Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk and Mahilyow is a member of one of the three English-language working groups at the Synod of Bishops, together with a number of the gathering’s most prominent voices, such as Cardinals Raymond Burke and Gerhard Müller. A mechanical engineer by training, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz brings to the synod his experiences growing up in the persecuted Church of the USSR and his 16 years as archbishop in Moscow, from the demise of the Soviet Union until 2007, when Pope Benedict appointed him archbishop of the capital of his native Belarus. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Belarus had only 62 priests, 117 open churches, no bishop, and no seminary. Today, there are 500 priests, seven bishops, 500 parishes, and two seminaries with 60 diocesan seminarians and almost 40 religious seminarians. Our talk begins there.
CWR: While Western Europe continues to close down its churches for lack of the faithful, you have the opposite problem: not enough churches to go round. What does your life experience contribute to your outlook on the issues being debated at the synod ?
Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz: I might commence by telling you that my parents never heard of such a thing as the “social doctrine of the Church.” Yet their faith was made of steel. The foundation was and is faith. It is faith that we must build on.
CWR: What would your parents have said if they had been here to see discussions of divorced and remarried people receiving Holy Communion?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: In my village of two-to-three thousand people, there were no divorced couples. And if there happened to be any, it would have been a scandal. Today it seems to have become the norm, but my people are still very simple in their faith. They say the Rosary and go to confession. Admitting divorced people to Communion would be very difficult to explain to them.
You see, under the communist regime there were very few priests in the country, but it was the prayer and tradition handed down to us that carried us on. The Church was always open. There was no priest but there was prayer. The Rosary, the litanies. It is thanks to these things that the faith was preserved despite the strictures and the decades of atheistic propaganda.
Before the age of 16 we weren’t even allowed to go to church, but our parents and grandparents explained things to us at home, after evening prayer.
CWR: What about today, under freedom?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Today they teach catechism in the parishes but parents can’t find the time to go to church. On Sunday they go shopping in the malls. And apples don’t fall far from their trees: if parents don’t set an example for their children, the efforts of the church will not bear fruit. Mothers and fathers are the authorities that children look up to.
CWR: Would granting Communion to divorced and remarried parents come to bear on all this?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Yes it would. The faithful would not understand.
CWR: Could you give me your opinion of the mid-term “relatio”? Does it reflect your take on last week’s activity?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: There are at least three things that are missing. First of all, the paper dwells on the relationships with non-Christian religions, and that’s fine; but there is nothing there about cooperating with the other Christians, which we actually spoke about a great deal. With the Orthodox church, for example, we share the same approach to the family, and our experience of working with them shows that it can bear a lot of fruit. … One pressing family issue is abortion. Together with the Orthodox and the Protestants we addressed the Members of Parliament on this issue, and they responded by reducing the [situations] in which abortion is allowed from twelve to three. We consider this a great success.
CWR: What else is missing from the relatio?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: There is no appeal to governments to assist families. State policies have to be more favorable to families. Our legislation in Belarus today is very pro-family. If a family where there are three children wants to buy an apartment from the State, the family pays only 25 percent of the cost. If there are four, they get the apartment for free. Also consider that mothers get three years paid leave after giving birth.
CWR: This sounds like the East is attempting to shore up its shrinking population.
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Which goes to show that if families are stable, so will society be.
CWR: You mentioned three things missing. Your last point?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: It regards the civil unions. We can not be in favor of non-sacramental marriage or homosexual unions, much less can we be open to the adoption of children by people of the same sex. I can understand the bishops of the West; they say their people are upset. But what about our people? They too are concerned. When I go home they will say, “What have you done?” Mind you, we respect the dignity of these [homosexual] people, we always have. But it would be difficult to explain.
CWR: Have you already had reactions from back home?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Well, the Belarussian press is very focused and open to receiving news from the synod, but they are surprised and concerned at what they read yesterday.
The modern world is playing its music but we can’t dance to it. We have another music. It’s called doctrine.
CWR: Does it make sense to set down the law for “the family” in general, with prelates from so many different cultures involved?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: Up to a point. For example, the African bishops often mention polygamy. If I pronounce the word “polygamy” in my diocese, half of the people won’t know what I’m talking about. However, our task is not to define doctrine, but to study how to solve the problems that come up in applying it.
CWR: Can doctrine be adapted?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: “Adapt” is not a suitable word. “Update” is more like it. But without conforming to the world.
Before Vatican Council II we used to say that non-Catholic Christians were heretics. Now we say that they are our brethren. Has the doctrine changed? No, but words can make a lot of difference.
CWR: Do you have any ideas as to the way forward?
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz: The family is the touchstone of society. We need to act to make it a source of joy and hope.