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Outposts of mercy across Siberia’s glacier. Caritas’ 25th anniversary in Novosibirsk

An “outgoing” Church three thousand km east of Moscow, marked by situations of disadvantage, poverty, solitude. Polish Franciscan Fr Gracjan Piotrowski is the director of the Caritas office that coordinates a wide a range of activities ranging from childcare centres, to counsel and support to single mothers, from soup kitchens for the elderly and the poor to “street clinics” for the homeless. Catholics amount to less than 1% of the population, while the work carried out so far furthers stronger relations with the Orthodox faithful.

The snow fallen in Siberia in the past two is more than that of all of last winter. Temperatures registered -13° and today in Novosibirsk the sun was shining, but forecasts say that temperatures will drop to -30° in the coming days, as past November. We’re in the capital of western Siberia, Russia’s third largest city, 2 million inhabitants, 3 thousand km from Moscow. It’s the second largest diocese in the world, the neighbouring diocese of Irkutsk, extended throughout eastern Siberia, ranks first. “The bishop has to travel two-thousand kilometers to visit certain dioceses”, Fr Gracjan Piotrowski, a Polish Franciscan priest who has been living in Siberia for the past 18 years, at the lead of the diocesan Caritas for the past four, told SIR. The Catholic institution will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in December. Its creation was ushered in by bishop Joseph Werth in 1991, when the borders were re-opened and the four Russian apostolic administrations were established.

Everyone’s commitment. At the beginning, Caritas activity focused on the re-distribution of humanitarian aid arriving from Germany. Now it primarily addresses the needs of this region. “Caritas does a great job, but the Catholics who work here are few, most of the local workers are Orthodox, along with non-practising Christians and non-believers”, said Father Piotrowski.

In the Year of Mercy “major efforts were made to make parishioners understand that it’s not the Church as an institution that is called to help, since we must all feel this need.”

The faithful “don’t ask themselves what they can do individually or how parish communities can be active and sensitive to needs.” The religious added: “I hope this year has helped also Caritas workers to view our commitment in more spiritual terms.”

Children and parents. In Novosibirsk Caritas runs the childcare centre of Saint Nicholas, which every day welcomes some forty children, sons of immigrants, to teach them (and often also their parents) the language and help them get integrated. “They arrive from former Soviet Republics to find a job, and they’re not always welcomed by the local population”, said Fr Gracjan. A couple of years ago were opened the Saint Sophia Home, that houses 20 single mothers with their 30 children, and the Saint Nicholas soup kitchen for the poor of the city.

“The crisis had a deep impact on the region. This situation prompted Caritas to partly rethink its service.”

“We had to shut down an orphanage because according to new government policies minors should be placed in families and not in structures. Thus we decided to give hospitality to single mothers: many of them are young women with no one to turn to and are not prepared to face the challenges of life. They need to be helped, and not only in material terms. They also require psychological support, guidance in household chores or help in handling bureaucratic issues, such as filing requests for social housing.”

Services offered in many cities. The soup kitchen provides meals to 70-75 poor people every day, “many of them are elderly people who receive small pensions or are suffering for their solitude.” Five days a week they can count on warm meals and on the opportunity of creating new relationships. Russia faces the scourge of AIDS, “but we still don’t feel up to helping AIDS patients since this form of assistance entails specific training, appropriate tools and staff. We are too small to handle this.”

However healthcare is fully operational in the “street clinics” for the homeless and in the home visits to families with disabled or chronically ill family members.

The service is active in nine cities of the diocese; assistance was given to over 10 thousand sick people. Caritas also runs six consultancy and support centres for families, several soup kitchens, clothing and food distribution centres, other 8 day care homes for children in difficult situations, located throughout the region.

The support of local authorities. Economic and financial support is provided mainly by Caritas International and various German organizations, but over the past two years private donations have grown. Local administrations give some contribution: “They ask our assistance, for example, to house the single mothers that come to us via social services, and sometimes they fund some of our small projects because they know we do good deeds and we do them well.” There is room for improvement with the Orthodox Church. “The meeting between the Pope and Patriarch Kirill has made people aware that we walk together and we are not enemies. But then, in Russia everything depends on individual commitment”, said Fr Gracijan. Unlike Moscow or Saint Petersburg,

“here it’s like living in a province, while in large cities there is more openness”, along with the possibility of sharing projects.

The fact remains that Caritas erects no confessional boundaries: “When offer our support we never ask the religion professed by those who are being helped, but we know that being Russian citizens they are certainly Orthodox.” Moreover, “in Russia Catholics make up 1% of the overall population, but practising Catholics amount to only 0.1%. We’re a very small community in an ocean of Orthodox faithful.” Bishop Werth recently declared: “Working for the last is not only a sign of authentic Christian life, it’s a contribution to social peace in a multicultural society, to the acceptance of different cultures and religions, to reconciliation and unity.”



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