April 2010 Print

Catholic Tradition in Belarus

Maxim Karaliou, M.A.

This article is about the history, development, and present situation of Catholic Tradition in Belarus (or Byelorussia–former part of the Soviet Union, independent since 1991).

Historical Background

Catholicism in Belarus goes back very far and had a long historical development. As early as the ninth century, Western missionaries set foot on Belarusian soil. In the early 11th century the first Catholic diocese was established in TuraÇ” (Turov), in southern Belarus; soon, however, it was liquidated again by Prince Wolodymyr (whom the Orthodox call “St. Vladimir”), the ruler of Kievan Rus’, who personally accepted the Eastern variety of Christianity from Byzantium. The Catholic bishop of TuraÇ” was thrown into prison, where he died. The diocese was re-established as an Eastern-rite eparchy.

Catholicism in Belarus became a widely popular religion with the Union of Krevo in 1385, an arrangement between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand-Duchy of Lithuania (which at that time included within its territory Belarus and parts of Ukraine and Russia). Toward the end of the 14th century, Belarus had six Catholic parishes. Gradually, Catholicism became the state religion. This trend was fostered by the Union of Brest in 1596, which united the Orthodox (bishops of the Polish-Lithuanian state, who had been subject to the Patriarchate of Constantinople) with the Roman Catholic Church. (The formerly Orthodox clerics who thus became Catholic were henceforth called “Uniates” or the “Greek-Catholic Church,” yet they retained the Byzantine Rite and the Julian Calendar.) During this time St. Josaphat Kuntsevich (Archbishop of Polotsk, Martyr, and defender of the Union of Brest), and St. Andrew Bobola (who was also a martyr for the Catholic Faith,) worked for the salvation of souls in Belarus.

In the late 18th century, Poland-Lithuania was partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria (in the so-called First Polish Partition of 1772.) The Belarusian territories were acquired by the Russian Czar, which drastically changed the situation of the Catholic Church for the worse. At that time there were 517 Catholic parishes in Belarus with more than one million faithful (21 percent of the population). Together with the Greek Catholics [“Uniates”], they made up 93 percent of Belarus’s population, which then amounted to five million. All Catholic parishes of the Russian Empire were then combined into one diocese, the Archdiocese of Mogilev (modern day Mahiliou), although the only Roman Catholic major seminary was located in St. Petersburg.

After the annexation of Belarus to the Russian Empire, a forcible transfer of Belarusians from the Roman Catholic Church to the Russian Orthodox Church began. The measures used to compel conversion were further intensified after the anti-Russian uprisings of 1830-1831 (First Polish Rebellion/November Rebellion against Russian heteronomy) and 1863-1864 (Second Polish Rebellion to regain national independence). In the year 1832 alone 199 Catholic monasteries and convents in Belarus were closed. In 1839, the Greek-Catholic Church was officially dissolved at the Synod of Polatsk; a persecution of Catholic priests began. Churches and monasteries were dispossessed of their lands and transformed into Orthodox houses of worship.

This persecution continued until 1905, when Czar Nicholas II, under pressure from the First Russian Revolution, signed an Edict of Tolerance. Within the next year, more than 170,000 people returned to the Catholic Church. Thus, before the October Revolution in 1917, there were again 456 Catholic parishes with 917 priests and almost 2.5 million faithful in Belarus.

After the October Revolution in 1917 the Soviet power began its cruel persecution of all churches. Churches and monasteries were closed and turned into clubs, gymnasiums, grain silos, barns, prisons, and worse. Many church buildings were summarily blown up. This barbarism continued even after World War II: altars and icons were burned, church organs destroyed, relics of saints desecrated. Priests and lay faithful were exiled to prison camps, thrown into jail, or killed on the spot. During this time many gave witness to the faith through their heroic martyrdom. After the publication of the Encyclical Divini Redemptoris by Pope Pius XI in 1937, which condemned Communism, only four Catholic churches remained in all of the U.S.S.R., and not a single one in the Soviet Republic of Byelorussia.

