An American Priest at the End of the Earth
In the early 20th century the Russian Far East boasted a thriving Catholic population. The land was populated, in addition to Russians, by Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, and other ethnic Catholics who had built thriving schools, hospitals, and beautiful churches. In 1917 all that changed. The Bolshevik Revolution effectively dismantled the Catholic Church and all of Christianity and religion for that matter in this area.
Under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, the Russian Far East became a showplace of the new Communist era: a land without churches in a country that had vanquished God. All Catholic churches were confiscated by the Soviet government. Those not razed by Communist dynamite were transformed for profane purposes: to be used, for example, as a horse barn, a movie theater, a night club, a venereal disease clinic.
According to KGB statistics, between 1917 and 1937 an estimated 200,000 clergy and religious were executed in Russia, their bodies thrown into mass graves. Further, the Catholic cemeteries dotted by cross-tipped tombstones were destroyed, the sacred ground over the graves turned into amusement parks in the heart of the city centers, the dead trodden upon by new generations of Soviet-reared children. This was all part of the strict Communist regimen of desecration that succeeded in weaning future generations away from that which put them in the presence of God.
In 1992, one month after the fall of the Soviet Union, Fr. Myron Effing, an American priest, arrived in Russia to help re-establish the Catholic Church in this spiritually impoverished land. At the behest of the Most Rev. Joseph Werth, the newly appointed Bishop Apostolic Administrator of Novosibirsk in Siberia, Fr. Effing was invited to establish a residence in Vladivostok, the Russian Far East's largest city. Among a population of nearly one million souls, he found fewer than 10 baptized Catholics, though a few more Catholics were scattered thinly throughout the region. Fr. Effing and another American priest, Fr. Daniel Maurer, were charged with the daunting task of re-establishing Catholic parishes in a territory twice the size of the continental U.S. It is from this port city on the Sea of Japan near volatile North Korea and Communist China that the Evanston, Indiana, native has been serving Christ and His Church as a Catholic priest for the past decade.
Geography and size, however, were not the more difficult impediments to Fr. Effing's new mission. Seventy-five years of militant atheism had taken its toll on the Russian population. When he arrived he found that the vast majority of Russian citizens knew very little about God and virtually nothing about the Catholic Faith. Atheism combined with the failed promises of Communism produced a country plagued by the worst societal ills imaginable.
"We've had to start from the ground up," he says. "Communism breeds jealousy and self-interest. Trying to teach people to be Christian after so many years of repression and evil is really a daunting task."
His main duty as a missionary in Far East Russia is to serve the needs of Catholics, particularly by administering the Sacraments. But it is a more difficult task to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to a culture where most people have been taught that Jesus was a myth contrived to exploit the people and keep them enslaved in poverty.
Those who are of middle age, explains Fr. Effing, have been disappointed by the promises of Communism. Consequently, they don't believe in anything much less in God. "Of course they don't know much about religion," he says. "They accepted the ideology that religion is always old-fashioned, out for gold, and a throw-back compared to modern ideas."
Women in Russia have been devastated by state-funded abortion, the average woman having had eight abortions during child-bearing years. "Children have had two or three 'fathers,"' he explains, "but very few brothers or sisters." In many places the family as traditionally understood in Christianity has nearly ceased to exist. Divorce is rampant, and adultery is commonplace.
Many men are also suffering from alcoholism, and children have been over-exposed to the worst elements of Western culture that have infiltrated Russia in recent decades, for example, pornography, rock music, and drugs. The problem of abandoned street children has grown to epic proportions. An essay by Sergey Cherednichenko of Vladivostok in the Russian newspaper Pravda (Dec. 17, 2002) described the situation this way:
Each of us meets them practically every day, in stores, in public transport, in elevators of our own homes. Numerous groups of teenagers with impudent glances, stupid grins on their faces, with unduly familiar manners idling about the streets of Russian cities. They always have a box of cigarettes, a bottle of beer or a syringe in their pockets. Or probably even a knife! Did you ever see them? They are abandoned even by their own parents in the ruthless everyday survival race . . .
Schools also pay little attention to upbringing of the youth; teachers in Russia are in a desperate situation themselves because of non-payment of wages. The Education Ministry also cares mostly about raising the school marks, not about the upbringing of the younger generation.
All these societal ills create an immense challenge, one that cannot be overstated, for a priest in post-Communist Russia. These challenges were compounded by the fact that, when Fr. Effing first arrived in Vladivostok, he spoke not a word of Russian. "Russian must be the most difficult language in the world," he says. But that didn't deter him from what he saw as his mission to serve.
