US Catholics Come to Aid of Eastern European Churches

By Winters, Michael Sean | National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

US Catholics Come to Aid of Eastern European Churches


Winters, Michael Sean, National Catholic Reporter


The Subcommittee on Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe is one of the smaller offices at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, with only two full-time staffers. But the office may pack more punch for the dollar than many other initiatives because its work in helping to rebuild the churches in former communist countries is yielding a harvest of grace.

The subcommittee is part of the bishops' National Collections Office and was begun in 1990, the year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The prime mover was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then archbishop of Newark, N.J. Since then, more than $100 million has been raised from the faithful in the United States and distributed to projects in the former communist countries, according to Declan Murphy, the subcommittee's director. Murphy came to this job at the bishops' conference after working as chief of staff to the Librarian of Congress for six years, but he said of his work for the conference, "This is the hardest job I've ever had in my life."

Murphy said he is always struck by how the contributions to these national collections display the catholicity of the church. "We received a check for $25,000 from the diocese of Burlington, Vt.," he said. "And I thought to myself--there are no Eastern Europeans in Vermont! It is just Catholics wanting to help other Catholics." Murphy explained that the U.S. bishops' conference also works on many projects with the German bishops' conference, but he noted the Germans are mostly interested in close-in European countries while the U.S. bishops are also helping in Kazakhstan and Armenia. During World War II, many Poles and Lithuanians were exiled to Kazakhstan. Armenia's Christian roots are ancient. Both countries face unimaginable poverty, especially in the rural areas.

It is difficult to overstate the degree to which communist regimes decimated the churches of the 28 countries the collection assists. For example, in Albania, 95 percent of churches were razed and only 30 priests were active at the end of the communist regime, one-tenth of the number serving in Albania before the revolution.

Ukraine was especially hard-hit as oftentimes Russian Orthodox clergy collaborated with communist authorities to root out Eastern rite Catholics. "The government had decimated not just the church buildings, but especially the human capital," said Spokane, Wash., Bishop Blase Cupich, who heads the subcommittee. "All non-Russian-Orthodox hierarchies were suppressed or killed. …

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