Bishop Jerzy Mazur of the Diocese of St. Joseph of Irkutsk has been attacked by the Orthodox Church for having studied missiology in his years of formation. Russian authorities canceled his visa in April.
The Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow recently sent a letter criticizing the Catholic Church -- and particularly the bishop and Catholic congregations and lay movements in the country -- for "proselytism" in Russian land.
In response, Bishop Mazur, of the Society of the Divine Word, made the following appeal through SIR, the Religious Information Service of the Italian bishops' conference.
Q: What was your first impression after reading the accusatory letter sent by Metropolitan Kirill, president of the Department of External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate?
Bishop Mazur: My impression is that the document puts all the activities of the Catholic Church in one bag, labeling it "proselytism." In reality, we work more in a pastoral rather than missionary sense, also because there is a lack of priests and nuns. There are 50,000 Catholics in my diocese, and the country is large. Its territory is 28 times larger than Italy's.
Sixteen million inhabitants live in this region, and almost a million have Catholic roots. In fact, there are Poles, Germans, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians. They come from Armenia, Lithuania, Korea ... I don't think it is the moment to be opposing one another.
Rather, the time has arrived to meet together and sit around the same table, and talk. Together we must understand what proselytism is, and what must be understood as missionary activity.
Q: The patriarchate also accused you. How do you respond?
Bishop Mazur: The document affirms that I, as a Verbite, studied missiology in Rome, but this does not mean that I proselytize. It also states that I traveled to Poland to speak with an archbishop who was then in charge of a missionary commission.
In fact, I have spoken with many bishops, because we need priests. However, we need them to do pastoral work with Catholics, social work with the people, and ecumenical work with all Christians. For us, to preach the Gospel means, especially, to be witnesses of Jesus' Gospel, and this is not proselytism.
Q: What is the way out of this tunnel?
Bishop Mazur: We must meet again and talk. Only dialogue can clarify the issues and help the two Churches. Although all the social work we do is perceived as proselytism, it is not so for us.
It is the gift of help that we wish to offer when we see children on the street, minors abandoned in orphanages, poor families, young people without a future, and many addicted to drugs. It is a help we can offer together.
Q: How do you live this situation?
Bishop Mazur: It's not easy. I have been removed as bishop for helping people who have Catholic roots. I have been removed for helping the poor, for supporting those who ask for it. I now ask: How can we proselytize with only 46 priests? Moreover, is it proselytism to build a church when all others have been destroyed, transformed into museums of atheism, concert halls, hospitals ...?
Q: Why has the patriarchate been so harsh?
Bishop Mazur: I don't know. It's also difficult for me to understand. Yet, although the document is very harsh, at least now we know what the Orthodox have to say, and this is positive. I hope that the way of dialogue will now be opened.
They have said clearly what they think of our activity; they have given concrete examples of what they think is proselytism, which we consider normal pastoral activity of the Church. We are ready to debate and to sit around a table.
Q: At present, you are in Poland. Will you return to your see?
Bishop Mazur: For the time being it is impossible as they have not given me a visa. The Holy Father wrote a personal letter to President Vladimir Putin, from whom he has yet to receive a response. There was also a diplomatic note of the Holy See, but the Vatican has received no reply at all.
The Polish government also sent a note, which has also had no effect. I think President Putin could change this situation and act so that I can return and continue my work as bishop.
Q: What hopes do you have?
Bishop Mazur: My hope is that the Holy Father and Patriarch Alexy will meet soon, and that from their meeting a fruitful dialogue might begin, because only dialogue can resolve all these problems, beginning with proselytism and pastoral activity.
We need the ecumenical dialogue. I have another hope: to be able to return soon to the country to continue with my work, which is pastoral work, and to promote the ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox.