Kyrgyzstan, located on Europe’s border with Asia, is a Country of 5.3 million inhabitants with a lush, wild, countryside and a tormented history: a crossroads of different peoples and a point of contention of contrasting interests – Chinese, Arabs, Turks –absorbed by imperial Russia in the 20th century and later by the USSR. In this land with temperatures that drop below zero, mountains and yurts, there is also a small Catholic community of approximately 600-1000 faithful scattered throughout the Country, one of those small Churches on the margins beloved by Francis. Three parishes, in three different parts of the Country, (Bishkek, Jalal-Abad and Talas), a few Franciscan nuns and six priests: two Poles a Slovenian, two natives, sons and daughters of families exiled to Kazakhstan by Stalin in 1941, where they were raised and entered the priesthood, along with Jesuit Fr Anthony Corcoran from Mexico, appointed apostolic administrator of this area of the Church at the end of August 2017 by Pope Francis. Mons. Corcoran has been living in Russia for the past twenty years. He arrived in Bishkek after a period in Siberia. SIR met him during a visit to Rome.
What does it entail to be a shepherd of such a small Church?
Pastoral, sacramental and spiritual accompaniment are key services. When I am in the city, in the parish, I lead the normal life of a parish priest inside a city, that involves celebrating Holy Mass, personal prayer, preparation of the sacraments, of city events. But when I travel to visit Catholics from other communities it’s different, because I meet them in the places where they live and celebrate Mass with them.
Meeting people is an extraordinary experience. What the grandmothers who cherished and passed on the faith during Communism went through is incredible!
Catholic children were raised in a Muslim majority environment. It’s encouraging. Being the shepherd of these people is a source of joy. In parishes we also carry out charitable activities in the attempt to meet set of fundamental needs. We are organized independently to carry out these activities but we have an ongoing dialogue with Caritas to understand whether we can initiate a more systematized form of activity.
Does – or did – evangelization in that land have specific features?
For decades, and during the years of persecution, Catholics lived out their faith in secret, but they managed to pass it on all the same. At the beginning of my mandate in the ex-USSR I was moved by the meetings with grandmothers with their sons, daughters and grandchildren whom they had baptized without ever having met a priest. They had never attended Mass, they had never opened a Bible, yet they considered themselves Catholics. I asked them what being Catholic meant to them and they always gave me different answers, but with three recurring features. The first was the sign of the Cross. When they did it in my presence I perceived so much devotion in that gesture! A second element is the fact that they all knew something about Jesus, his birth, death and resurrection and his new coming in glory. Based on that awareness, some grandmothers told me, they changed their daily life: if not they felt they were betraying this message. The third element was the rosary: although many of them had never had one, they prayed the rosary. I once met children who had a rosary but they had never heard Hail Mary and prayed together in a circle, in their own way. They supported each other, they greeted each other identifying their mutual faith in Jesus.
Did you expect to be sent to Kyrgyzstan? I was aware of this possibility, but of course I had no idea. I had been assigned to carry out my service in a parish and a school in Siberia. But for twenty years I regularly visited Kyrgyzstan, I knew the Catholics living there and I always loved that Country. The Church in Kyrgyzstan is very simple and as a priest I always appreciated the possibility of serving the Church in a simple way.
More than 80% of the overall population are Muslim: could you tell us about this coexistence?
There are very good relations with other religious communities and other Christian denomination. We set up a dedicated Committee that holds regular meetings and debates.
In our Country we work together highlighting what we have in common and not what divides us, also because humanity’s questions are the same in every religion.
It can be described as a beautiful climate of cooperation. Thanks God there have been no unpleasant episodes to date. Of course it’s a society like many others that raises questions of coexistence in security and freedom.
Did you ever face problems related to religious freedom?
The situation in the Country is remarkably uncommon when compared to the rest of the region in which it is located. Up to now there have been no significant problems or incidents that could be reason for concern. This is probably due to the fact that it’s a small Country, marked by the coexistence of different nationalities: Christians have been living there for centuries, just like Muslims. I think that people long for this form of openness and cooperation. As regards the Catholic Church, we are a small minority and as far as I know we enjoy a good reputation, meaning that we are not perceived as a threat for the Country.
From your standpoint, what is essential for the life of the Church today? What is the most urgent question?
The Church is a family that lives in different parts of the world. Some aspects are more important for people living in certain areas of the world. In my opinion
The question regarding the meaning of being Christian within our surrounding environment is of the essence.
Perhaps this same question could be raised in any other place. It’s a challenge that the Church tries to meet also in Kyrgyzstan.
What would you describe as the special feature of being there?
The people that we are called to serve bring to light our priesthood, that makes us priests. This is a consolation and a challenge. Notwithstanding my personal limits, I realize there is sainthood inside the Church but there are no angels. I consider it my personal challenge to ensure that the growth and the flourishing of the faithful. I also like to think that my witness is a sign, not for my own merit but for the fact that the Church cares for and sends people to take care of these communities. I love being there.