Siberian Bishop Joseph Werth talks about
the task of rebuilding the church in Siberia after more than
70 years of Communist repression.
REVIVE THE CHURCH: Religion was Suppressed in the
Soviet Union for 70 Years. Now Siberian Bishop Joseph Werth has
Shaver, Adele. "REVIVE THE CHURCH: Religion was Suppressed in the Soviet Union for 70 Years. Now Siberian Bishop Joseph Werth has a Mission..." Hays Daily News, 14 June 1995.
Siberian Bishop Joseph Werth has his work cut out for him.
On April 13, 1991, the Catholic priest was given the task of rebuilding
the church in Siberia.
Werth, 42, stopped in Hays Tuesday to renew his contacts with people
in Ellis County, many of whom have been instrumental in helping
him with his mission.
All religions in the former Soviet Union had been suppressed during
the 70 years of Communist domination, and Werth took up his responsibility
as bishop with only three priests to help him minister to as many
as a million or more people of Catholic background. Many had been
uprooted by the government and exiled to Siberia from other parts
of the Soviet Union.
Of the 100 or more Catholic church buildings confiscated by the
Communists in Siberia, so far only four have been returned for the
use of the church.
But buildings are not his most urgent need, he said.
"What we need most are priests, nuns and lay persons who can
go and work," Werth said, speaking through Hays interpreter
"I have the impression Americans are afraid of Siberia,"
Ellis Countians were among the first to help, he added.
Werth now has 50 priests and an equal number of sisters. Five of
the priests are Americans and of the four American sisters now serving
in Siberia, three are from Ellis County. A fourth Ellis County sister
is preparing to go. Only nine of the 50 sisters in Siberia are local
women. The rest come from all over the world.
Anyone who goes has to pay careful attention to what is actually
needed and not just attempt to bring America to them, Werth said.
The mentality of the people is different.
Werth said he was pleased with the attitude of the Ellis County
sisters in that respect.
They came to him before they went and said they didn't want to
go loaded with "American baggage," but with "empty
hands" ready to do what they can to help.
An example of a difference in attitude is the great veneration
the Siberian Catholics have for sacred or holy objects. In the west,
people have a much freer relationship to the church and foreign
priests need to realize that difference or they might offend the
religious feelings of the people they are trying to serve. Taking
communion in the hand, for example, would not be understood.
Existing underground for so many years, the church in Siberia has
not experienced the changes that came to the rest of the world with
In some ways, that may be an advantage, Werth said, because the
Siberian Church can possibly learn from the often painful experience
of others as it changes.
"The people kept their own faith alive," he said.
In his own family in Kazakstan, Werth said his family included
11 children, almost a small congregation by itself. They had daily
family prayer and a longer devotion on Sundays.
When danger was especially great, the faithful only assembled as
Often, within a community, there would be a person of particular
devotion to the faith, a saintly individual.
Where such a person lived, people would gather around. Where there
were no priests, these people would be the ones called on to baptize
Often, they were women.
"Usually, they did it quite properly," Werth said, somehow
finding out what they needed to do and carefully following their
Werth's own father baptized him.
One of the best things the people have retained are many old hymns
and prayers, Werth said.
Among the people in general, Werth said he does sense a certain
hunger for religion, but he cautioned that it shouldn't be exaggerated.
Reprinted with permission of the Hays Daily News.