Congress of Lay Catholics in Eastern Europe

Kiev, a meeting-point of hope and renewed missionary thrust

In Kiev, the ancient site of the baptism of the Rus, for the first time, the Pontifical Council for the Laity convened a meeting of around 300 people coming from 14 countries of the ex-Soviet Union, led by their respective pastors, together with members of ecclesial associations and movements that work in that geographical area, representatives of Catholic organisations that work with the Churches in Eastern Europe, and observers from other Churches and ecclesial communities.

On the one hand, the Kiev Congress is part of a series of regional and continental congresses that have been organised by the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Asia, Oceania, Central America, Europe and the Middle East, and on the other hand it was a very new event that would have been unthinkable in those countries a short time ago. They suffered from repression and antireligious propaganda for years and could not have normal and regular exchange and experiences with the rest of the Christian world.

A time of hope and courage

The Congress opened on Wednesday 8 October in the afternoon with a reading of the Holy Father’s message by the Papal Nuncio in Belarus, Bishop Nikola Eterovic. It spoke of the “painful separation, which has caused a kind of asphyxia among the Christian communities of the East”, and it emphasised the new responsibility entrusted to the laity of “passing on to future generations the heritage of Christian faith”. The Pope stressed that “The Lord asks you who have been stalwart witnesses of faith in times of trial and persecution, and in the time that has now seen you regain religious freedom, to prepare the soil for a vigorous rebirth of the Church in your Countries”. He went on to say that “a precious contribution in this regard can be made by associations, church movements and new communities, the experience of which has given birth to fruitful pedagogical paths and a renewed apostolic enthusiasm”. Reminding us that the rediscovery of the role of the laity in the mission of the Church came with the Second Vatican Council, the Pope exhorted the lay faithful to allow Christ to shine out in their personal lives, in all sectors where people work for peace and for a social order that respects human dignity. “For the laity, this is a time of hope and courage!”, the Pope says, and he encourages them to make their families “true domestic Churches” and their parishes “true schools of prayer and Christian life”.

Messages of greeting were also received from Cardinal Moussa Ignace Daoud, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and from the Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Following the reading of the Holy Father’s message, there were words of introduction from Cardinal Stafford and words of welcome from Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, Major Archbishop of Lviv of the Ukrainians, and Archbishop Marian Jaworski of Lviv of the Latins. In a climate of celebration, the greetings and presentations of delegations alternated with songs composed to celebrate the visit to Ukraine of Pope John Paul II in June 2001, others to celebrate the Congress, and traditional Ukrainian songs.

Call to holiness

The first day of work sessions, Thursday 9 October, was dedicated to the central themes of the mission of the laity. The talks were given by the Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk (“The mission of the Church at the dawn of the third millennium”) and by Archbishop Stanisław Ryłko (“You will be my witnesses: the hour of the laity”). Cardinal Vlk gave testimony concerning the years of “forced secularism” experienced during the communist regime, and he emphasised very strongly the person of Christ as a “source of hope”, and the need to embrace the crucified Jesus in the “sacrament of sorrow” in order to understand, follow and proclaim the Risen Christ. Archbishop Ryłko described the lay person and the lay mission, insisting on the dimension of communion and the ecclesial character of their witness. These are interwoven in their vocation and mission, and they find their deepest foundation in Baptism. He invited the laity to be conscious of their participation in the “threefold mission of Christ: priestly, prophetic and royal. To be authentic apostles and credible witnesses of Christ in the world, the life and faith of Christians must be intimately united, in other words, they must live in holiness. We are not speaking of ‘second category’ holiness but of real authentic holiness”. In the afternoon there was a round table session on “From persecution to freedom: to be Christians in our times”. It was moderated by Alexey Youdine from Moscow. The thread of the interventions was the recognition – in spite of poverty, difficulties and problems of all kinds that are found in the ex-Soviet regions – of a timid and mysterious Church, yet completely real, that responds to the desires and longings of the suffering humanity of those countries.

Laity in the Church and in society

On Friday 10 October, the work sessions were preceded by a presentation of the various kinds of presence the laity hold within the Church and in society. The keynote talks were given by Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Moscow (“The participation of the laity in the life of the parish community: liturgy and sacraments, proclaiming the Gospel, witnesses of charity”), and Prof. Guzmán Carriquiry (“Educating in the faith: the contribution of the associations of the faithful and of the movements to the mission of the Church”). With the pontifical magisterium as a basis, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz analytically outlined the duties and the charisms of the laity in parish ministry, appealing to the sensus Ecclesiae that must be the life-blood of every activity. Prof. Carriquiry described the main criteria on which lay movements are built (ecclesiality, synthesis between faith and life, incarnation of being a visible sign (a sacrament) of communion, authentic Catholicism, openness to grace), and he gave an invitation to follow in the footsteps of the Holy Father and “make the Church a home and a school of communion”. Then he introduced some invited members of ecclesial movements to give witness. In the afternoon, the round table session was moderated by Dr Jean-François Thiry (Moscow). It centred on the theme “Apostleship of the laity: priorities and commitments”, and there were many witnesses of mission in the world of work, schools, families and society.

Blood of the martyrs and seeds of new life

Saturday 11 was dedicated to two fundamental themes in the history and life of the Christian communities in these countries: martyrdom and the desire for unity. The first talk was also a testimony entitled “The blood of the martyrs, seeds of new life: the martyrs of yesterday call the attention of the Christians of today”, and it was given by Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek, Archbishop of Minsk. He told his own story and that of the Church and described in a simple and moving way episodes of authentic Christian heroism. The primate of the Belarusian Catholic Church (a veteran of soviet prison camps where he spent 10 years from 1945 to 1954) authoritatively consigned to the laity of today the mission to witness to Christ to the full, a mission that his generation had acquitted through resistance and fidelity to the Church at the cost of life itself. The second talk (“Ut unum sint: gift and challenge of unity”) was given by Father Josef Maj, S.J. of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. He gave a clear and complete description of the papal magisterium on ecumenism. He underlined that this topic is not a mere appendix. It appears in all the major papal documents as an indispensable dimension of Christianity. A spirit of prayer is the authentic way to express and construct the necessary formal steps in this field. In the afternoon there was a round table session on the theme “Youth, hope of the Church and of peoples”, moderated by Prof. Viktor Krul (Moscow). Cardinal Stafford said a few words to close the proceedings and the lay participants read their own concluding message.

Marked by a profound climate of prayer, the Congress sessions were scheduled around the daily Eucharistic celebrations in the Greek-Catholic and Latin rites presided respectively by Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, Cardinal Marian Jaworski and Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz. Particularly significant was the liturgical memorial of the martyrs in the byzantine rite on Saturday 11 in the evening presided by Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, and the Eucharistic celebration open to all the faithful of Kiev on the Sunday morning presided by Cardinal James Francis Stafford. The gathering closed with the solemn presentation to all those present of a copy of Christifideles laici and a rosary blessed by the Pope. This could be described as a viaticum for the road of witness and mission in the world.

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On 1 September 2016 the

Pontifical Council for the Laity
ceased its activities.
Its responsibilities and duties
have been taken over by the
Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.