The Most Reverend Bishop Athanasius Schneider was ordained a priest on March 25, 1990 and he was consecrated a bishop at the Altar of the Chair of Saint Peter in Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome, on June 2, 2006, by Angelo Cardinal Sodano. He has served as the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Astana, in Kazakhstan, since 2011. He is the General Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of Kazakhstan and Titular Bishop of Celerina, Switzerland. He is a member of the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross of Coimbra.
Bishop Schneider has long been a strong voice of orthodox Catholic faith, and in recent years has become even more prominent and influential all over the world. In December 2017, Bishop Schneider was a signatory – along with Archbishop Tomash Peta of Astana and Archbishop Jan Pawel Lenga of Karaganda, also in Kazakhstan – of a Profession of the Immutable Truths about Sacramental Marriage, which was an attempt to clarify many questions that arose in the wake of Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
Bishop Schneider recently sat for an interview with Catholic World Report at the Sacred Liturgy Conference in Salem, Oregon, where he was one of several distinguished speakers.
CWR: Have you always been a strong proponent of beauty in the liturgy, or is that something you came to later?
Bishop Athanasius Schneider: Since my childhood. I grew up in the clandestine Church, with holy priests who very much were devoted to a reverent celebration of liturgy. To have the desire for beauty in the liturgy is, in some ways, innate; the joy in beauty is innate. When people are observing a beautiful countryside, for example, a beautiful phenomenon in nature, beautiful flowers and so on, everyone of every culture, of every age will spontaneously say ‘That is beautiful.’
It is the same towards spiritual matters. It is directed to spiritual beauty, to spiritual values – the first and most important duty is the worship of God. And therefore, profound faith and the integrity of Catholic faith and of the moral life, the spiritual life, instinctively open the soul for beauty in liturgy.
CWR: In your home diocese (the Archdiocese of Astana, in Kazakhstan), what is the situation? Is it a struggle to ensure reverence in the liturgy?
Bishop Schneider: We have to distinguish in this matter the simple faithful people and the clergy. The faithful are usually more filled with a sense of awe, respect, reverence; they like the beauty, the reverence in the Church and in the liturgy; especially those faithful who lived in the clandestine Church. But almost all of them have emigrated already to Europe, to Germany and Poland. We have now new converts in our parishes. They also have this desire for reverence and holiness in the liturgy. The problem is the clergy. The majority of our clergy are from abroad, from western countries, and so sometimes they bring their own styles of liturgy, with a liturgical style, which is sometimes careless and superficial – almost an entertainment style – and they lack oftentimes a sensibility for true liturgical beauty and reverence.
We have, thanks be to God, no liturgical abuses in my diocese. But sometimes we have to say to some priests who come from abroad to be more careful, to respect the local traditions of our people who lived in the clandestine Church.
It is an issue of education and continuous formation, which the bishops have to give to the clergy and – I repeat – the people are more pious than the clergy.
CWR: What challenges does the Church face in Kazakhstan? There are a small number of Catholics (90,000) compared to the population (18 million) in the country; how does this pose a challenge?
Bishop Schneider: The first challenge is to rebuild new Catholic families. We had integral Catholic families, but they were the Germans and Polish, mostly, and they went back to their homelands. A full, integral Catholic family is the basis for Church life. Without this, you can hardly build up a true and stable Church life and have sufficient priestly vocations. The new situation is that the majority of our faithful are converts, and they often come from split or divorced families. Divorce was very widely practiced in communist times. Or they come from families, where a part is Christian and another part is non-Christian, or a part is Catholic and another is non-Catholic. This is our challenge. It has to take time to rebuild new integral Catholic families. We try to develop an apostolate for families and marriage. This is the first.
The second challenge is the training of local priests. We have not yet a numerically sufficient local clergy. There is not one bishop who is local, except me. I was born and lived in my childhood in Kyrgyzstan, in the same cultural region as Kazakhstan. More or less 80% of the entire clergy are foreigners. The local clergy is really a minority. And this is a problem: a local Church will grow and be strong when there is a good – not only numerically, but a qualitatively good – local clergy. This is our second challenge: we do not have many vocations because we do not have integral Catholic families. From them will come vocations.
The third challenge is that our communities are very spread out in distance. Therefore, they are sometimes pastorally not well provided-for, because of these wide distances and the shortage of priests.
Another challenge is the society we are living in, a majority Muslim and post-Soviet country, where the Church or religious groups have not the possibility or even the right to evangelize in the public square. It is in some way a diminution of our chances, or even of the possibility, to evangelize in the public square.
I would say these are, more or less, the more important challenges.
CWR: At a conference in Rome in 2010, you suggested that a new “syllabus” was needed, wherein the pope could correct erroneous interpretations of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Eight years later, a lot has changed, including who the pope is, and we are facing some newer issues. What are your thoughts on that idea now? Is a syllabus like that, or a different syllabus of errors, needed today?
Bishop Schneider: Yes, very much needed. Because – as the late Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, one of the signatories of the dubia, said – only a blind person can deny that the Church is passing through a very great confusion, especially doctrinal confusion. This cannot be denied, it is evident. Contra factum not valet argumentum. The situation in the Church, as to the doctrine, the morals, the liturgy, and other issues became even more confused. Therefore it is evident that there is even more needed a kind of syllabus. This means to state the major errors, which have been spread. There is the issue not only of the wrong interpretations of Vatican II, but also some of some problematic affirmations of the Council itself.
