01-03-2009 - Traces, n. 3

a day with...
archbishop paolo pezzi

The Heart of Mission
It is a diocese six times the size of California, where the Catholics are scattered from the White Sea coast to the foothills of the Urals. Their Pastor goes to visit them once a month. What drives him? “Familiarity with Christ.” Pastoral visits, meetings with the students, Baptism in the houses, and intereligious lunches.... We spent some days with the Archbishop of Moscow, in order to understand what it means “to announce the One who changed my life.”

by Fabrizio Rossi

“Come in, come in!” Vjaceslav smiles, a cigarette in his mouth. He invites us into his house. The thermometer beside the door shows minus 35C. Welcome to Kugalki, a village lost in the depths of Russia. Thirteen hours on the train from Moscow, then 150 miles by car from Kirov, the nearest city.
It is a February morning like many others, but there is celebration in the air. In the kitchen, the wife and grandmother are busy, helped by the three children. In a few minutes, Vjaceslav and his mother Nadežda will receive Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion from their Archbishop. He is Paolo Pezzi, and he has come here on a pastoral visit. There is a cross on the table, and the room the family use as a bedroom has become a chapel. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want….” Looking around, you understand that for these people it’s true. “From faith we are certain that we already have everything we need for our life, even were we to be in the poorest and shabbiest community,” Archbishop Pezzi says in his homily. It is He who takes hold of us in the most improbable ways. Vjaceslav 35, was a farmer in Kazakhstan, then he lost everything and moved here. He found out that there were Catholics here from an advert in the newspapers. His mother offers us hot soup to celebrate. She has been waiting for this moment all her life. “When I was six years old, a priest came at night to baptize my family, but I was afraid and went to hide. I have regretted it for 60 years.”
Exceptional events? Not very, for a bishop who leads a diocese eight times the size of Italy, and every two weeks goes to see groups of faithful scattered from the White Sea coast to the foothills of the Urals. Who knows if this electrician from Romagna (at one time he worked as a technical salesman for the Italian Telecom company), who met CL during his military service, would have ever imagined it when he was ordained for the St. Charles Fraternity in 1990. A few months later he set off for the mission in Novosibirsk. He spent five years in Siberia and then five years in Rome alongside Fr. Massimo Camisasca, then he went back to Russia, this time to the capital. Finally, in September 2007, Benedict XVI chose him to lead the archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow. The Catholics in Russia are a little flock of 1.4 million according to the official statistics, though 600,000 seems more realistic. In the capital there are about 20,000 faithful, including those just passing through. Many of them are of Polish, Lithuanian, German, Ukrainian or Byelorussian origin. “What counts is not whether you are two or two hundred, but being able to live the faith,” Pezzi says, “grateful for those who, before us, have kept the faith and transmitted it.
It’s what we find in Kirov, the first stage of the visit. Here the community grew up around Germans deported from the Volga regions (“We came by the will of God and of Stalin”, says Josif, one of their descendents, joking). The Parish priest, Fr. Grigori, has been in the town since 2002. When we reached there, at 7.37 a.m., he was waiting for us on the platform. He embraced Pezzi, who was visiting for the first time, and greeted Fr. Michiel, his secretary, a young Dutch priest belonging to the St. Charles Fraternity. We then left at once for the Government Hotel in his Niva 4x4 (“It may be a Soviet vehicle, but it still goes quite well.”)

Heaven in a room. The program for the weekend is intense: after a meeting of the community, we leave for Kugalki; the following day, there is a brief meeting with local journalists, Mass, then a visit to the region’s governor, an “ecumenical lunch” in the hotel, and then back to the station. First we call at the parish priest’s house. In the largest room, Fr. Grigori has set up a chapel, up to now the only place where the community can meet. Ten faithful are waiting for us, and there is a round of presentations, and a series of questions. “Do you know the new Patriarch?” “Will the dialogue with the Orthodox improve?” “How can we overcome the problems with the authorities?” Pezzi replies but, above all, he asks them what they are doing and how they are. “I am always surprised when I meet the communities around Russia. Nothing can stop us living the faith in whatever circumstances.”
What does it mean to be father for these people? “First of all, it means to find people whom I have not generated,” he explains as soon as we are outside. It must not be easy to express this nearness in such a vast diocese. “I often send circular letters, asking the priests to write back to me. They are not formalities; I am interested in how they live the relationship with Christ and with the people.”

