Bishop Joseph Werth: The Diocese
Extends From The Urals To Sakhalin
Herman, Johannes. "Bishop Joseph Werth: The
Diocese Extends from the Urals to Sakhalin." n.d.
Josef Werth, Bishop of Siberia, is fighting for a religious new beginning
after seventy years of repression.
Novosibirsk, in August. Two years ago, Josef Werth, the bishop
of Siberia was entrusted with the leadership of the largest diocese
in the world. Large only in territory and problems, says the scarcely
forty year-old, youthful-appearing Jesuit, who comes from an ethnic
German family from Karaganda in Kazakhstan; the rebuilding of the
ecclesiastical structure is proceeding under extremely modest conditions.
The diocese, comprising in round numbers twelve million square kilometers,
is managed from Apartment Number 163 in a high-rise building in
the center of Novosibirsk. His first task, says Bishop Werth, has
been to gather committed priests around him and to set up an official
ecclesiastical representation (curia). Literally everything must
be started from nothing, the furnishing of an office, its provision
with telephone and telefax, and finally the choice of several co-workers.
With four Jesuits and a nun as secretary, Bishop Werth is beginning
the ecclesiastical new beginning, following the prescribed atheism
of the past.
The curia, which includes a tiny chapel, is housed in an apartment
of barely seventy square meters. Washlines are strung in the corridor.
Large boxes containing religious writings set on a balcony, also
pails with potatoes and pickled cucumbers. On one wall of the office
in which visitors are received, hangs a map of the Russian Empire,
in which the German Republic is included within its new borders.
Several old women sit in front of the curia and sell small quantities
of potatoes; others offer apples and onions. Money is scarce, and
fresh produce is expensive. A pensioner must pay a month's pension
for a stewing hen, assuming that it would ever make it to the table.
On the other side of the street, directly across from the curia,
the Novosibirsk Circus has its quarters in a large circular building.
Behind it shimmer the golden onion spires of a Russian Orthodox
Church, in which old women pray for the souls of the dead for a
few pieces of bread, and some tomatoes or radishes which are laid
on a table by the relatives on the dead.
Rebuilding of a local Caritas (charitable institutions)
The relationship between the tiny Catholic minority and the Orthodox
Church in Russia is cool. The Metropolitan [Archbishop] in Moscow
observes the competition from Rome almost with hostility. False
statements about new mission activities are consciously spread around.
For the first time, Bishop Werth held a constructive conversation
with a highly-placed dignitary of the Orthodox Church. And for the
first time in the history of Russia, the Moscow Metropolitan visited
him in Siberia during the past year.
When the Bishop works late into the night after 11:00 P.M., he
sleeps in the Curia, because it is not safe in the streets of Novosibirsk,
which is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the city's founding
this year. Novosibirsk is located at the geographical center of
Russia. The Nicholas Chapel on Lenin Place (named after the Czar
Nicholas II) makes clear the historical and religious claim of the
Russian Orthodox Church to be the center of spiritual might, even
in far-off Siberia. A scant 300 meters distant, a house of God is
being built which will shortly be the seat of the bishopric and
the cathedral of the Catholic Church in Siberia. Until then, the
congregation will assemble in a chapel on the city's edge that belongs
to the Franciscans. Mother Theresa has already sent the first "Sisters
of Charity" to Novosibirsk. Wearing the light-blue saris of
the [sisters'] congregation which is active worldwide, an Indian
sister and a German-descent sister sit next to each other during
the service. A German Franciscan father is making a great effort
in Novosibirsk to develop a local caritas.
Bishop Werth's favorite saying is: "Pro Deo, ecclesia et animis"
(For God, the church and the souls). Josef Werth, consecrated as
Bishop of Siberia, heads a diocese that extends from the Urals to
Sakhalin. The distance from Novosibirsk to Moscow is 3,000 kilometers;
to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, 6,000. When it is 10:00 o'clock
in the morning in the western part of bishopric, in the far east
it is already 6:00 o'clock in the evening. One must change one's
watch six times during the flight over the diocese. Like Kaiser
Karl V., the young bishop can say of himself, that in his empire
the sun never sets. According to the statistics of the Polish embassy
in Moscow, more than a million Catholics of Polish descent live
in Siberia. Also every fourth or even third person among the approximately
800,000 Russian-Germans who live in Siberia is probably Catholic,
says Bishop Werth.
Also many deported Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Latvians are Catholic.
The Stalinist persecution and the long years of discrimination after
the second World War made a deep impression on the Russian-Germans.
Families were torn apart, hundreds of thousands died in the labor
and hunger-camps. Their property in their previous areas of residence
was taken from them when they were resettled in Siberia Kazakhstan.
What held them together was their language and their common culture.
Their devote religiousness withstood all attempts of their old rulers
to declare the death of God.
With so-called Ulm boxes, solid flat freight boats, into which
one could pack household goods and animals, the forefathers of the
Russian-Germans at one time made their way down the Danube as far
as the Black Sea. The first ones already started out in 1763, invited
by Czarina Katharina II who knew the ability and industry of German
craftsmen and farmers. The next wave followed in 1804 when Czar
Alexander I, whose mother was a Swabian from the royal house of
Wittemberg, called German colonists into the country to settle the
provinces by the Black Sea, that had just been seized from the Turks.