There are some affirmations of the Council, in my opinion, that need to be corrected or supplemented with a further explanation or formulation. Indeed, the Council had not the intention to make definitive dogmatic statements, and so according to the intention of the Council itself, their own texts are open to further improvements and clarifications. In my opinion it is possible and even necessary. From ambiguous formulations, a lot of errors are now arising, which we are observing in the last 50 years; not only from bad interpretations, but also from formulations which are in themselves ambiguous.
I think it would be helpful to make this kind of syllabus starting from below, from the faithful laypeople. Vatican II made an appeal that the faithful have to be conscious of their vocation in the Church, of their contribution for the life and the faith of the Church, by virtue of their baptism and confirmation. Therefore, they have to use the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which they received in Holy Confirmation, to make such contributions for the sake of the entire Church.
Maybe such a syllabus can start with the lay theologians, and even with simple laypeople who know the faith well. They could make a draft of a syllabus, and then maybe priests can join, and then bishops, and lastly the pope. The Church is a family. It should be a family-style process to draft a new syllabus, or a new oath of faith, an oath, in some way, against the most spread doctrinal errors of our times.
CWR: I’m curious for your thoughts on the upcoming Synod on the Youth. As you know, the Vatican recently released the instrumentum laboris. What are your hopes, concerns, or other thoughts on the upcoming synod?
Bishop Schneider: My concerns, even on the base of this working document, are that it accepted the propaganda terminology of the LGBT. This for me is impossible that an official document of the Holy See accepts such a propaganda terminology, which is contrary to sane reason and to the revealed law of God. It is my fear that this document and the synod will be used for a propaganda of the homosexual ideology, which is conquering almost the entire world. We have to resist these things, and to state clearly this problem.
In my opinion, the adoption of the propaganda terminology of the homosexual ideology in a Church document is an offense to young people. They are thereby in some way automatically connected with the issue of the ideology of homosexuality. It’s my opinion that, if I were a young man, it would be an offense for me. How can it be, when speaking about young people in a synod document, they are in some way automatically linked to the LGBT language and ideology? It is to me a clear propaganda tool. I fear that the synod could have some machinations to push forward the agenda of LGBT and this will be an offense for youth. I hope that it will not happen, yet it is my fear.
CWR: Having moved around so extensively as a child – you were born in Kyrgyzstan, then moved to Estonia, then Germany, and joined your order in Austria – what are your thoughts on the whole idea of immigration, whether in Europe or the United States, or in general?
Bishop Schneider: We have to distinguish between different types of immigrations. I was a migrant, with my family, because we were persecuted and deported. When people are really persecuted, you need to help them. But as for the phenomenon of the European so-called immigration, it is clear and evident by what we can observe, that this is an orchestrated action of the international powerful political organizations. It is the aim, the clear aim, to take away from Europe its Christian and its national identity. It is meant to dilute the Christian and the national character of Europe. The majority of the so-called migrants are Muslims, so there is going on also an Islamisation of Europe.
Of course, these people are not guilty, but they are used as means by powerful organizations. This we cannot accept. We have to state that it is not just to destroy the Christian and national identity of Europe by means of this artificial immigration. International political powers stimulated and fostered the war in Syria in order to have some occasions to start the great immigration process. The immigration from Africa via the Mediterranean Sea is as well artificially created – they put the people in ships and boats, and create then situations of shipwrecking. It’s already very evident. We cannot as a Church be instrumentalized in the process of the destruction of the Christian and national identity of Europe.
CWR: Going back to the liturgy, what is your experience of Eastern Catholic liturgies? How does that play a role in the Church as a whole, breathing with both lungs?
Bishop Schneider: Providentially, as a young priest living in Rome, I got permission to celebrate also the Byzantine Rite. For more or less 10 years I celebrated in Rome in the Collegium Russicum the Byzantine Liturgy, so I know and appreciate it.
This liturgy is permeated with respect, with reverence, with a supernatural spirit and adoration. The same as it was always in the traditional and constant form of the liturgical Rite of the Roman Church until the liturgical reforms after the II Vatican Council. We can learn very much from the faithful in the Eastern Churches. They have a deep respect for what is sacred. All of which belongs to liturgy is sacred. You cannot change the liturgy by the tastes of the time. The liturgy is timeless. There is the very strong feeling when you enter the church, that you come now in contact with something, which is holy. You have to behave yourself in a holy manner.
The basic spiritual attitude of the Eastern Christians, – I am in contact with the Orthodox and the Greek Catholics in Kazakhstan – is a deep sense of humility before God. Such attitude we are lacking in some way in the western world. The humble one God exalts, and to the humble one God gives His grace. We are little before God; we are sinners before God. Christians with such an attitude are less tempted to be Pharisees, who stand in the first row in the Temple and despise the reverent and humble one, who is in the rear of the Temple, and who dares not open his eyes to God and who strikes his breast. Our Lord praised him for this attitude. This behavior of the poor and repentant sinner in the Temple is in my opinion a very clear attitude also of the Eastern Christians.
And then there is the sense of penance, which is also lacking in the current Church life in the Western world: corporal penances and fasting, for instance. We can learn from them also. And then there is also a deep veneration of Our Lady, of course. These are the positive attitudes of the Christians of the Eastern Churches, which I appreciate very much.