Aleša’s questions. It is the same passion that Pezzi lives every day. In his pastoral visits over a distance of six hundred miles, as well as between the four walls of the curial offices (three floors of redbrick behind the Cathedral, 2½ miles as the crow flies from the Kremlin). “Whoever wants to meet me can do so, they all know.” There are people who ask for help as to what to do in life, and there are hopeless people who looking for something to hang on to. The day begins early, rising at 7 am, “depending on the energy God gives me,” with Mass, Morning Prayer, and breakfast with the three nuns who help him in the curia. Then some hours at the desk to prepare meetings and homilies, and to answer correspondence. Then come the appointments, priests, businessmen, foreigners passing through, the odd journalists or politician. There are often young people: “The other day a girl told me that she wants to go to America ‘to understand what God wants of me.’ She asked me what I thought of it.” And what did you answer? “That for that there was no need to run away.” After dinner, there is still some time for the odd meeting or for study. This is the humdrum day-by-day life of the Archbishop of Moscow (“but there can be hectic days, too, running from one engagement to another”), made up of mounds of paper and bureaucracy. “I would not have chosen many of the things I do. Today I may have to meet the Patriarch, and tomorrow a tramp; I am not the one who decides.” This appointment is the most radical change that has happened in my life. Nothing belongs to me any more, I have given up everything.”
Amongst the stack of engagements, one is very special. It is every other Tuesday in the hall of the curia: the School of Community, which Pezzi has held since September with a group of young people. This week it’s on hope. Nine people arrive, the eldest must be about thirty. At the start there were only two of them, the archbishop and his secretary. “Some weeks later, some young people I had met during my pastoral visits told me ‘We don’t have a companionship,’” Pezzi says. “They asked if we could meet more often. So I invited them to School of Community.” The questions and the contributions come more and more, and some people take notes. Aleša comes forward, dressed in jeans and a striped sweater: “Is there one truth, or does everyone have his own?” (Pezzi replies, “Answer: Is that how it is for you?”). The Anja, one of the first asks, “Why do the people I love most have to die, too?” There is no hint of embarrassment in them or in him. “I am the first to be free. I know I don’t need to draw back.” He is not concerned about how many people he draws. “Proselytism begins where the mission ends. The mission is to announce the One who changed my life and has something to say to your life, too.”

Fences in the steppe. This is the only way to meet. Just as we saw in Kirov, where, at that “ecumenical lunch” organized by Fr. Gregori, there were the parish priest of the orthodox Cathedral and the representative of the Muslim Community, the Archbishop of Moscow and the president of the Kirov Hebrew Association, all sitting opposite each other. What makes dialogue possible? “Familiarity with Christ,” Pezzi explains to us as we climb the steps to the curia. “Only in this way can I go to meet the other with the desire to recognize the truth that is in him, even for only a fragment,” like in that lunch and in the toast proposed at the end by Fr. Alexandr, the Orthodox priest of Kirov: beyond neighborly relationships and political correctness. Fr. Alexandr told us of his trip to Italy in pilgrimage to St. Nicolas in Bari. He recalled that when he and his faithful were making the Way of the Cross through the streets, old women would lean out of their windows with a blessing. As he raised his glass, he said, “Sadly there are still fences between our Churches, but I am sure they do not reach up to heaven!”
There have been fences, misunderstandings, moments of tension, it’s useless to hide it. “But if the division remains, there is one thing we can do: witness to Christ, even in common initiatives,” says Pezzi, sitting at the computer below a picture of a Byzantine Madonna. Is the election of the new Patriarch a positive signal? “Kirill knows the Catholic Church well. If with him the Orthodox can understand their identity better, then dialogue will be more desired and less timorous.” The media have described him as liberal or reformist… “Mundane categories do not work. He is a man open not so much to abstract dialogue but to a encounter aimed at the good of the Church.” So is unity still far off? “It will be when God wants it. Meanwhile my job is to witness. Everything depends on the face I have.”