"When it became possible for priests to go again to Russia," he says, "I reasoned that many would come from Ireland and Poland, where there were vocations, but obviously they would work mostly in [European Russia]. So I thought that Americans should work in the Far East, especially because of the Russian connections with America in Alaska and California." At the time, a weekly direct flight from San Francisco to Khabarovsk facilitated travel between the western U.S. and Siberia. Since Fr. Effing was living in northern California at the time, it was clear to him that if he was going to serve in the former Soviet Union, his calling was to the Russian Far East.
When he first arrived he was surprised at how little he knew of this part of the world and what life was like there, despite the fact that he had once taught world geography. His first impression of Russia was at the airport in Khabarovsk: "When I flew to Magadan from Khabarovsk there were live chickens with us in the plane, so I felt as though I was flying in the bush in Africa."
Upon arrival in Vladivostok in 1992, he met a handful of Catholics who had written to Bishop Werth asking for a priest. They took Fr. Effing to the imposing 19th-century Gothic-style edifice that was built to serve as the Catholic cathedral. There he celebrated his first Mass in Vladivostok, on the street at the front door, along with about 15 others. Yes, on the street.
During his first two years in the city, Fr. Effing was forced to rent various halls in order to celebrate public Mass on Sundays. In January 1994 ownership of the old cathedral, which had been confiscated by the Communists following the Revolution, was returned to the Catholic Church but only after two years of bureaucratic and political struggles. This was only the second such church in all of Russia to be turned back to the Catholic Church. Fr. Effing felt this was quite an accomplishment.
"Like everything else under Communism, the church was allowed to decay to the point where it needed major reconstruction before it could become a beautiful place for worship again," says Fr. Effing. For the past eight years part of his mission to re-establish the Catholic Church has been to refurbish this church, which is the only Catholic building within a radius of 1,000 miles that was built as a house of worship. Most other churches and synagogues were demolished by the Communists generations ago.
During the time that the cathedral was used as a government building for Communist archives, one additional wooden floor and two reinforced concrete floors were built into the church. In November 1994 workmen began to remove the upper concrete floor where Fr. Effing, along with about 100 worshipers, had celebrated Mass for the previous 11 months. Sunday Mass was eventually moved to the ground floor. Then the work of restoration was begun.
"Some people are opposed to spending large amounts of money on buildings," admits Fr. Effing, "but that's probably because there are already many churches in America. But the former cathedral of Vladivostok is the only active Catholic church with church architecture in a radius of more than 2,500 miles." It is the only church building being used for its original purpose.
For Fr. Effing, restoring the cathedral and even finishing off the steeple and installing bells the bells have been donated by the Solidarity movement of Poland is just the beginning. He is also working actively toward making Vladivostok a center of Catholic study, perhaps even with a seminary and a Catholic university.
Four years after founding Most Holy Mother of God parish at the Vladivostok cathedral, the number of Catholics had grown from eight to nearly 300, some of whom would travel up to two hours to get to Mass on Sundays. Besides the Vladivostok parish, Fr. Effing also founded the following parishes: Immaculate Conception in Khabarovsk (a 14-hour train ride from his home in Vladivostok), SS. Cyril and Methodius in Nicholaevsk-on-the-Amur, Holy Transfiguration in Blagoveshensk (a two-hour flight from Vladivostok), Annunciation in Arsenyev, Visitation in Lesozovodsk, Nativity in Ussurisk, and Our Lady of the Pacific in the eastern-most port city of Nakhodka (a three-hour drive from Vladivostok).
Not only did Fr. Effing come to serve as a missionary, he also set out to establish a new religious order, the Canons Regular of Jesus the Lord, which now consists of three priests, including himself, as well as several seminarians.
Six years before coming to Russia, he found it necessary to leave the religious order to which he was ordained in 1972 because he felt it was, in his words, "on the skids from liberalism." He had been a member of the Minnesota-based Canons Regular of the Holy Cross, more commonly known as the Crosier Fathers, and he taught in one of its seminaries. "My order began being affected by the false interpretations of Vatican II," he explains, "and weak superiors allowed it to be taken over by unorthodox, Modernist members who wanted to remake the Church and the order in their own image, rather than the image given by Jesus Christ and our founder Theodore de Celles." Subsequently, the Crosiers had to pay out-of-court settlements, and close their seminaries in America.
"I found myself very much in the minority," he says, "and realized that my work and efforts were only being used by the those in power to bolster their high lifestyles and their payoffs, so that in the end it was necessary to leave the order. With the closing of the seminaries I was out of work anyway!"
