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Hide Me Within Thy Wounds: The Persecution of the Catholic Church in the USSR

Book review by Father Christopher Lawrence Zugger

Osipova, I.I. Hide Me Within Thy Wounds: The Persecution of the Catholic Church in the USSR. Translated from Russian by Malcolm Gilbert. 2003.


Within Thy Wounds,, hide me, So shall I never be separated from Thee - The Anima Christi Prayer

In 1978, a few weeks after his election and consecration, Pope John Paul II heard a voice cry out from the crowd at an audience, "Do not forget the Church of Silence!" He replied, "It is silent no more! It speaks with my voice." Throughout his pontificate the Pope has indeed tried to raise the voices of the silenced from the Church under Communism. This book contains the voices of that first Communist-ruled Catholic Church --- the very words, captured in detailed transcripts from prison interrogations, of Catholic priests, nuns, and lay people from the Roman, Byzantine-Russian and Byzantine-Ukrainian, and Armenian Catholic Churches of the USSR. In reading Hide Me Within Thy Wounds, we not only hear those long-quiet voices, we discern just how intense the atheist opposition to believers was. Literally, they did not speak in the same language sometimes, with secret policemen bewildered by talk of Christian charity, and seeing evangelization as being necessarily anti-Soviet activity, not sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

When this book was first published in Warsaw and Moscow, it caused a sensation. Here were the documents of the martyrs, proof of what Catholics had suffered for Christ and with Him in the labor camps, prisons, and torture centers of the USSR. No one was quite sure in the early 1990s just what could be found in the OGPU/ NKVD documents concerning the Catholic minority: how much had the dictatorship preserved of its crimes? Well, as it turns out, the very words were carefully documented, marked, stamped, and shelved.

From the entire mass of Catholic history in Soviet Russia, Mme. Osipova chose seven sections:

-- the Byzantine-Russian or Russian Greek Catholics;

-- the priests of all backgrounds imprisoned in Solovki in the White Sea in the 1930s;

-- the German Roman Catholics of the old Volga parishes;

-- the isolated parish of Saint Louis of the French in Moscow;

-- the attempts of some Catholic priests to serve the USSR during the War and their sad fates;

-- a short survey of the persecution of Polish Roman Catholics in newly-annexed western Ukraine after 1945;

-- a tragic prison rising after Stalin's death and role of a long-suffering priest serving the prisoners during their brief 40-days of freedom and again under crushing terror.

The book unveils long-hidden facts about priests who disappeared into the Gulag's maw. Thus, we know now what became of the great missionary among the White Russian refugees of Manchuria, Archimandrite Fabian, MIC, arrested in western Ukraine as a Japanese spy; and of great interest to many American Catholics, we have a glimpse of the records of the interrogation of Father Walter Ciszek, SJ, an American bi-ritual priest who suddenly found himself inside the Soviet Union after the border changes of 1939. Foreign priests were truly feared in the Stalinist era, as they brought news of the universal Church and a reminder to the Soviet Catholics that they had not been totally abandoned by the Vatican. But each of the priests who either entered the USSR or chose to remain behind after the German army retreat in 1944 put himself at terrible risk for torture, imprisonment, hard labor, and indeed execution. Any connections with the outside world had disappeared after 1937; anyone coming in with uncensored religious news was obviously a threat to the control of Stalin and the Party.

The Russian Byzantine Catholic Dominican nuns are an astounding lot. These resilient women lived in community wherever they could in the prisons of the Gulag, and gave religious instruction inside camps and when they were temporarily freed. The Sisters continued their charitable work until their deaths, for which the police wrote that they had "anti-Soviet spirit". Sharing of letters with the foreign priests in Moscow brought about charges of espionage as late as 1949 against these elderly and sick women. Some nuns survived until 1956, but found out only then that all of the Russian Byzantine Catholics priests they had known had been shot or had died of their sufferings.

This book certainly brings alive the delicate tightrope all of these believers walked in trying to lead their own private religious lives, serve fellow Catholics, and respond to possibly sincere overtures for instruction. The fellow prisoner could not be trusted, neither could everyone at the same Mass in a working church. The strain was unbearable at times. The smallest complaint about the difficulty of life under the Soviet regime was easily and regularly translated into "inspiring counter-revolutionary activity", calling peasants to revolt, or giving privileged information to foreigners - a pastoral gathering of priests with Bishop Frison in the Crimea was transformed by NKVD paranoia into a gathering of soldiers not of Christ, but of capitalism. Some priests yielded to torture, mind control, starvation, and fear. While some "denunciations" were of people safely outside the USSR, such as Father Jan Kellner gave before his execution, Father Jean Nicolas broke down in 1945 and condemned many Odessa people to arrest by his confessions. Spies were carefully inserted into the innermost circles of the Catholics, and many of the people cared for by Bishop Neveu, the last bishop in the USSR by 1938, were betrayed by a Moscow parishioner respected in the Vatican itself!

A correction to be noted: Father Leoni's work in Odessa was predominantly in the Latin rite -the former French church of Saint-Pierre was the church with 8000 parishioners (page 152). The Byzantine (or, Osipova writes, "Orthodox") rite was celebrated for a smaller congregation, but indeed one filled with enthusiastic converts.

For the average American reader, though, this book is going to be an eye-opener. It is small, easy to handle, and the translation is readable. And the average Americans who reads this should set it down, and give thanks to Almighty God that they have not had to face such tests, ponder how much they value their own faith lives, and spread the news as those exiles did in the Arctic nights, that faith in God is more precious than all else in life.

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