At the beginning of World War II, western Belarus, which until 1939 had belonged to Poland, was also added to the Soviet Republic of Byelorussia. In that region there were still 416 Catholic churches, but religious persecution began there as well. Yet the beginning of the war against Germany prevented the Church from being totally destroyed in western Byelorussia. The German Occupation in 1941-1944 permitted the reopening of many Orthodox and even Catholic churches. After the end of the war, however, almost all of them were closed again; the persecution of the clergy resumed. The number of priests decreased by half in the years 1946-1950.

Although in 1946 (shortly after the end of the war) there were still 387 Roman Catholic parishes, in 1951 there were only 154, and in 1986 only 86 remained.

In the years during the Second Vatican Council and afterward, many illegal groups of Catholic faithful lived in the “underground,” without the ministry of a priest. Unfortunately they could not practice their faith as the Church intended and were forced to limit themselves to prayer and the Rosary. Their children were usually only baptized, for which a priest was secretly invited to the home. If that ever became known to the authorities, a child could be expelled from school, forbidden to attend university, and the parents could lose their jobs. As a result of this, in the 1980’s, only seven percent of the inhabitants of Byelorussia still described themselves as Christian believers. The complete isolation of Soviet Catholics from the rest of the world also meant that in the early 1990’s, Holy Mass was still celebrated according to the old pre-conciliar Missals. The traditional liturgical vestments were still being used even in celebrating the New Mass.

Present Situation of the Liberal Catholic Church in Belarus

With the year 1989 began the reawakening of religious life in the territories of the Soviet Union. After its collapse, this process accelerated considerably. Confiscated churches were returned to the faithful and new ones were built. Yet to this day there is still an acute shortage of houses of worship, liturgical vestments, and furnishings.

The process of renewing religious life also produced the phenomenon of the so-called “accidental parishioners,” i.e. people who were not following the call of their faith but attended parishes seeking their own advantage: humanitarian assistance, free rides, etc. Over the last five years, however, they have disappeared again for the most part.

The clergy who were active in Byelorussia during the Soviet period had received their training in the seminaries of Lithuania and Latvia. Meanwhile, however, the stifling influence of the Polish clergy made itself felt as it began to take charge of more and more parishes in Belarus. This can be explained by the fact that the Belarusian and Polish languages are closely related. Before our own seminary in Belarus was opened, the priests for my country were educated in Poland. The Polish clergy now began actively to implement the norms of the Second Vatican Council in parish life. The lay faithful, who for many long years had lived without the ministry of a priest, trusted their new priests completely and carried out all their demands. They accepted without protest the liturgical innovations—for many of them this was their first and only acquaintance with the “Catholic” ritual. They thought that Catholics had been praying like that from time immemorial.

The proportion of believers (in comparison with those who professed no faith) in the population of Belarus increased steadily and leveled off at the turn of the 21st century at 50 percent. Of them, the majority are Orthodox (75 percent), with 18 percent Roman Catholics, 2 percent Protestants of various denominations, and 1 percent each of Greek Catholics, Jews, and Moslems—out of an overall Belarusian population of 9.7 million.

The Constitution of the Republic of Belarus guarantees freedom of religion throughout the country and acknowledges the equality of religions before the law. Church and State are separate. In the Constitution, the decisive role of the Orthodox Church is specially highlighted, but also the role of the Catholic Church, which cannot be overlooked in the history of the country, as well as the contributions of Lutheranism, Judaism, and Islam to the national culture.

Today, Belarus has more than 500 Roman Catholic parishes, divided into four dioceses: the Archdiocese of Minsk-Mahiliou, and the Dioceses of Hrodna, Pinsk, and Vitebsk. The Belarusian Catholic Bishops’ Conference comprises six bishops. Since 2007 they are led by Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz. The majority of the bishops have liberal views.

