Letter #68, 2023 Monday, March 6: Kondrusiewicz
Archbishop Tadeusz Kondusiewicz, 77 (link), was released from a hospital in Minsk, Belarus, on March 3 (three days ago) after undergoing several weeks of treatment for a malignant tumor (the tumor was removed in an operation on February 8).
Deo gratias (“to God be thanks”).
May his health be fully restored.
A Cold Walk in Red Square
The good archbishop has been a “soldier” for the Church for 40 years.
Kondrusiewicz, born in Odelsk, Grodno District, Belarus, in 1946 (just after the end of World War II) into an ethnic Polish family, studied in Leningrad (now again named St. Petersburg) in the late 1960s to become a mechanical engineer. In 1976, at the age of 30, he changed course, entered the Catholic seminary in Kaunas, Lithuania, and was ordained a Catholic priest on May 31, 1981.
Ten years later, on April 13, 1991, even before the Soviet Union was dissolved (it was dissolved officially on Christmas Day in 1991), Pope John Paul II chose Kondrusiewicz, then 40, to be his “man in Moscow” sending Kondrusiewicz to the shadow of the Kremlin with little logistical support.
He was virtually alone facing an enormous task: to rebuild a Church nearly destroyed by 70 years of communism.
This is why the life of Kondrusiewicz might be made into a powerful film… screen-writers take note!
And this is why I have written about him many times over the years (for example, link and link).
Throughout the 1990s, as the bishop of the Catholic Church in Moscow during the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kondrusiewicz fulfilled his own “Mission Impossible” in Moscow.
At a time when there was virtually nothing remaining of the Catholic Church which had flourished in Moscow the first years of the 20th century (when the city was host to many French, Italian, Polish and other Catholics), after 70 years of very tight Soviet controls — closing every Catholic church except for one, St. Louis of the French next to the Lubyanka headquarters of the KGB (so everyone who went in or out could be controlled by KGB cameras) — Kondrusiewicz, working almost alone, rebuilt the Church.
I came to know him in the 1990s, meeting him often in Rome.
And I was present in December, 1999, when he re-consecrated the Cathedral of Moscow, which had been closed since the 1920s.
In that December of 1999, he and his assistant took me for a walk in Red Square. I had only a relatively light jacket on, having come from warmer Rome(!). The temperature, however, was freezing — below zero, actually. So I began to shiver as the winter wind cut into my face and knifed through my jacket, as we walked by Lenin’s tomb. “You are cold?” Kondrusiewicz asked me. I didn’t answer, just shrugged my shoulders and lifted my hands slightly, giving him a half-smile to show that yes, of course I was freezing, and a fool to have come to Russia without a warm enough winter jacket.
He turned to his assistant, Fr. Bogdan. “He is shivering,” Kondrusiewicz said. “I have another coat in the car,” Fr. Bogdan said. “Ah,” said Kondrusiewicz. “Could you please kindly lend our American friend your overcoat, and go back to the car for your extra coat? Otherwise, I believe we may have to slide him off of Red Square on a sled like a block of ice…”
And he laughed.
Fr. Bogdan took off his overcoat, handed it to me with a smile, and said: “Think nothing of it.”
So I thanked him, put on his coat, and thought everything of it, remembering it now after 23 years as if it were yesterday.
I rejoice, then, that Kondrusiewicz has come for now through his own difficult battle with cancer, and pray for him that his recovery be complete, and that he continue to live courageously, as always, carrying out the mission he was born for — the renewal of the faith in the East.
And now, just a brief reflection — a brief explanation for why I write as I do about the East bloc, the Orthodox world, the world of the former Soviet Union, the world of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, that entire region.
My outlook has, essentially, always been to “build bridges.”
This has perplexed some, saddened some, scandalized some (who have attacked me with deep frustration and some anger).
So why do I write as I do?
In those days, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in keeping with the vision of Pope John Paul II, we all hoped to overcome the sorrow of the communist time, and to build, or re-build, slowly, a friendship, even a collaboration, with the Russian Orthodox, with the Russian people, overcoming a common suffering: the Catholics had suffered under the Soviets (more or less for seven decades, 1921-1991), but so too had the believing Russians suffered, under their officially atheist Communist regime, which persecuted them.
This common experience of religious oppression was what I — and Pope John Paul II, and after him Pope Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis —felt might one day lead to closer, better relations between our Churches, Catholic and Orthodox… to the overcoming of the “Great Schism,” and centuries of rivalry, and mutual suspicion.
And it is this hope that has been so cruelly crushed, as a flickering flame is crushed by the grinding heel of a boot, by the terrible, heart-wrenching, bloody war that has now raged for more than a year between Russia and Ukraine.
May some way be found to bring it to an end…—RM