Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
"Thoughts of Springtime in the Fall"
by Bishop Blase J. Cupich
(From the November 17, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)
The “Arab Spring,” as it has been called, has dominated headlines this past year. With breathtaking speed decades-long dictatorships in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya have fallen. Some wonder if Syria is next. The vote is out yet about if and how this political movement will transform the region into states that guarantee human rights and religious freedom. Or will the Arab Spring turn into an Arab Winter marked by violence and civil strife?
Twenty years ago, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end to the Cold War, a similar springtime was witnessed in Eastern and Central Europe. Blessed Pope John Paul II called on Catholics in the United States and in Western Europe to provide aid for the rebuilding of the Church in those countries that had suffered years of repression. Through the annual collection on behalf of the Church in Eastern and Central Europe, Catholics in the United States have provided over a $100 million towards this effort.
A year ago, Cardinal Justin Rigali, the chair of the subcommittee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops overseeing this collection, invited me to serve as a member and to schedule an annual trip to one of the 28 countries we fund.
From Oct. 17-Nov. 1 this fall, I visited Poland and the Ukraine. The Church in both countries has made extraordinary progress in rebuilding their infrastructure and human resources as a result of the generosity of American Catholics.
Our efforts in Poland have turned more to supporting the graduate education of priests and leadership development. The Church in the Ukraine, however, continues to need financial assistance to build places of worship, seminaries, and other facilities, due to the fact that their property was confiscated by the Soviet government. In fact, the Church for the majority of Catholics, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, was outlawed and was forced to exist underground for 45 years. Bishops and priests were arrested, imprisoned and, at times, martyred. Priests and bishops were ordained clandestinely. The faithful gathered secretly for worship in private homes. These Catholics suffered nearly a half century of winter.
I came away from my trip with many memorable visits, but there was one that impressed me the most. A young bishop in a small diocese invited me to his pastoral center. The building was once the headquarters of the KGB, the Soviet secret police. When the Ukrainian government handed the building over to the Church, it was suggested that it be used for a school. The bishop had other plans. He gave me a tour of the main and second floor, which were modestly renovated with our help. He then took me to the basement. There he showed me the prison cells, where the KGB held and tortured prisoners. It was chilling to see the large thick doors with small openings for food and messages to pass through, to read the scribbles on the prison walls, and to inhale the dank air.
The bishop told me that he wanted to leave the basement just as he had found it. He wanted future generations to know that the Church could carry out its work in the pastoral offices upstairs because of the sacrifices that people in the basement made during the years of repression. He did not want anyone to forget these people who had kept the faith alive and paid a price for the freedom everyone now enjoyed.
The situation in these countries has vastly improved in these past two decades. However, it became clear to me that no one should take anything for granted. The threat to religious freedom still exists as these young democracies struggle to stabilize themselves. There are still forces from within and without that could jeopardize the progress that has been made. That is why the bishop has kept the basement as is, to remind people that freedom is not free.
It occurred to me that a report on my trip to Poland and the Ukraine would be an appropriate way to draw attention to what we celebrate in our annual gathering of Thanksgiving. Surely we give thanks for the fall harvest of the land and the blessings we enjoy. Yet, this very American holiday is a reminder that we should never take for granted the freedom that is uniquely ours. The springtime others are now experiencing is ours in every season. For that we should never fail to give thanks.
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