In Belarus there are now two Catholic major seminaries, where more than 70 clerics are being trained. There are religious vocations to the Dominicans, Franciscans, Marians (Marians of the Immaculate Conception), and others. The principal religious orders of men are the Capuchins (O.F.M.Cap.), the Marians (M.I.C.), the Priests of the Sacred Heart (S.C.J.), and the Salvatorians (S.D.S.); among the religious orders of women are the Sisters of the Holy Eucharist (C.S.S.E.), the Servite Sisters (O.S.M.), and the Sisters of the Precious Blood (C.P.S.).

Despite the modernist bent of a significant part of the episcopate, clergy and religious, the Catholic Church in Belarus is nevertheless extremely conservative. Communion in the hand and the distribution of Communion by lay people are forbidden in Belarus. Priests are obliged to wear a cassock (a rule that is sometimes honored in the breach). The Rosary and various devotions (litanies, the Novena of Divine Mercy, the Lamentations) are still popular. The Lamentations, which are common in Eastern Europe, are a sung meditation that is chanted before Mass on the Sundays in Lent. They consist of an introduction, a prayer intention, a hymn, a lament of the soul over Jesus’ sufferings, and a conversation of the soul with the Mother of God. These texts are all found in 19th-century prayer books, but also even today in Polish missals for the laity. Only boys or men may serve at the altar (but even this rule is already violated in many parishes).

Unfortunately, many priests actively promote among the youth the introduction of pop music with guitar and drums at Mass and contribute to the spread of ecumenical worship services in the Taizé style. Many young priests are opposed to the Rosary and strive to limit the celebration of Holy Mass to 30 minutes. In Belarus a community of the Neocatechumenate is active.

It must also be noted that in Belarusian society the tradition of a fixed territorial membership in a parish is unknown. Many city-dwellers do not attend the church in their neighborhood but go where they like it best, or else attend Mass alternately at various places. The local territorial parish is regarded as being responsible only for the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony and for Requiem Masses.

Roman Catholic Tradition in Belarus

In retrospect, the revival of Catholic Tradition in Belarus in recent years came about in three phases of development:

The first phase began in the year 1991 when the Society of St. Pius X, in the person of Fr. Gérard Mura from the Seminary in Zaitzkofen, began to preach the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in Minsk at irregular intervals. He was supported and accompanied in this ministry by Brother Klaus.

In the spring of 1994, Fr. Karl Stehlin was appointed superior of the Fraternity’s Mission in Eastern Europe and industriously began to develop a ministry in Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus. At his instigation a group of the lay faithful made efforts to register the resulting parish/community with the State.

A second phase is characterized by the work of this young parish/community of the Society of St. Pius X in Minsk, which is now called “Devotees of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.” It was finally registered on February 11, 1995, and thus recognized by the civil authorities. The question immediately arose, of course, as to a suitable place for the celebration of Holy Mass. Over the course of the next five years, the faithful were compelled to rent a series of apartments and houses in various districts of Minsk, which made it difficult for the spiritual life of the community to develop. The liturgies did not take place regularly during that time. Only in 1999 did they succeed in obtaining a private house in Minsk and establishing a permanent chapel there.

Since 1996, Fr. Werner Bösiger, FSSPX, from Switzerland, serves there as the priest.

Since December 1994 a quarterly magazine, Pray For Us!, has been published, which communicates to its readers the Church’s traditional teaching on various questions, explains the position of the Society on contemporary problems, and reports on recent news from the Catholic world.

Since 2005 the Society has also had a special Internet website (www.fsspx.of.by) for Belarus and the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The third phase began after the promulgation of the Motu Proprio of Pope Benedict XVI on July 7, 2007, liberalizing the use of the Mass of all ages. This permission to celebrate the Tridentine Mass was welcomed with joy in several parishes in Belarus. The obstacles placed by the local bishops’ chanceries, however, significantly slowed this process.

