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Eye on Eurasia: A Siberian Pope?

Goble, Paul. "Eye on Eurasia: A Siberian Pope?" United Press International, n.d.


Tartu, Estonia, Feb. 5, 2005 (UPI) -- At the height of the Cold War, Morris West published a novel titled "The Shoes of the Fisherman," which tells how a Russian Catholic priest long imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag concentration camp system becomes by a strange twist of fate the pope of Rome and helps the world's major powers to overcome their divisions.

Five years later, that book became the basis for a popular motion picture of the same name starring Anthony Quinn. And now, 40 years later, at least one Russian journalist is suggesting that life might come to imitate art and that after the death of John Paul II, "the next Pope might come from Siberia."

In Moscow's Novyye Izvestiya, newspaper on Jan. 24 (newizv.ru/), Mikhail Pozdnyaev discusses why such a "fantastic" suggestion, however improbable it appears, nonetheless is not nearly as farfetched as were either the premise behind West's 1963 novel or the election in 1979 of Cardinal Karol Wojtila of Poland as the current pope.

Three things prompted Pozdnyaev to raise this possibility, which at best is almost certainly the longest of long shots and which in any case is both premature and inappropriate because the current pope is still very much alive.

First, on Jan. 19, Novosibirsk Bishop Iosif Vert [Joseph Werth] was chosen to succeed Metropolitan Tadeus Kondrusevic as chairman of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia, the group that oversees and directs the religious life of more than 500,000 Russian Catholics.

The new chairman is a remarkable figure in his own right and one very different than his predecessor. Born in 1952 into a family of ethnic Germans who had been exiled to Kazakhstan, he grew up a convinced Catholic despite all the Soviet-era pressure to reject his faith and apparently was committed to a religious life from the start.

After service in the Soviet military in Lithuania, Vert not only attended the Kaunas seminary there but joined the Church's Jesuit Order -- a group that functioned illegally and underground there because of a Soviet ban. His first pastorate was in Aktyubinsk, and later he headed the Catholic community in the city of Marks in Russia's Saratov oblast or region.

In April 1991, Vert became apostolic administrator for the Catholics of Siberia and was named bishop in June 1992 just before his 40th birthday. Ten years later, when John Paul II created four Catholic eparchates on the territory of the Russian Federation, Vert assumed the post he now occupies -- head of the Preobrzhenskiy diocese of Eastern Siberia, where he has engaged in extensive missionary work especially among intellectuals and students.

Vert's career clearly sets him apart from his predecessor, an ethnic Pole who was trained as an engineer before turning to the priesthood and who devoted more time to building church institutions than to missions and education, two areas in which the Jesuits historically have been particularly active.

Moreover, Vert has had far greater opportunities than did Kondrusevic not only to reach out to intellectuals and ordinary Russians but also to travel abroad and to speak out on a variety of issues concerning the often-troubled relationship between church and state in the Russian Federation.

Second, at the time of his election as chairman of the Conference, Vert was singled out for special favor by the Vatican, Pozdnayev says. The nuncio in Moscow announced John Paul II had personally decided that Bishop Vert will now oversee Greek Catholics in the Russian Federation.

Because most Greek Catholics in Russia are located near the border with Ukraine, Vert will have expanded opportunities not only to increase his personal power but also to attract greater attention from Russian political leaders who are likely to see this ethnic German born in Kazakhstan as closer to them culturally than was the Polish Kodrusevic.

Indeed, Pozdnayev pointedly writes "the subtext" of Vert's election is that the Vatican now understands "the first person of the Catholic Church in Russia ought to be a Russian" -- and here he uses the non-ethnic "rossiiskiy" which would include the ethnic German Vert.

That Vert is sensitive to such attitudes and such possibilities was suggested by remarks he made during a November 2003 visit to Germany. At that time, he suggested: "Russians generally consider religion above all as a question of culture" (agnuz.info/>) rather than focusing on theological issues.

But the new chairman certainly knows he will have to work hard to gain the confidence of the Russian leadership. Catholics are not included in Russia's Interreligious Council as one of the "traditional" faiths of the country and do not have good relations with many of the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Anti-Catholic prejudices remain strong among many Russians who view Catholicism as a threat. (See, for example, (//nevskiy.orthodoxy.ru/center/sprav/katolicism.html). And President Vladimir Putin's decision to make Nov. 4 -- the anniversary of the expulsion of the Catholic Poles from Moscow -- a national holiday may only exacerbate the situation.

Third, Pozdnayev makes the following curious reference to what he says are rumors swirling in the Vatican about who should succeed the increasingly frail John Paul. An unnamed "Vatican source," Pozdnayev says, "has asserted that the new pope will be neither an Italian nor a bishop from the 'third world;' instead, he will be a Slav."

Such rumors, Pozdnayev continues, had lead many in the Church to consider the possibility that Metropolitan Kondrusevic might thus be in the running. But precisely because the metropolitan is a Pole, just like the current pope, is it not possible, Pozdnayev continues, that "the future occupant of the Vatican palace does not live today in Novosibirsk?"

(Paul Goble teaches at the Euro-college of the University of Tartu in Estonia.)

Reprinted with permission of the United Press International.

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