Laity Seen as Key to Evangelization in Former Soviet Lands

Interview With Vicar General of Kiev

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KIEV, Ukraine, OCT. 12, 2003 (ZENIT.org-Avvenire).- Conferees at the first Congress of Catholic Laity of Eastern Europe concluded that the role of the laity in evangelization is "an indispensable duty after 70 years of forced marginalization."



This conviction was expressed by Father Wieslaw Stepien, vicar general of the diocese of Kiev and organizer of the meeting, who revealed that the idea of holding a congress in Ukraine on the role of the Eastern European laity "was born practically the day after the Pope's visit, in June 2001."

The Pontifical Council for the Laity promoted the congress, which ended today.

In this interview, Father Stepien highlights the importance of the meeting for the Eastern European Church and lay faithful.

Q: Congresses of the laity are frequent in the West. Here, however, it is the first time that one is organized. Why?

Father Stepien: Here, man has been destroyed by 70 years of Communism. All the realms of human activity, at the professional, social or communal level, were controlled for a long time by a totalitarian regime. And the Church had a hard time surviving, restricted to the exercise of worship.

It made no sense to talk about the presence of the laity in the university or at work. This is why it has taken 10 years to have a meeting of this nature.

Q: Does it mean that the Church in the East has always been primarily clerical?

Father Stepien: Exactly. However, as I said, it was due to external circumstances, not to the will of the hierarchy, which feels strongly the need to have a mature and responsible laity, which is the principal agent of missionary activity.

Q: Is there a change?

Father Stepien: Yes. Suffice it to think that in Ukraine there are 5 million Catholics, or close to 10% of the population, and half of them are practicing. They feel all the weight of being Christians in a society that is fast becoming secular, with the phenomena of social and moral degradation typical of post-Communism. Moreover, there is another reason that makes the issue of the laity ever more urgent.

Q: What is it?

Father Stepien: There are few priests and the territory is very extensive. Naturally, I'm not just talking about Ukraine, but about the whole Soviet Union. The new evangelization toward the East depends above all on the witness of ordinary believers.

Q: The Pope sent a message rich in content to the congress. The assembly received it with much applause. There was something special between these people and the Holy Father. How do you explain it?

Father Stepien: It is natural that it should be so. Basically, this congress is also a tribute to all that John Paul II has done, and continues to do, for the countries of the East.

His visit to Ukraine rekindled the soul of many persons in the religious sense. To invite representatives of the laity of all the former Soviet countries to this congress is our gift for the 25th anniversary of his pontificate.