Church is rebuilding in former Iron Curtain countries Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Mary C. Uhler Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 -- 12:00 AM
bishop hying trip to iron curtain countries
On recent visit to Eastern Europe, Bishop Donald J. Hying (in back row) and Bishop Jeffrey M. Monforton, right, visit with people in a Catholic community in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (Photo from Bishop Donald J. Hying)

MADISON -- The Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia is making “remarkable progress” in the countries formerly under the Iron Curtain, said Bishop Donald J. Hying.

The fall of communism occurred over 25 years ago, but the Church in these countries continues to struggle to rebuild after years of oppressive rule.

Bishop Hying visited the countries of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan recently as a member of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

Bishop Jeffrey M. Monforton of the Diocese of Steubenville, chairman of the subcommittee, also made the week-long trip.

Keeping the faith

Bishop Hying pointed out that many Catholic churches in this region were confiscated or destroyed, leaving the faithful without a place to worship or to find pastoral support.

Yet they kept the faith, often gathering clandestinely. “They are very strong in faith and dedicated to the Church and each other. For many years, they practiced their faith underground, living without priests and the sacraments,” he said.

Bishop Hying told about a group of Catholics in one village who passed on stories of Jesus and continued to pray with one Rosary. “They didn’t remember the specific prayers, but they took turns praying with the Rosary as they passed it around the group.”

First trip to region

Bishop Hying has been a member of the subcommittee since 2015. This was his first trip to the region.

Each bishop on the subcommittee is assigned to some of the 28 countries in the region. Bishop Hying is assigned to Russia, Serbia, and Uzbekistan, but he also made a brief stop in Kyrgyzstan because of his friendship with Fr. Tony Corcoran, SJ, who serves as apostolic administrator of the Catholic Church there.

“We made this visit to be supportive of the Church and see what projects we could support,” said Bishop Hying in an interview in Madison upon his return.

Fascinating history

Bishop Hying said the region has a “fascinating history.” It was part of the old Silk Route of Marco Polo and Genghis Khan, the international trade route and cultural bridge linking many lands in Asia and Europe. “Some cities in this area are over 4,000 years old,” he noted.

He observed that Catholics are a “very tiny minority” in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but they live peacefully with the Muslim majority.

After World War II, the Iron Curtain was established as a non-physical boundary dividing Europe into two separate areas. The Soviet Union blocked itself and its satellite states from open contact with the West and its allied states.

During that time, the Soviet Union promoted atheism. Many priests and Religious were sent to Soviet prison camps. “All the churches were closed or destroyed,” said Bishop Hying.

With the end of the Cold War in 1991, the countries under the Iron Curtain regained their independence and entered a new era of freedom. They began to rebuild the Church and society after decades of persecution.

Bishop Hying was impressed by the strength of faith he found there. “Their faith is the essence of their lives. They reach out to the needy, suffering, and sick of all faiths.”

These countries have made great strides, but many of the church communities are located in rural areas and suffer from poverty. This makes the work of recovery more difficult.

Support of U.S. Catholics

However, the small Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Europe is growing and rebuilding, thanks in part to the support of Catholics in the United States.

An annual collection to aid the Church there is being held on Ash Wednesday (or at a different time depending on the local diocese). This collection helps rebuild churches, supports seminary programs, promotes ministries and education for children and families, and renews community life around the region.

Bishop Hying visited the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. “It had been mostly destroyed but was rebuilt with the help of U.S. Catholics. It’s beautiful,” said Bishop Hying.

In June of this year, the U.S. bishops approved $5.2 million in funding for 241 projects in Central and Eastern Europe. Among them are:

• Funding for a parish-based microenterprise training and resource center for people with disabilities in Bulgaria.

• Construction of a church and parish house for the growing Catholic community of Holy Mother of the Rosary Parish in Kazakhstan.

• Proliferation of the My Fertility Matters Project in Lithuania. Begun in 1999, this pioneering fertility awareness program educates young people through puberty and adolescence as well as their parents. This grant will help educate approximately 2,000 young people in Lithuania in 2020.

• Creation of an art therapy program for impoverished children who have suffered sexual or physical violence, or who have post-traumatic stress disorder. Led by Caritas Georgia, this project will provide dozens of children in villages in West Georgia with art therapy.

For more information on the collection, go to

Donations may also be sent to: Church in Central & Eastern Europe, Office of National Collections, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, P.O. Box 96278, Washington, D.C. 20090-6278.

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