Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People
People on the Move - N° 93, December 2003, pp.
A Parish for Immigrants
Fr. Michael RYAN, S. M.
Our Lady of Hope Parish
My brothers and sisters in Christ.
Permit me to introduce myself. Father Michael Ryan. A Marist priest, a Londoner, a missionary for ten years in the Philippines. I am a migrant, happy to be already ten years in Moscow.
I bring the best wishes of my Bishop, ArchbishopThaddeus Kondrusiewicz.
Greetings too from the Catholics of forty nationalities that make up the small parish of Our Lady of Hope.
This November 2003, our remarkable community of faith begins its seventieth anniversary celebration. We have survived Stalin, Beria, Kruschev, Brezhnev and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“The Almighty has worked marvels for me. Holy is His name.”
We owe our parish, also, to the protection written into the Roosevelt-Litvinov “Agreement” of November 16 1933. This established diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The agreement provided for the presence in Moscow of clergy and a minimum of religious practice under the diplomatic protection of the US Embassy in Moscow and the US Department of State.
On 1st March 1934, the first priest of the community, Father Leopold Braun AA of New Bedford, Massachusetts, arrived in Moscow. From the beginning Father Braun worked not only with diplomats and Catholic foreigners in the capital but also with Catholic Muscovites, now without priests or churches, and even with Catholics from other cities; Vladimir, Kursk, Tver and Smolensk.
By 1934 the soviet state had begun the cruelest persecution of believers in the history of the Church. When by human reckoning there was no reason to hope, the Parish took Our Lady of Hope as our patron.
Today in 2003 we feel ourselves to be under powerful protection.
“The Lord shows the power of his arm and scatters the proud-hearted. He casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly.”
The shadows of the past fall upon us but we live in joyful hope.
We are we?
Let me introduce Margarite. She is 83 and comes to the vigil Mass in my apartment chapel. Margarite was born of atheist Polish parents in Moscow. She was granted the gift of faith as a young woman. In 1942 she found the only Catholic priest in Moscow, Fr Leopold Braun. He baptized her. She was arrested and sentenced to exile in Siberia. Her crime? Being a Catholic. In the 1950’s she was rehabilitated. She returned to Moscow and spent all her working life in the Library for Foreign Literature. In 1998 the parish had to reregister under the new religion law of 1997. We needed a legal address. Margarite said “You can use my private apartment address.” She told me “I am not afraid. They can do nothing to me.” The parish was able to reregister and survive because of that faith-filled woman.
Also Andy. Andy is a Catholic. Born in Nigeria, forty years ago, he’s a Russian citizen. He finished his studies in Russia and fell in love with Maria. Maria was born in Russia, the daughter a Congolese father and Russian mother. She is a Catholic from birth. They have two children whom we have baptized, Maria and Arnold. Their father Andy is a manager in a Russian company.
Here is Olga. She was born into an atheist Jewish family. She was granted the gift of faith in the soviet times. A priest baptized her secretly on a business trip to Poland. Until 1993 she used to worship with a catacomb group of Jewish Catholics, converts from atheism like her.
And Monsieur Jérôme. He is in his sixties and a widow. He too is a Russian citizen. Born in the Congo he studied in Moscow in the 1960’s. He married a Russian wife. His two daughters were baptized in Our Lady of Hope Parish in the 1960’s. Last year we baptized his granddaughter, Marie-Antoinette.
We are proud of all these parishioners. They give you a fair idea of our parish. It is mixed, cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic.
Our Lady of Hope Parish has no church. We celebrate Mass in borrowed spaces, in a gymnasium, in a small concert hall, in my apartment in a diplomatic compound.
We own nothing but our Mass is joyful for we pray with confidence to Him who “ has saved us from the hands of our foes, that we might serve him in holiness and justice, all the days of our life in his presence.”
An official once told us. “You’re not a parish!” We told him; “But, we have been registered with the Moscow Department of Justice.” “We have two choirs, English and French.” –“You’re not a parish!” - “We catechize and baptize children and adults and administer the sacraments”. “We have catechists and altar servers, and lectors and Extraordinary Ministers to help distribute Holy Communion.” We asked him why he persisted. “Because you don’t have a church building.”
On average 300 parishioners attend Mass on Sundays at three different locations in the city. More are present for Easter and Christmas. Forty nationalities are represented with nearly 40 % being Africans, some are second and third generation Afro-Russians.
The parish’s mission is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to enable Catholics to live their faith in a hostile environment. The parish helps foreigners integrate into Russian society, to found families and educate their children in their faith as Russian Catholics.
Prejudice in Russia also speaks thus; “To be Catholic is to be Polish. To be Polish is to be Catholic.” So, to be English and Catholic, or black African and Catholic, or Arab and Catholic; that is surprising. In our Moscow parish we are called to witness to the universality of the Catholic Church.
Besides being a place in the heart to worship God, the parish is a bridge and a place of learning. The Children of Israel wandered in the desert, worshipping in a tent. We too are on the move, from school to gymnasium, and from a concert hall to another gymnasium. In these difficult circumstances each parishioner invests energy and faith to gather for worship.
We, Russians and foreigners, children of Africa and Asia and Europe, naturalized Russian citizens, we greet you. Migrants and children of migrants, we love the Church and love Russia. Parishioners of Our Lady of Hope, Moscow, we are your brothers and sisters in Christ.