ACN: 30 years of collaboration with the bishop of Novosibirsk, Russia

THE BERLIN WALL fell on Nov. 9, 1989. One after the other, the communist governments lost their monopoly of power in the countries that made up the Eastern Bloc, which collapsed and all that was left was the Soviet Union. Twenty-one countries declared their independence from March 1990 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

For Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), after decades of hoping that the situation would ease for the Church in Russia—which was persecuted and largely cut off from the rest of the world—this opened up new opportunities for aid and collaboration with new project partners such as Bishop Joseph Werth of Novosibirsk in Russia. He spoke with ACN about the early days of the partnership.

Bishop Werth

A few months ago, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. 1990 was also a decisive year for Russia and the work of ACN there. Do you still remember your first visit to our offices?
I was visiting Germany for the first time just as the Berlin Wall fell. As I was on my way to ACN, it was being broadcast on television that the Wall had fallen. That was quite a coincidence!

Up until that point, it had not been easy to communicate with the West. How did you even hear about ACN? Earlier in 1989, a handful of journalists had already made it as far as Saratov on the River Volga. A Catholic journalist told me about ACN there. I had just started building a church in Marx on the River Volga and so I wanted to contact the charity about that. But, in the end, I was not the one who finished the church because I was transferred to Siberia by Pope John Paul II. At the time, there was not a single church there. We had nothing.

There was nothing there? Not even a parish?
Yes, there was a parish in Novosibirsk, a single parish for the entire city, a metropolis of almost 1.5 million residents. For almost two months, I lived as a guest in a flat that had recently been bought by a Catholic movement. At that time, we didn’t have any funds or ties to other dioceses.

What was your first project with ACN?
At the time, we did not have any liturgical books or liturgical calendars. There was absolutely nothing. We had a small copier, one for all of Novosibirsk. The priest also had a fax machine, but that was all. If you wanted to make copies of a prayer, you first made a single copy on this small machine, then waited a little and then made the next copy. It took forever. Because of this, the first project with ACN was for a machine for photocopying and printing.

Your diocese covers an area of more than 780,000 square miles. That is as large as Spain, France, Italy, Poland and Germany combined. What is your greatest need?
My diocese is enormous; to make matters worse, the Catholics are an “atomized” community, as I like to say. Which basically means that they are scattered all over the place. They are not very mobile because public transportation practically does not exist. We therefore have great traveling expenses for pastoral care. ACN helps us with this. Furthermore, the priests and religious live and work far removed from one another. We comprise many different nationalities. It is very important to organize meetings throughout the year so that people don’t feel completely left alone.

On average, I log about 60,000 miles a year. Our vehicles need to be “robust” because it can be fatal if your car breaks down in the winter at outside temperatures of minus 40 or 50 degrees Celsius. ACN helps us purchase these cars; the pastoral trips would not be possible without that support.

—Maria Lozano