whereby they lost another half of the remaining population that would have been born. Belarus was also the site of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The fact that this nation exists at all is something of a miracle.
While the majority (80%) of its inhabitants are non-practicing Russian Orthodox, the Catholic Church represents about 10% of the population and is tremendous in this country. When Fr. Marx went to Belarus in 1992, he was quite impressed with both the seminaries and the clergy, and I can only attest that the clergy and bishops I met on my trip continue that track record of great churchmen. At the pro-life conference HLI sponsored in the capital city, Minsk, I met four of the six Belarusian bishops, and all the priests I met in the country were just top-notch. It really says something positive about a local church when two-thirds of the country’s bishops attend a pro-life conference. The Cardinal of the country is 96 years old, so he was excused from attending!
Due to HLI’s efforts, I am happy to say that there is now some kind of organized pro-life movement in Belarus where none existed before. They need it, too; like all the post-communist countries their fertility rate is abysmally low (1.2), abortion is practiced rampantly, and I was told that a shocking 98% of women in the country have had abortions. The population is actually declining. In 1999 there were more than 10 million people, now down to a little more than 9.6 million. The killing done by the Nazis is really nothing in comparison to the killing of the abortionists.
The Very First Pro-Life Conference in Belarus
The weekend of September 18th-20th saw the very first pro-life conference in the country, which was attended by about 150 people all weekend, and the speakers were very dynamic.
The official opening was conducted on Friday the 18th and the fact that so many attendees came back for the Saturday and Sunday sessions was a tribute to the high quality of the speakers and the program. Lots of young people came, too, which was encouraging. His Excellency Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk gave the opening address because the conference was coordinated with the Family Office of the Archdiocese.
Among the speakers were experts on bioethics, pastoral counseling, clergy of all denominations, and a whole host of HLI affiliates who came to share their expertise. Dr. Antun Lisec from Croatia, Lech and Eva Kowalewski from Poland, Joannes Bucher from Austria, Galina Maslennikova from Russia, and Genia Samborska from Ukraine all spoke and all represented HLI to a pro-life movement in its infancy. What a privilege it is to work with such generous and talented people and see their unselfish interest in saving babies around the world! I also gave a talk on HLI’s mission and on the wonder of our pro-life patroness, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the talk was translated into Belarusian by our country contact, Vladislav Volokhovich.
Since families are so small here and the abortion situation so devastating, my favorite experience of the conference was the special award that was given to a family that had six boys and a seventh boy on the way! The boys were tremendously well-behaved, and, of course, they all got HLI rosaries to wear around their necks, too. The other highlight was a baptism of the fifth girl of another family, which was done at the opening Mass. This has some precedent. Last year Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek gave an incentive for having more children when he personally offered to baptize the third child from any family of three or more that requested it. Hopefully the Church will make an impact on the country in that way. If nothing else, the Catholic presence will grow stronger!
HLI’s Outreach to Seminarians—Literally All of Them in Belarus!
Our mission was in grand display on the Monday and Tuesday after the conference when Vladislav, Wolfgang Hering (from Germany) and myself went to speak at the Major Seminary, St. Thomas Aquinas, in Grodno, Belarus, about 300 km (186 miles) outside of the capital of Minsk. We spoke to about 60 men for two hours and helped them to see what the terms of the battle will be when they become ordained. The priests of the faculty could not have been more accommodating and gracious.
What we gave to the seminarians was the short course in pro-life. Vladislav was our translator into Belarusian, and he was really the very best. I talked to the seminarians about what it is like to be a priest and confront these issues as they affect the people they serve. I explained Humane vitae and Evangelium vitae to them and showed them what they can actually do to be truly pro-life priests. Wolfgang told them a number of very interesting stories from his experience of sidewalk counseling in Germany and then urged them never to imitate the negative priestly examples in the Church in the West that have rejected Humanae vitae and made a wreckage of the culture thereby. The Catholic Church in Belarus is fundamentally sound, and we want them to keep it that way! We were so impressed by these solid young men, all dressed in cassocks or suits and ready to learn about life.
The next day was another several hundred kilometer drive to the Seminary in the Archdiocese of Pinsk, in the southwest corner of the country. It is technically the national seminary with about 30 seminarians from various dioceses. This time, Vladislav did his own presentation of HLI’s colored maps, showing the state of abortion laws and the drastic drop in fertility around the world. It was an eye-opener to the guys, who all absorbed the talks with incredible attention. What a blessing to be able to speak to these young men who will be the future leaders of a healthy Church in this country. It is incredible to believe that, since there are only two Roman Catholic seminaries in the country, we literally spoke to all the future priests of this nation in two days. That’s impact. That’s HLI.
Mogilev is the center of HLI’s Efforts
From Pinsk it was a 500 km (310 mile) drive to the other major city called Mogilev, where I met with Vladislav and his dynamic little pro-life group in the evening. The next evening we had a concelebrated Mass with five priests at their local parish, followed by a general meeting in the parish hall. I just loved the beautiful names of the Belarusian women there: Tatiana, Olga, Iryna, Anastasia, Victoria, Natasha, Natalia, Vatslava, Ana, Oksana, Svetlana, Ludmila, Galina, Helena.
That day, I went with them to do sidewalk counseling at the local abortion hospital. In fact, it wasn’t really sidewalk counseling because our people actually go into the abortion mill and talk to the women coming for abortions. They present literature and heartfelt concern to the women in desperate situations and even talk to the abortionists who seem strangely open to them and tolerant of them being there. I would have to say that one of the most unique experiences of my life was sitting in an abortion hospital in Belarus praying the Rosary! We were told that the average abortion only costs $12 here. That is how cheap life is in post-communist countries. These folks have a hard battle to convince women not to abort, but they are saving babies, at the cost of a tremendous sacrifice, one baby at a time, and even the life of one baby is worth every ounce of energy that it takes to save them.
Mogilev is also the city where Vladislav plans to renovate a building in the very center of the city with our help. He will make it into a family life center and it will be another way to bring the Gospel of Life to the people who so need to see the Light amidst so much darkness.