[Updated November 23, 2007]
The Catholic priests who came to the port city of Vladivostok [Vla-dee-vos-stock] in the Russian Far East seventeen years ago after the fall of Communism and the creation of the short-lived Commonwealth of Independent States had all the hopes and expectations of finding a vibrant underground Church in Russia — one like the many credible reports of a vibrant “underground Church” in current-day Communist China — instead they found that the Church had been “nuked.” No such "vibrant underground Church" in Russia existed after the horrors of Soviet-style Communism.
Rebuilding the Catholic Church required God’s grace, supernatural Faith, a will stronger than V.I. Lenin’s, a rugged constitution, and friends from around the world. Fortunately, we were able to recently visit these priests at the Roman Catholic Church of the Most Holy Mother of God in the City of Vladivostok, Primorskiy region, in the Easternmost of the four dioceses of Russia and see the on-going fruits of their work first-hand.
Among these priests, the infant Catholic parishes and along with others in and near Vladivostok we found active love.
[C]ompared with romantic love, active love is something severe and terrifying. Romantic love yearns for an immediate act of heroism that can be achieved rapidly and that everyone can see. This sort of love really reaches a point where a man will even sacrifice his life provided his ordeal doesn’t last long and is over quickly just as though it took place on a stage, and provided all are looking on and applauding. But active love means hard work and tenacity, and for some people it is, perhaps a whole science. But I predict that at the very moment when you will realize with horror that, far from getting nearer to your goal, you are, in spite of all of your efforts, actually further away from it than ever, I predict that at that very moment you will suddenly attain your goal and will behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has all the time been loving and mysteriously guiding you. —Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Seventeen years after the fall of Communism the outward conditions were not so severe and terrifying, as perhaps one would expect, nonetheless one’s inward motivations and movements are always singular. Whether or not we were “mysteriously guided” in Faith or motivated by another sort, we encountered the Vladivostok mission, nearby hospices, and children’s orphanages.
(I call to mind that the Polish Priest Fr. Walter J. Ciszek, S.J. (1904-1984) was in Soviet prison and labor camps for many years. He wrote With God in Russia (1964) on the more “factual” aspects of his experiences. Later he wrote more spiritual works on his inner life during these same trials. Following Fr. Ciszek’s lead I’ll focus on the more “factual” aspects of our time in Eastern Russia.)
Here we go...
We began our visit with one to the state-run sanitarium (hospital) in Vladivostok. Here we encountered what can only be described as "appalling conditions" by Western standards. This sanitarium housed mostly elderly men and women who were either mentally or physically sick. (Some were definitely spiritually healthy. Some women even sang for us in Russian and spoke of their faith in God!) The so-called "floor" nearly all throughout was rotted away and was replaced by sheets of compressed boards in a quilt-like patchwork. Paint was flaking off the walls — at least what paint was left. Fortunately, a group of college students from the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, recently painted one of the rooms a nice bright green! Likewise, Caritas (Catholic Charities in Russia) donated a hot water heater for the sanitarium and other concrete infrastructure items. "At least they’re out of the cold" seemed to be the common resigned summary on these conditions.
I’m not sure how many people here were truly "abandoned" by their families. We could not make any individual judgments. However, the high abortion rate in Russia leaves many without a family by their own choosing. Likewise, alcoholism leaves many destitute and broken. Choices have consequences. We saw them concretely. Others have families but are simply too poor to have any other options for medical care. Regardless of how they arrived there, these men and women were seriously ill and deserve care worthy of human persons. We hope that they enjoyed our visit and our sincere concern.
Our first orphanage we visited was Orphanage No.1 in Vladisostok. Children from around 4 to 7 years of age were here. They seemed to be as excited to see us as we to see them. We brought them bananas and ice cream as a treat. We also brought clothing and medicines. Many had developmental problems but overall seemed to be fully-alive youngsters! Many of these children were available for adoption.
However, we also learned than many parents keep "parental rights" over these children, so they are not available for adoption. For many parents this is the Russian version of "day care". (Likewise, Western "day care" is often nothing more than an orphanage. "Day care" sounds much nicer than "orphanage", no?)
We later visited older children in the same orphanage, those from around 8 to 12 years of age. Upon first encountering them they wanted to know if our teeth were real. They wanted to touch our teeth! I suppose dental care has a long way to go in the Far East of Russia. These children in my estimation were all happy but were ready to leave the orphanage. It was evident that they desired a home with a mom and a dad. They really wanted to know all about us, what we did and our interests and so forth.
The next day we visited the other Orphanage No.1 for teenagers (around 14 to 16 years old). The boys were extremely strong and rough. I’m sure they would have difficulties adjusting to an adoptive family. Unfortunately we encountered many "bullies" among the group as were evident from the many black eyes that some of the boys had. These youngsters lacked men in the orphanage who could control them and help form them as self-controlled and virtuous young men. (This would be one of our goals in establishing a new Catholic orphanage in Russia. There currently are two, perhaps three, Catholic orphanages in Russia from what I understand.) Many of the children here, from what I gathered, were resigned to a life of institutional care. Nevertheless, we got along well with them as they tried to present themselves on the same level as us, "all grown-up" and so forth!
In our visit to Children’s Hospital No.3 we encountered the youngest children and many suspected HIV-infected children. (Only time will tell if their high white blood cell count is indicative of permanent HIV or if it simply a remnant from their mothers.) Many of these children were afraid of men because they infrequently interacted with men. The hospital staff was mostly all women. So we had to "break the ice" the best we could.
Nevertheless, we were able to enjoy a nice afternoon in the play yard with them. They all called us "da da" and laughed like only children can! Unfortunately, if their HIV condition is permanent, they can not be adopted by Russian law from what I understand.
The orphanage in Ussurysk to the north of Vladivostok (a city much different, smaller and cleaner, than Vladivostok) was home to many newborns, pre-borns and those with severe ailments. It was evident that this orphanage provided a high-level of professional care. It was such a joy to visit these children.
In Ussurysk, we also visited a very impressive and new homeless shelter run by the Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor, Korean Province.) Perhaps a smaller version of this is what our Helping Hearts Orphan Mission group aspires to?
Overall, all the orphanages we visited were clean and seemed to be well-managed in Russia. They lacked many amenities by Western standards. However, many local donors and donors from abroad make up for the governmental shortfalls. For example, one orphanage recently received a hot water tank via Caritas. It's hard to imagine an orphanage or a hospital without hot water! In addition to donating clothing and medicines, our Helping Hearts Orphan Mission group donated a refrigerator to one orphanage we visited (about $700 USD).
I'll wrap this up by noting that in addition to the children's and other's concrete material needs — and a more robust economic life — Russian orphans and sick people need love: to be shown love and to give love. The human heart with God's grace and our active cooperation to this freely-offered grace will transform the lives of those we encountered. It will also transform our lives as well. Far from despair, I think it is safe to say that we came away from our Vladivostok mission trip with much hope. Our new Russian friends certainly enriched our lives. We hope in our visit to have enriched theirs. Love is always free and self-giving. Anything else is a fraud. Hopefully we are all much more grounded in Truth.
Related posting: Not Even Wrong (part 2)