For six years after he left the Crosiers, he served as Rector of Father Duenas Memorial Seminary in Tai, Guam, and then as a university chaplain in the Diocese of Stockton, California. Though he was able to continue his work with students and seminarians, he missed being a part of a religious order. Because he was in solemn vows and believed in the charism of the Crosiers, he had never wanted to leave his order. "I decided to see if I could start a similar order if the old one could not be reformed," he explains. And that's just what he did.
That's also when he ran into new obstacles. His first attempt to begin the new order, which would adopt the same charism as the Crosier Fathers, but follow the discipline of the order in a much stricter way, was in Guam. But opposition from the local clergy there prevented the order from taking root. He tried again in California, but ran into the same obstacle: opposition from the local Church. "People just don't like others coming onto their turf," he explains. "So, frankly, we decided to look for a place that had no local clergy, so that there would be no one to oppose such a foundation."
That's when Russia opened up, and the two missions to re-establish Christianity in the Russian Far East and to found the new order of Canons Regular looked as if they would work well together. Eleven years later, Fr. Effing and the two other members of his fledgling order are the only priests in Vladivostok, and they founded almost all the parishes within a 1,000-mile radius. "I guess we are the local clergy," he jests.
Like other orders of the Canons Regular, Fr. Effing's new order follows the Rule of St. Augustine, which includes taking the traditional three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. A hallmark of the rule is living a life of common prayer in one particular location. "The Cathedral of the Most Holy Mother of God in Vladivostok," Fr. Effing explains, "is a natural place for canons because there is plenty of opportunity to live, pray, and work together while helping to replant the Christian faith in this land in which it was almost completely destroyed."
Because Fr. Effing's new order is based upon the charism of the Canons Regular, which emphasizes the common life, he cannot live in any other place than the Cathedral at Vladivostok. Nevertheless, due to the missionary imperative of his life as a priest in the Russian Far East, he or one of his priests visits each of the newly founded parishes at least once each month for Mass, confessions, and baptismal preparations.
In order to more fully meet the needs of evangelization in such a far-reaching territory, Fr. Effing established an active evangelization program in the Vladivostok parish. "To tell the truth about Christ," he says, "we began a weekly Saturday evening prime-time television program that was broadcast to thousands of households in the Russian Far East." Because neither he nor his associate, Fr. Daniel Maurer, spoke Russian when they arrived, the program was initially directed by a layman who had been baptized into a Protestant confession two years earlier. Six months after the Vladivostok parish opened, the program director was received into the Catholic Church.
Fr. Effing's associates have also sent Catholic literature and rosaries to more than 75,000 families all over Russia who live in places where there is no Catholic parish. Several thousand of them have subsequently enrolled in Fr. Effing's 12-lesson catechetical correspondence course in which they are introduced to the fundamentals of Christianity. This course has now been published on the Internet, together with the original English version, because of requests from Russian speakers from foreign countries, and those English speakers who work with Russian emigrants.
Fr. Effing also gives three weekly classes in Vladivostok to educate those who would like to become Catholic. He also frequently lectures on alcoholism and drug abuse, and on chastity, Natural Family Planning, and family values at colleges and high schools. All this, he says, is part of the priestly task.
Though not a "missionary priest" in the strict sense he was not sent from a foreign country, he was invited by the Russian diocese to serve them he nevertheless regards the priesthood in general as a mission. "Jesus called the apostles to follow Him for three years, which was their vocation," he explains. "Then he sent them to preach the Gospel, which was their mission. Likewise, priests, after training, are sent on their 'mission.' Each assignment ought to be viewed as a mission."
In Far East Russia the missionary quality of his assignment as a priest is acutely evident. Not only did Fr. Effing have to deal with a foreign language and the ill-effects of atheistic Communism, he had to adjust to the cultural differences that he saw as further obstacles to his work. "I was accustomed to efficiency, democratic methods, and accountability. Those things are not values here," he explains, "but we Americans are so accustomed to them. Here in Russia, values are more warmly interpersonal, and patience must be the greatest virtue because here everything moves slowly except the traffic."
Another cultural difference that presents a grand obstacle is the anti-Catholic hatred that flows freely from the Russian Orthodox Church. In fact, says Fr. Effing, a renewed attempt at repression of Catholicism in Russia has taken hold, this time not by atheists but by other Christians. This makes the work of evangelization in Russia much more difficult, since the sad division of the Church risks keeping the majority of people who are not members of any confession from taking seriously the message of Christ.
