In September the European National Service Committees for Catholic Charismatic Renewal met in Czestochowa, Poland. It was obvious from the sharings of the Christians from Eastern and Central European countries that there is a great religious awakening happening with many people now eager to learn about God.
Bishop Dembowski spoke on East-West relations. He pointed out, first of all, that one cannot call all the former communist countries “Eastern Europe” as many of us have tended to do. Hence our focus on “Central and Eastern Europe”. Neither can we assume that Eastern Europe is monolithic. Rather we need to understand that the various national differences are often connected with different religious traditions, which include Roman Catholic, Protestant, Byzantine Orthodox, Catholic Byzantine and Muslim. These differences add to the difficulties of evangelization in Eastern Europe because, for example, Polish priests can be resisted in some areas with a fear of “repolinisation”.
The Eastern Church has been traumatized by the last 70 years of communist rule. The Bishop catalogued some of the horrifying losses suffered by the Orthodox Church in Russia following the 1917 Revolution. The hierarchy had virtually been annihilated with 270 bishop killed and 300 more who later died in prison (as well as killing 45.000 priests and religious and millions of lay believers).
Those of us gathered there from around Europe witnessed the great faith which survived in the midst of this persecution as we saw a hundred thousand workers from all over Poland coming to honor the ancient icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, which is kept in the monastery of Jasna Gora. We were told that the Pentecost pilgrimage organized by the Charismatic Renewal gets about 150.000 people!
Bishop Dembowski and Katerina Lachmanova from Czech Republic both emphasized the importance of sensitivity to cultural and religious differences in evangelizing in Central and Eastern Europe. The Bishop shared that faith for the Soviet people over the years had been indelibly connected with signs, symbols and customs which many people had given their lives to preserve. Many of these customs and external signs changed in Western Europe following Vatican II. Unfortunately one of the problems today is that the West often thinks that the new customs are better for evangelizing.
One of the bitter fruits of the new freedom of the new freedom, according to Bishop Dembowski, is the division of believers, who in the past had been united in the persecution they had suffered from the Communist regimes. This division is being accentuated by the different Christian groups now coming from the West, each with their own agenda and ideas of what is best for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.
Katerina stressed the importance of being humble, not expecting Eastern Christians to see things the way Westerners do.
Katerina thanked “our brothers and sisters from Western countries who have served us, they visited our prayer groups, they gave talks, they shared their experiences. They helped us to discover and recognize our own gift and vocation”. She added, however, “We also had bad experiences – sometimes, the Westerners who came to Poland were not interested in our experience of faith, in our needs, in our tradition. They were only interested in their vision of evangelization. Sometimes this caused conflict between prayer groups and the local Church”.
Katerina, who had spent three years doing and evangelization and training course in Malta, said one of the best ways to help the Church in the East was to sponsor nationals to come West for training, as she had done.
Dale Smerauskaite from Lithuania said, “The religious needs of our people are very basic. We need basic programs on how to read the Bible or start a study group”.
It was clear from their sharing that there is a great spiritual hunger and desire to learn, but also a desire to do that without losing their traditions.
Taken from the ICCRS Newsletter, February-March 1995