The Conversion of Russia's Heart; Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the First Roman Catholic Archbishop of Moscow, Credits Prayer for Delivering the Former Soviet Union from Communism's Death Grip. (Picture Profile)

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Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz is an engineer who invented high-speed grinding equipment used in the vast Volga automobile factory. The mills of God may grind more slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine. Earlier this year, Kondrusiewicz became the first Roman Catholic archbishop of Moscow, touching off a controversy with the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalists in the Duma, Russia's parliament. Critics charged that he was assigned to establish a new Catholic structure, parallel to the Russian Orthodox Church, to "proselytize" Russia for Rome.

This kind of controversy is dismissed by secular policymakers and nonbelievers as an insignificant tempest in a borscht bowl. But religious outlook is important in the division of world civilizations, even where convictions are misunderstood or misinterpreted. For Archbishop Kondrusiewicz the quest for conversion, or "change of heart" by all sides, grows out of a mystical vision of prayer. He notes that millions of Roman Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to three shepherd children in the village of Fatima, Portugal, just before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, calling upon the faithful to pray for the conversion of Russia.

Those simple children didn't even know who or what Russia was. But in time the most powerful believer in the Fatima vision was Pope John Paul II, whose election to the papacy in 1978 destabilized Poland, Eastern Europe and, according to the archbishop, the Soviet Union itself.

Kondrusiewicz was born in 1946 at Odelsk, Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union. He attempted to study at the Grodno Pedagogical Institute, but was expelled for religious activism and put to work in a factory. After a year the communists relented, and in 1970 he was graduated summa cum laude from the Polytechnic Institute at Leningrad with a degree in mechanical engineering. He went to work in Vilnius, Lithuania, but on a visit home to Odelsk he discovered that his mother had been praying for him to become a priest. His mind changed and he entered a seminary in Kaunas, Lithuania. Ordained in 1981, he advanced steadily in the church hierarchy. In February, the Vatican decided to normalize the temporary "apostolic administrations" in Russia by making them into dioceses, touching off a furor.

The archbishop spoke with Insight during his recent visit to Washington, sponsored by Aid to the Church in Russia, a Great Falls, Va., support organization.

Insight: How did you decide to become a priest while living under communism in the Soviet Union?

TK: Well, it took a lot of prayer -- not mine, but my mother's. I was an engineer working in Vilnius, but I liked to come back to my native town for vacation. One day at home I picked up a prayer book and took it to church. I thought it was mine; they all looked the same. But as I prayed in the church I noticed a holy card inside with the inscription, "A prayer of mothers for their sons to become priests." She never even had said to me, "Perhaps you should become a priest." She had been praying for it all alone, and this made a very big difference to me.

Insight: How many Roman Catholics are there in Russia?

TK: We say that there are around 600,000, but according to a poll it could be about 1 percent of the population, which would make it 1.5 million.

Insight: The Russian Orthodox Church has complained that you are involved in proselytizing. What do they mean by that? And why shouldn't people be able to listen to your message and accept or reject it of their own free will?

TK: That's the problem. Real proselytizing, our critics charge, is "taking souls" by fishing in someone else's waters, taking them by some illicit means. But we never stand in front of an Orthodox Church and say to the worshippers, "Come with us." That's false. Never. In fact, we say that the Orthodox Church has the same means of salvation as the Catholic Church. …