ASTANA (UCAN) -- The head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Kazakhstan knows his Church has a European face but understands it is part of Asia.
His Church maintains relations with the Catholic Church in European countries, but the 56-year-old prelate says he recently requested full membership for his Church in the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). He told UCA news he wrote to FABC secretary general Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato, Philippines. The Kazakh conference is currently an associate member.
Archbishop Peta believes the location of his Central Asian Church determines its future, despite its European origins.
UCA News talked with the prelate shortly after he was re-elected chairman of the local bishops' conference for another four years. The conference held its 12th plenary meeting Nov. 13-17 in Karaganda, 200 kilometers southeast of Astana.
Archbishop Peta was born in Inowroclaw, Poland, on Aug. 20, 1951. He was ordained a priest in 1976. From 1990 to 1999, he served as parish priest in Ozernoe village, northern Kazakhstan. He was appointed apostolic administrator of Astana in 1999, when Pope John Paul II divided the apostolic administration of Kazakhstan into four apostolic administrations based in Almaty, Astana, Atyrau and Karaganda.
Following the 2001 papal visit to Kazakhstan, Pope John Paul elevated three of the administrations in May 2003. They are the Diocese of the Most Holy Trinity in Almaty and the Diocese of Karaganda, in addition to Mary Most Holy, whose bishop became an archbishop with the elevation. Also in 2003, the local bishops' conference was established and Archbishop Peta was elected its chairman. Atyrau remains an apostolic administration.
The Church in the region emerged from the shadow of communist suppression in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Central Asian countries became independent. An apostolic administration covering the region was set up in Karaganda. In 1997, Pope John Paul separated the sui iuris (self-governing) missions in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as independent Church jurisdictions.
Today Catholics in Kazakhstan number about 250,000, many of them ethnic Poles, Germans and Lithuanians. About 3,000 Oriental-rite Catholics belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Muslims account for about 60 percent of the country's more than 15 million people, and Russian Orthodox Church members comprise about 30 percent.
Archbishop Peta talked with UCA News about his work with the episcopal conference, the development of the Church and its future as part of the Church in Asia.
The interview follows:
UCA NEWS: What role does your episcopal conference play in the local Church?
ARCHBISHOP TOMASZ PETA: Five bishops from three dioceses and one apostolic administration are members of the conference plus the papal delegate for Greek Catholics in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. We meet three times a year: during Lent, during the first week after Easter and after the second Sunday of November. The first meeting is different, as bishops and ordinaries from the whole of Central Asia participate. Despite the fact that they are not part of our episcopal conference, we are all in a territory that was part of the Soviet Union, where the main language of the Catholic Church is Russian. That is why it is important for us to share the experience of our ministry.
The first statute of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Kazakhstan is experimental. It doesn't stipulate how many times one person can be re-elected as the head of the conference. We expect the Holy See to send us the second statute that will possibly have the regulation about this. The current statute only determines the time in office as four years.
For the next four years, Archbishop Jan Pawel Lenga was re-elected as a deputy chairman of the conference. The auxiliary bishop of Karaganda, Athanasius Schneider, was elected the conference's general secretary. Thanks to the conference we have an opportunity to coordinate the pastoral work and cooperate better.
What did you talk about during the latest meeting?
During the meeting we introduced amendments to the statute of the seminary. It used to be a diocesan seminary but it served the whole (Church of) Kazakhstan. Since there are several Church jurisdictions, the necessity arose to make the seminary inter-diocesan (serving all dioceses of Kazakhstan). After the Holy See approved this, we made some formal amendments. We also appointed a new spiritual director for the seminarians, a post that was temporarily vacant. A separate point was the celebration of the coming 10th anniversary of the seminary in 2008. The conference found it important to declare next year in Kazakhstan a year of vocations to the priesthood and monkhood.
Why the focus on the priesthood and monkhood?