The best prospects are still in Vitebsk, in the Cathedral parish of St. Barbara, which is staffed by the Dominican Fathers. This can be explained by the following circumstances:

First, the pastor of the parish, who is at the same time the Superior of the Dominican Friars in Vitebsk, Fr. Michal Jermaszkewicz, O.P., holds traditional positions and publicly opposes pseudo-Catholic innovations in liturgy and parish life. Because of this, his appointment as spiritual director to the priests of the Diocese of Vitebsk was not renewed.

Second, in 2002, an ecumenical faculty of theology was inaugurated at the State University in Vitebsk. Among the instructors assigned to it was Msgr. Jerzy Józef Sobkowiak, Ph.D. († 2008), who for the last twenty years of his life had served as a priest of the Archdiocese of Paderborn (Germany). He organized three summer courses for the students in Germany, where he also introduced them to Catholic Tradition and the Society of St. Pius X (at the summer session in Schönenberg conducted by Dr. Barth in 2005). For many of the students this determined their subsequent attitude toward Catholic Tradition and Modernism in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately Msgr. Sobkowiak died a year ago. He was not a member of the Society of St. Pius X, but thanks to his commitment and prayers, a group of laypeople soon formed in Vitebsk which even before the promulgation of the Motu Proprio by Pope Benedict XVI was making initial attempts to organize celebrations of the Traditional Mass in Vitebsk.

Third, the Bishop of Vitebsk, Vladislav Blin—although he takes extremely liberal and modernist positions—is one of those clerics who wants to be liked by everyone. So he did not forbid the celebration of Tridentine Masses in addition to the regularly scheduled Novus Ordo Masses at St. Barbara Cathedral in Vitebsk. And so three Holy Masses in the traditional rite take place here each week: on Sundays at 3:00 p.m. and on Saturdays and Mondays at 6:00 p.m., and also on all major feast days and for important events. As a result, a stable group of faithful from various parishes in Vitebsk was soon formed who go to the cathedral to participate in the traditional liturgy exclusively.

In 2008 Fr. Vitalij Sapegi, O.P., was ordained a priest by Bishop Blin. That same evening Fr. Sapegi celebrated his First Mass—in the old rite!

Several other priests have already declared their interest in the traditional rite, but they are afraid of displeasing the chancery staff and modernist parishioners. Catholic parishes in Belarus are very small; many of them can scarcely support their priest and their house of worship—if they have a place at all. This financial dependence on the diocesan chancery and the Polish parishes (which contribute to their support) forces them to show loyalty to the innovations. The Polish priests, who constitute around 40 percent of the Catholic clergy in Belarus, generally have a negative attitude toward the Society of St. Pius X and Catholic Tradition, which for them was completely replaced by the teaching of Pope John Paul II.

To conclude, I would also like to point out several essential problems and difficulties that must be overcome in expanding the activity of the Society in Belarus and in spreading Catholic Tradition in general.

Human psychology: As I mentioned at the start, members of a parish can often be divided into two groups: Some look to the Church as part of their search for God, but others do so for the purpose of overcoming material difficulties and getting a few free rides. This is typical not only of the Society’s parish in Minsk, but in general for all congregations of all denominations in Belarus. This problem cropped up with the unsupervised activity of various Protestant sects in the early 1990’s in Belarus, as our country was going through a severe economic crisis. These sects lured the people with various material benefits, until the State prohibited the involvement of religious communities across the board in humanitarian assistance. Distributing clothing and food was now permitted only for special organizations, such as the charitable association “Houses of Mercy,” etc. Any neo- or pseudo-Protestant congregations that violated that prohibition lost their state registration and their status as a legal person. Their houses of worship were closed. People who were only after material assistance now switched to the Orthodox and Catholic churches, which routinely fund humanitarian assistance through their eparchies and dioceses. Those people do not believe in God and are only seeking their own advantage, especially during the Easter and Christmas seasons. If they do not obtain what they desire, they stop showing up after a while and don’t come back. The appearance of such people in large numbers has meanwhile diminished considerably, but there are still individual cases—especially since the beginning of the recent global economic crisis.