"Since the four dioceses were created in Russia by the Holy Father, the Orthodox Church has sent signals of anger and outrage via the mass media and certain government channels, so that we're meeting all kinds of roadblocks that did not previously exist," Fr. Effing laments. It is often difficult for Catholic organizations to obtain necessary government documents, construction permits, and even simple co-operation. "Even a cafeteria where we had planned to feed children during a catechism camp declined to work with us simply because we were Catholic," he adds.
Before Russia passed a law outlawing mass demonstrations of hate, some Orthodox Russians gathered in protest on occasion at Catholic churches such as the cathedrals in Novosibirsk and Irkutsk. But it's the personal discrimination on the part of some government officials and private individuals with allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church that is more damaging to his work.
"Most of our Orthodox friends who are priests are petrified to have anything to do with us simply because they fear reprisals from higher up in the Orthodox Church," he explains. "Naturally it's all very sad, not especially because we are suffering, but sad to see such hatred in the name of Christ and of religion. How I would like to see a happy, healthy Orthodox Church in Russia, but instead it is frightened, revengeful, and not at all attractive, even for Russians at the present time. While [the Orthodox] blame Catholics for 'proselytism,' they continue to drive their own people away by the lack of charity and a misunderstanding of Christianity on the part of many priests, and even bishops."
Russians who are stirred up by such anti-Roman fervor hold to a centuries-old grudge. "They can't forget the days when Roman Catholicism was the official religion of some of the enemies of Russia in Europe like Poland," says Fr. Effing. "But I remind them that the Orthodox Church killed more Russian Old Believers than the Inquisition did."
Many in the Far East believe that the conversion of Russia will take place not by the establishment of the Catholic Church across the country, but by the reunion of the Russian Orthodox Church with the Catholic Church. "We pray for a reunion of the churches every day," says Fr. Effing, noting the grave importance of Christians co-operating in this land that has been ravished by anti-religious forces. "I love the Orthodox Church and have many Orthodox friends. When can we be really and officially at peace with one another?" he asks.
Besides maintaining his parishes and preaching the Gospel, he and his fellow Catholics have been able to accomplish a lot of charitable work that shows they have the right intention of helping Russia, as Christians should. "Our charitable work is done without regard to religion," he says, "so the greatest number of beneficiaries are, of course, Orthodox." Approximately 40 percent of all Russians are at least nominally Orthodox, compared to the less than one percent who are baptized Catholics.
In order to minister to social needs, Fr. Effing has helped set up numerous programs that provide direct assistance to Russians who have immediate need of health care, food, clothing, and shelter. In 1992, for example, he helped establish a local chapter of the international Catholic relief organization CARITAS. It operates a free medical clinic, a home health care program, a thrift shop, programs for children including street children, and collects and distributes food.
In 1998 he helped establish the first "crisis pregnancy center" in Russia. Since child prostitution and abortion are extreme problems throughout the country, Fr. Effing saw the need to provide an alternative for the women who believe, mostly for economic reasons, that abortion is the only option for them. In Russia, the first country to legalize abortion, all abortions are provided as a free service of the state, whereas it costs the equivalent of two months' pay to deliver a child. "The death rate is now much higher than the birth rate," says Fr. Effing. "If this continues, the Russian population will implode with dire circumstances in the years ahead."
After being trained by Americans who operate a crisis pregnancy center in Ohio, a few of Fr. Effing's parishioners opened the Woman's Support Center in a 10'x 20' office in Birthing Hospital #5, the only maternity hospital in the city that did not provide abortions. Since then, eight crisis pregnancy centers have opened in Vladivostok and neighboring cities with the assistance of Fr. Effing and American benefactors.
In addition to his hands-on, in-the-street type of charitable work, Fr. Effing is an officer in four charitable organizations. He is President of the regional CARITAS chapter. He also started The Foundation for the Poorest, which works mostly with women prisoners; he is a board member of the Vladivostok branch of Say No To Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, in which capacity he has given over 90 talks in Russian public schools and universities about the problems of alcoholism and the treatment of substance abuse. Furthermore, he is the founding pastor of the Parish of the Most Holy Mother of God, which operates charitable programs such as a soup kitchen, a street children assistance program, and support of a gerontology department at a local hospital.
Though social work is very important to the Church's activity in Vladivostok, Fr. Effing sees the spiritual work as the most important. The center of any parish community, he says, is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the other Sacraments. As a priest of the Canons Regular he places a good deal of emphasis on the liturgy, which he says is aimed at directing our attention to Jesus.