Currently there are thirty-four priests in Siberia
At that time, more than 200,000 Germans - from Upper Swabia, Alsace-Lorraine,
from the Palatinate and Baden left their old homeland. Many were
impoverished smallholders, others went forth because they were discriminated
against because of their faith or did not want to be pressed into
military service in foreign armies. Russia's czars promised the
colonists freedom of religion, German schools and exemption from
the military service forever. In round numbers, there were 3,000
entirely German settlements (called "colonies") in the
period before the first World War, on the Black Sea, on the Volga,
in the Baltic States, near St. Petersburg, in the Crimea and in
the Caucasus. Today the exodus in the reverse direction is in full
swing. The experiences of the past have made the Russian-Germans
Most certainly one could today reckon with many more than one million
people of Catholic origin, says Bishop Werth, but perhaps 100,000
have been baptized, and practicing Catholics amount to fewer still,
because under the Communist dictatorship there were no priests.
The Faith was maintained only there, where Catholics, as in the
German villages in Kazakhstan and in the Altai mountains, lived
together in larger numbers. Where the people were dispersed, the
Faith was lost.
At the present time, there are thirty-four priests in Siberia and
twenty-five nuns. Of churches and chapels, there are a scant dozen.
At the same time, Bishop Werth does not see the Catholic Church
in Siberia as a newcomer; it can look back on a scant 200 years
of tradition, but during the Communist time it was cut off from
all contact to other countries. Now the Bishop wants to revive the
religious life in the spirit of Vatican II. His prime concerns:
Contacts with the scattered believers in the Siberian expanse, rebuilding
of better communication between the priests, and development of
a liturgy that also respects the religious traditions of the believers.
With the Catholic bishops in Moscow and Karaganda, he is preparing
the publication of common prayer books and liturgical texts.
The priests in Bishop Werth's surrounding area come predominantly
from prolific (Bishop Werth grew up among eleven siblings) families
of German descent. They are extremely pious young clergymen, ascetic
by reason of their religious molding, reserved and soft-spoken.
They are shaped by the experiences of an underground church, whose
believers gathered to pray in backyards and small living rooms.
Bishop Werth, of whom an extraordinary ability to empathize is required,
is also anything but a representative of the church triumphant.
It was only at the age of twenty, after his military service in
the Soviet Army, when he was visiting relatives in Lithuania. He
for the first time saw a church with pulpit and confessional and
a robed priest, learned for the first time, that seminaries for
priests existed. He also got his higher education in Lithuania.
Pope John Paul II is said to have said, when he became acquainted
with Werth, that he had encountered an extraordinary bishop.
For over seventy decades, the Catholic Church was not tolerated
in the former Soviet Union. Priests and nuns were persecuted, murdered,
and like millions of other persons not acceptable to the Communist
regime, were deported. Today a new freedom is perceptible; priests
are allowed to teach in schools and lecture at the universities.
Also, the media exhibit a growing openness, but the alienation between
Christianity and society is great. Adults, most of whom have not
been baptized, are nowadays led to belief of their children, who
are again being instructed in religion for the first time. Interest
in religious questions is great, one says in the Curia, but it will
take at least a whole generation before religious life again belongs
to normal everyday life in Russian society. In the beginning of
June the Bishop of Siberia was invited to a constitutional conference
in Moscow by Boris Yeltsin.
Werth is negotiating with the Russian officials concerning the
restitution of former ecclesiastical property. There are current
plans to build churches in the cities, Omsk and Chelabinsk; one
is still negotiating the return and renovation of the Catholic church
in Vladivostok, converted to other purposes. Bishop Werth is thankful
for the help of the German church. In April of this year, he informeed
Trier suffragan bishop, Leo Schwarz, the spiritual midwife of Aktion
Renovabis, at several press conferences in Germany about the difficult
situation in Russia. Even in bygone years, he repeatedly visited
Russian-German emigrants in the Bundesrepublic.
Bishop Werth sees himself as a member of the world church. The
connection with Rome is close and absolutely positive. At the cornerstone-laying
of the cathedral in Novosibirsk, a stone from the grave of the Apostle
Peter in St. Peter's in Rome was set into the wall. In this manner,
according to Bishop Werth, Jesus's saying will become reality: On
this rock I will build my church.
Free from tension and furthered with mutual respect is the way
Bishop Werth would like to make the relationship with the Russian
Orthodox Church. He knows their problems in present Russian society
after seventy years of religious repression. In what concerns the
relationship of both churches, he pleads for a clear and unmistakable
image of the denominations. In his sermon at the cornerstone-laying,
Werth said he was completely convinced that the "more favorable
Christians" understood their beliefs and lived according to
them, the sooner the unification of the Church would come. This
only, and not a faceless synthesis, a mixing of all religious denominations,
could lead to Christian unity.