For most Catholics today, the Novus Ordo is the only rite in the Catholic Church that they know. Many believe that the Catholic liturgy has been like that since the Middle Ages. Participating in the traditional Rite is something completely new to them. Therefore we can fittingly describe Catholic Tradition in our country as “the old that is ever new.” Some people, when they first run into the traditional liturgy, have problems with the Latin, yet as a rule no one stays away for that reason. Based on our experiences in Vitebsk we can say that for Belarusians as a rule, ritual does not play a decisive role. For instance more than 200 people attended Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in St. Barbara Cathedral in the hallowed traditional rite; the number of those who attended the Midnight Mass in the new rite, which began later, was not significantly greater.

Overall the situation with regard to numbers attending worship services is not very encouraging. In the SSPX parish in Minsk around 30 persons come regularly to Holy Mass. The situation is similar in Vitebsk, which makes it impossible at the moment to found a separate traditionalist parish.

Financial trouble: Contributions from the faithful in most parishes are meager. A Mass stipend costs the equivalent of around 2.5 Euros (US $3.75). In St. Barbara’s Cathedral in Vitebsk not more than around 100 Euros (US $150) is collected at the five Sunday Masses (four in the new and one in the traditional rite.) This money is just barely enough to cover the cost of heating the church from October to April. Without outside financial and material help the parishes cannot support either their house of worship or their priest. Catholic priests in Belarus are not paid salaries through church taxes, but live (as do the priests of the Society) solely on the donations of the faithful for celebrating Holy Mass for various intentions, for blessing houses, automobiles, and so forth. Many priests are also forced to travel to Poland to substitute for a priest there and, in addition, to earn something for their livelihood.

The Society of St. Pius X to this day has no church building of its own in Minsk. Not too long ago a parcel of land was allotted to it by the city (so that they could build their own church). But that requires considerable funds, which the congregation does not presently have at its disposal. Moreover the Modernists obstruct plans to build by their intrigues. It is especially difficult to obtain land for construction in the capital city of Minsk. Often a request for such a construction permit goes up the chain of command almost to the President. Therefore the Modernists try to swipe the land from the Society so as to build their own church on it.

Pastoral difficulties: The Society of St. Pius X runs only one parish in the capital of Belarus. There are however interested lay faithful in other cities and in the countryside as well. Unfortunately the Society still has no priest of Belarusian nationality who could valiantly address these problems and also settle matters with the civil authorities. People used to make a special trip to Vitebsk from as far away as Moscow, for example, where the Tridentine Mass is celebrated only once a month. The Dominican priest and cathedral pastor Michal Jermaszkewicz from Vitebsk sometimes unofficially substitutes for Fr. Bösiger at Sunday Mass when the latter has to travel. Still, Vitebsk and Minsk are 186 miles apart, which causes difficulties.

Lack of church supplies: The problems in the Modernist parishes of the Catholic Church are of a similar nature. Many old churches were blown up in the Soviet era or sustained considerable damage to the interiors. Where the walls, at least, are still standing, the old high altars did not weather the storm and are gone. During the period of reconstruction (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) only table-altars were set up. In the newly built churches high altars were not designed as a matter of principle. In order to celebrate the old rite, then, the “people’s altars” have to be supplemented by special decorations, which are then taken down again after Mass is over. The attempt to erect side altars, meanwhile, is viewed by the diocesan chanceries as “pathological.” Such statements came from that quarter this past year with regard to the erection of a side altar in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary in St. Barbara’s Cathedral in Vitebsk. To this day Bishop Blin has not yet consecrated the altar! We already have plans, though, to set up a second side altar….