In addition to celebrating Mass each day, one of his favorite liturgical events of the year is a communal service at the cathedral celebrating the Anointing of the Sick, which takes place annually in late September before the first snow. "Winter can be hard for our elderly who usually don't have cars or telephones, and often live in tall apartment buildings without elevators," he explains. "Even if they can get to public transportation, they still face the daunting task of either climbing the slippery slopes up to our church building from the main street of Vladivostok, or they risk the steep, icy dirt road which comes down to the church from the new Beauty Avenue. Parts of the city never have the snow plowed all winter. Many of the elderly simply can't get to the church in wintertime, so the anointing takes on an even greater meaning for them."
Fr. Effing's work hasn't been accomplished without some sacrifices on his part. The material and cultural sacrifices are obvious but the most difficult sacrifice he has had to make, he says, concerns prayer. "I never realized how difficult one's prayer life becomes when you have to pray in a language not your own," he explains. For his first five years in Russia almost all of his formal prayer had to be in Russian, which at first he barely understood. "I concentrated on saying it correctly and preaching in Russian. For my older brain to deal with Russian, I had to completely turn off English, so that I couldn't even do private prayer in English. So there was no consolation for me in prayer. It was an important and unexpected result of serving in a foreign country, for which I never had any training."
For twenty years, Fr. Effing had been accustomed to a daily morning hour of prayer and meditation. "After coming to Russia I had to abandon that," he says, "because I simply could not stay awake for the hour, probably because my brain was trying to deal with a new language. Now I am beginning to manage it again."
Ten years later, after much practice, he can pray freely in either Russian or English. Beyond prayer, his language skills are helpful in other obvious ways. For example, he is now able to lecture effectively in Russian. Fr. Effing, a trained scientist and graduate of Cornell University's premier Astronomy Department, not only preaches in Russian but also delivers lectures and talks on various topics pertaining to modern science. "The university people in Russia are excited to get to know an educated priest, who is a scientist," he says. "They were told by the Communists that only ignorant, uneducated people believe in God."
The topics he teaches at the universities in Vladivostok, Nakhodka, and elsewhere are not limited to science, of course. Another one of his specialties is speaking on the topic of the theory and treatment of alcoholism that is so rampant in Russia. "I think my university and school work where, according to the laws of Russia, I can't directly proclaim the Gospel is still evangelical work because faculty and students get impressions about what religion is and what priests are like through hearing me lecture. Often I have contact with students and faculty at a later date when they come to visit us at the parish, to attend concerts, or when they just come to Sunday Mass out of curiosity that I may have aroused in them."
Fr. Effing sees teaching as a major part of his mission as a priest. For most of the years before he arrived in Russia he worked as a teacher in high schools, seminaries, and colleges. When he was a teaching assistant in the Astronomy Department at Indiana University, it was the first time in his life that he was directly responsible for teaching students. "I was impressed by the awful responsibility of having to teach others," he says. "I realized that the rest of their lives and perhaps even their eternal lives would be influenced by my teaching and example. It made me stop and think."
Fr. Effing went on to teach geometry, physics, chemistry, biology, electronics, geography, astronomy, earth science, moral theology, and the Bible. For him, the relationship between science and religion was an important one. Although he understood early on that many scientists, like his teacher Carl Sagan, were ideologically biased against Christianity, and others were simply anti-Catholic, Fr. Effing has always seen science, especially astronomy, as an aid to understanding the Creator. "Astronomy does give one a sense of wonder which supports one's faith," he says.
"A priest is a teacher," he summarizes, "because Jesus said to 'Go forth and teach all nations."' And of course, for Fr. Effing, that includes the nation of Russia. His only regret is that he doesn't get more one-on-one work with students. As the head of the Vladivostok deanery, he answers for a region about as big as California, Washington, and Oregon combined. As pastor, he shepherds five parishes with a combined area about the size of the State of Wisconsin. "I have large distances to cover, and a lot of social work, as well as evangelical and catechetical work, so for now I am more directly involved in administration than teaching."
As he hopes to attract more priests to serve in that part of Russia, which Pope John Paul II has called "the end of the earth," he is also hopeful that someday he will again be teaching more. Until then, he is resigned to go where he is needed and to do what needs to be done.
Fr. Effing may be reached by email at [email protected] Donations may be sent to the Mary Mother of God Mission Society, 1854 Jefferson Ave., St. Paul, Minn. 55105-1662. For more information, please visit the Society's website at www.vladmission.org.
Michael S. Rose is an investigative journalist, and the author of The Renovation Manipulation, Ugly as Sin, and Goodbye, Good Men. This article is adapted from Rose's new book, Priest, released in July by Sophia Institute Press.
©2003 New Oxford Review, Inc.
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