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Russia: 200 young Catholics on the shores of the Baikal Lake. Friendship, faith, and gazes extended to the Synod

The nature of Eastern Siberia was the backdrop of the national meeting that takes place every three years. Youths under 30 were accompanied by four bishops, including the nuncio, Msgr. Celestino Migliore, and numerous priests and nuns. This form of popular religiosity is challenged by secularization and is called to address "working ecumenism", as Catholics are a small minority in a country marked by strong Orthodox traits. Father Daniele Sollazzo and Elina Mylnikova shared their experiences with SIR

Alcune immagini dell'incontro nazionale dei giovani cattolici russi

They spent four days together on the shores of Lake Baikal, surrounded by a luxuriant landscape. They gathered in prayer, they engaged in dialogue, they celebrated their faith, their retraced the memories of their burdensome past, together with four bishops who acted as their guides, and 17 priests and nuns from various congregations. The Eighth National Meeting of Young Catholics, involving over two-hundred youths, aged 16-30, from four dioceses in Great Russia, inspired by the words of the angel, “Fear not Mary, for you have found favour with God”, has just ended. The site located 5 thousand kilometres from Moscow, in central Siberia, was chosen to give the opportunity to the greatest number of youths from eastern Russia to participate in the National youth meeting that is held every three years.

“Deep-rooted spirituality.” The program of the days was marked by many prayer gatherings, expressed in markedly devotional forms, such as the saying of the rosary, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the procession. Father Daniele Sollazzo, member of the missionary fraternity Verbum Dei and responsible for youth ministry at the Archdiocese of Moscow, said: “The thing that impressed me the most was the religious sentiment of the young. These devotional practices here in Russia are quite successful, perhaps also because of the influence of the Polish Church, which is very present here, but they also reveal the deep-rooted spirituality of this people, which is also present in the Orthodox Church. It is another world compared to the West, where a meeting of this kind would certainly not have been feasible.” But we need to give them a stronger religious foundation to prevent faith from being crushed by everyday challenges, so that prayer may nourish the minds of these young people and give them a solid background to defend their faith. A personal and living relationship with Jesus, recurrently highlighted by the Pope, is equally important.”  

Holiness in daily life. On the shores of Lake Baikal there were also thematic moments, notably on vocations or on the meaning of the Christian life, no room was given to current events or politics. Elina Mylnikova, a young woman from Moscow’s youth delegation, told SIR: “we said that every Catholic, every young person must be a saint every day and every moment of his life, in the workplace, in the family, as a consecrated person. We should devote ourselves completely to our duties, that include participating in political life, if some should decide to follow that path.” Father Daniele envisages the possible contribution of the youths of Bajkal’sk given their attitude of “openness”, seen also in their “expressions of happiness, which are not that common across Russian society”, and in their “availability to service.” They might give this “contribution in their home towns, for the development of Russian society.”



History’s great mistakes. The program included a transfer to Irkutsk, on Saturday, 130 kilometres away, for a “pilgrimage” at the Memorial to the Victims of Political Repression. “It was raining and it was sad to see these monuments in that climate, the rainfall increased the sadness”, Elina said. “We understood that these historical mistakes must never happen again and that we no longer want to attack one another or spark off attacks between countries. I am grateful to the organizers who brought us there.”

Synod: the expectations. The enormous size of Russia makes it hard to hold meetings with youths of the small Catholic community, although, Elina said, “in all parishes there are groups of young people that come together for mutual sharing, for meetings to discuss religious themes and also the Church.” She voiced her wish with reference to the Church in Russia: “We would like to have more occasions for sharing our views. As Catholic youths we are but a small part of the Russian Church, but we are also a driving force that could spur its advancement, little by little.” These youths have great expectations for the forthcoming Synod: “We hope that the Pope, the cardinals, the bishops, the priests, may get to know more about young people worldwide, and take decisions according to the needs of contemporary youths. We hope they will understand us and that we may increase our understanding of the Church and that unity between us may grow stronger. We are united, but we will be more united still.”

Ecumenism, a necessary step. For example, for young people ecumenism reflects a blatant truth: “We need to love one another.” It was discussed during the meeting, that was also attended by an Orthodox young woman, said Elina. “There were no problems or difficulties. We are friends and we share our experiences in the different confessional families we belong to. It’s interesting for us.” “What we need is to be united. This is something that everyone in Russia understands, because we live amidst so many Orthodox! All young people understand that we must love one another and be united so that our life may bear more fruits”, Elina said. Father Daniele added: “The path we need to undertake is the path of cooperation with the Orthodox Church, as the Catholic Church here is extremely small.” He mentioned in particular “the nuncios that served over the past years”, who “reaffirmed the importance of dialogue and cooperation with the Orthodox Church.” Father Sollazzo remarked: “It’s not always easy. There are many prejudices on both sides, but it’s the only way. Otherwise the Catholic Church will remain a very small group, which many Russians may even consider somewhat sectarian.” After the Pope’s meeting with the Patriarch we noticed “increased openness on the part of Russians towards Catholics.” Thus “it’s the right time to continue along this path and cooperate whenever possible” in the social sphere, given “the many problems of Russian society”, as well as in the realm of evangelization because “it is a matter of transmitting the foundations of Christianity, of the sacraments, of the Word, of prayer, which are common to both confessions. Naturally each one has its own style, but the foundations can be passed on by both and then each person makes his choice, without forcing anyone.”

The meeting with bishops. The initiative was concluded on Sunday July 22nd, with a reflection on the question: “What am I bringing back home?” Elina said: “We shared many impressions, many gifts of God!”. She gave a few examples: a young woman who had stopped going to Church said she will start going again. Another person perceived her vocational calling. Some were impressed by the opportunity of meeting the nuncio, Msgr. Celestino Migliore, because they had never met a nuncio in person. Others were surprised that all four Russian bishops were present and could impart them their blessing, that they could listen to their words. In Bajkal’sk “God touched the hearts of many young people.”

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