Liturgical vestments and furnishings are also in very short supply. Initially many Mass vestments, stoles, and maniples were pieced together from different sets at various parishes. Meanwhile orders are being placed for new sets of liturgical vestments. There are problems also with regard to chalices, censers, etc. These liturgical items have to be consecrated, but the bishops view this as no longer necessary. Therefore traditionalist Catholics have to go looking for old liturgical appurtenances which were consecrated before the Second Vatican Council. The same is true of the liturgical books and breviaries. Although it was relatively simple to hunt down old Missals, obtaining the other liturgical books has proved to be difficult.

The organs in many Catholic churches are being replaced by electronic synthesizers. In Vitebsk an organ was installed only in St. Barbara’s Cathedral. Founding a schola for the Gregorian chant likewise presents major difficulties. Essentially only the simple melodies are sung, for instance the Ordinary of Mass VIII (Missa de Angelis). In Belarus, both in the Orthodox and the Catholic churches, the choir is made up, not of parishioners, but rather of professional singers with good voices—but they require payment for their services.

For the usual Sunday Masses there are enough altar servers as a rule. Yet not all parishes have enough of them for a Solemn High Mass with incense.

As for relations with the Modernists, I would like to describe briefly and separately those of the Society of St. Pius X and those of the other traditionalists in Vitebsk. Until 2006, while Cardinal Kazimir Swiontek—who celebrated that year his 70th year of priesthood—was still the ordinary of the Archdiocese of Minsk-Mahiliou and President of the Belarusian Conference of Catholic Bishops, his attitude toward the Society was cool but tolerant. While the see remains temporarily vacant, the resident Bishop Demjanka suggested to Fr. Bösiger, FSSPX, that he leave the Society of St. Pius X and place himself under his jurisdiction, offering to allow him to continue celebrating only in the traditional rite. One can only speculate about the real purpose concealed behind this suggestion.

The occupation of the episcopal see in Minsk by Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz in 2007 marked the beginning of a covert battle against Tradition. Obstacles are placed in the way of building churches. Priests in Modernist parishes are forbidden to celebrate Masses in the traditional rite until they have personally passed an examination given by Archbishop Kondrusiewicz. For the second year we are trying, unsuccessfully, to have the traditional liturgy included in the program of the All-Belarusian Festivities at the national Marian Shrine in Budslawa, which are attended each year on July 2 by more than 7,000 pilgrims. This year more than 100 signatures were collected in Vitebsk alone (whereas only 20 were necessary). (Belarusian law requires a minimum of 20 believers, who must also be citizens of the Republic of Belarus, in order for a parish church or congregation to be registered with the state; therefore 20 is generally regarded as the “necessary minimum” for a serious matter.) [Note by C. Brock.] We received no response to our petition—the old Mass was not admitted. All this is evidence of a growing resistance of the Modernists to the revival of Tradition in our country.

Increased pressure from Minsk on the other Belarusian dioceses is forcing the traditionalist faithful and priests in Vitebsk to seek cover with their local bishop and to avoid public confrontation with the bishop’s chancery. The local bishop, of course, has few ways of shutting someone out of the Church, but he can have a priest who says the Traditional Mass transferred to a remote locality. Recently the Russian branch of Una Voce expressed interest in collaborating with the traditionalist Catholics in Vitebsk. The center of the Russian subsidiary of Una Voce is located in Moscow; there are only a few members and their chief accomplishment is the celebration of Holy Mass in the Tridentine Rite in Moscow once a month. At the moment we are examining the possibility of membership or collaboration with Una Voce in Moscow. Consultations with the Society of St. Pius X on this matter have already taken place. For now we favor the solution of founding our own Belarusian branch of Una Voce, so as to appease the bishop’s chancery, which is afraid of possible ties between the faithful and the SSPX.

We hope that with God’s help all our problems will find a solution. We ask you for your prayers for our concerns.


Translated from Russian into German by Christina Brock, M.A., Munich, and then from German into English by Michael J. Miller, M.A. Theol., Philadelphia. The author is a parishioner of the SSPX in Vitebsk, Belarus. This article is the transcript of a lecture given in Munich.