The overwhelming number of priests and Religious in Kazakhstan are foreigners. I think we will need help (foreign priests) from abroad for quite a long time. The reason for the lack of local priests lies in the earlier persecution against Church. During those times people preserved their faith. Of course there was neither a seminary nor priests who could work openly. But at the same time, more than 10 priests and 20 nuns appeared during that time in Kazakhstan. Now, when the life of the Catholic Church is reviving, there are more opportunities for local vocations. That is why it is so important for the whole Church of Kazakhstan to pray for vocations on Kazakhstan soil.
Did you discuss any liturgical matters?
We discussed issuing a collection of Church songs. The last one was published in 1999. After eight years the need has arisen to publish a new collection that will include songs from the current songbook as well as new ones. We plan to publish a prayer book for Catholics of Kazakhstan and Central Asia. We also discussed the way of giving Holy Communion. In many countries people stand, and in many Asian countries Communion is given not in the mouth but in the hands. In Kazakhstan we give Communion to people directly in the mouth while they kneel down. We see in it the profound sense of bringing up people in deep faith and reverence for Jesus in the Eucharist, as the Eucharist is most important for us.
Did you discuss the possibility of the Catholic Church in Kazakhstan joining the FABC?
We raised this question during the meeting. We considered the forms of our collaboration with the FABC and came to the decision to enter this federation. We have already sent a letter to Archbishop Quevedo with a request to admit the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Kazakhstan. We hope for a positive reply, because we see the necessity of cooperation with the FABC.
How do you think the FABC and Church in Kazakhstan could benefit from this cooperation?
Our belonging (to the FABC) will be a witness of solidarity in the Church. Through this membership we will express that we are also a part of the universal Church. Many Churches in Asia have much experience that they can share with us, since our Church is young. In other countries, the Church is more developed and structured. But we also have experience that could be useful to the FABC.
In Kazakhstan, the Church was persecuted for a long time. It is important to show why it continued to exist, and what was so important when the Church could function without chapels, priests and sacraments, except for baptism. I think that the experience of martyrdom, blood and tears is important for all Catholics of Asia.
In October of this year you participated in the annual meeting of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences (CCEE). How significant was this for the local Church?
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Kazakhstan doesn't belong to the CCEE, but it has been a permanent guest for three years. It is very important for us, because most Catholics in our country have European roots. The Church in Kazakhstan is young, but the Church in Europe has a centuries-old history, rich traditions and many more Catholics. That is why their experience and our cooperation with European Churches are undoubtedly important for us.
What was the focus of the CCEE meeting?
The main subject was the problems facing the family in Europe. This is an acute problem, since in many countries there are attempts to legalize same-sex marriages, and even the question of adoption of children by such couples is being raised for consideration. Family matters are not an easy subject, but it is important to consider them, as this gives the Church opportunities to intensify its work in this direction. It is significant for youth to understand that they need to prepare for life in a family before they start thinking of marriage, because the family is the most essential part of society and the Church.
What are your concerns about the state of the family in Kazakhstan?
The family in any country needs help. It is important to show the beauty of family life not only to spouses, but especially young people who are going to get married, so that they can bring up their children in the spirit of life. Fortunately, same-sex marriages are not on the agenda in Kazakhstan. But abortions take place here, and this problem needs consideration. Alcoholism destroys many families. It results in a situation where children are being brought up in incomplete families. There is also the Western influence in the question of cohabitation. That is why family affairs are a large field for the Church to work on, including in Kazakhstan.
What was the reason behind the division of the Church in Kazakhstan into four jurisdictions?
The Church gained freedom during perestroika (economical and political reforms in the Soviet Union in the end of 1980s), but gained even more freedom after Kazakhstan became independent. The Church started growing in different fields. It got permission to build church buildings, and new priests and nuns were free to come. The Church grew, but not in number. On the contrary, many Catholics left mainly for Germany. But the Church grew in its structures, more churches and chapels appeared, new communities got official registration and people gathered openly. The reason for dividing the Church into several jurisdictions was the big size of Kazakhstan. The Church communities are vivid and more people are joining them, and that makes the development of Church structures evident.