On last March’s Solemnity of the Annunciation, Pope Francis turned to a theme of his papacy —a call to focus on the Church on the periphery. The Holy Father asserted that “God’s new encounter with His people will take place in places we would not normally expect: on the margins and peripheries.”
People define periphery in many ways. It is easy to understand it as the mission territories of the past — Africa and Asia. Pope Francis highlighted far-flung communities of the periphery when he elevated first-ever Cardinals from places like the Pacific island of Tonga or the South African Kingdom of Lesotho. Interestingly, he also called the small Church within very secular Sweden as being on the periphery.
A few weeks ago, as Judicial Vicar, I and Dr. Zabrina Decker, Chancellor of the Tribunal, had the pleasure to visit a Church on the periphery — the Apostolic Administration of Kyrgyzstan. We were there to attend the installation of the papally-appointed Apostolic Administrator,Fr. Anthony Corcoran, S.J.
Fr. Tony has strong connections to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Texas born and bred, his desire for something new for college brought him to Marian College in Fond du Lac. But, the call to discern a vocation was strong and that brought him to the St. Francis Seminary College
Formation Program and studies at Marquette University. Fr. Tony’s missionary spirit would draw him to the Jesuits after college, and eventually to modern re-evangelization efforts in post-Soviet Russia.
In 1997, Fr. Tony found himself working in the newly established (and, geographically, the world’s largest) Diocese of the Transfiguration in Novosibirsk, Russia. Soon, he would be named Vicar General of the young diocese.
A new diocese needs new (or re-established) parishes; consultative bodies; as well as other institutions; and thus, a good amount of advice and guidance in matters of canon law is needed. For this, Fr. Tony reconnected with Milwaukee.
At the St. Francis College Program, Fr. Tony met Bishop Don Hying and Fr. Tom Brundage. Through these connections to a future bishop and future judicial vicar, Fr. Tony began receiving support from the Tribunal here in Milwaukee. This support continued through Fr. Tony’s time as Jesuit Superior in Moscow, and our canonical support with his new work for the tiny, on-the-periphery, Catholic Church of Kyrgyzstan. With the permission of Archbishop Listecki, Decker and I, along with Fr. Mark Payne, the Adjutant Judicial Vicar, are enthusiastic to continue this ministry of support to a church on the periphery.
The December visit to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, by Decker and I was a wonderful and amazing educational experience. The country has similarities to Wisconsin: it is roughly the same size with close to the same population, and being at about the same latitude, the weather and even its “lake country” near Bishkek, are surprisingly akin to our region.
The similarities end there. In the old Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan was the poorest republic. Taken unfair advantage of for its natural resources, the Kyrgyz people were never a community of means or wealth. Even today, some fear being taken advantage of by their former Russian overlords far to the north, or by the new Chinese expansionism immediately to the east. This on top of the fear of Islamic radicalization seeping in from the west and south.
The Kyrgyz people are descendants of nomadic tribes. The very name “Kyrgyz” means “the 40 tribes.” They are overwhelmingly moderate Muslims, while some are Russian Orthodox. At present, the country is approximately 80 percent Muslim, 17 percent Russian Orthodox, and the Catholic population of the entire country is counted in the hundreds. In fact, if Vatican estimates are correct, the entirety of Kyrgyzstan Catholics could fit into St. Monica Church in Whitefish Bay.
Kyrgyzstani Catholics are generally descendants of Poles, Volga Germans, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and others who, from the 1930s to 1950s, were forcibly relocated by Joseph Stalin or Nikita Khruschchev. Herein is an interesting realization: walking the streets of Bishkek, the population is clearly Asian, specifically that ruddy tan look associated with Mongolia. But, in the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel for Fr. Tony’s installation, seeing all the families and children (and there were many) of European descent, one could imagine being in West Allis or Sheboygan.
There are some converts among the Kyrgyz, and some Chinese Catholics, but this remnant Catholic Church looks a lot like parishes here in southeastern Wisconsin. But again, similarities end quickly.
Catholics in Kyrgyzstan once numbered in the tens of thousands. Since independence in 1991, the out migration of any family with resources and roots elsewhere, had thousands of newly free Catholics returning to Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine or just about anywhere else.
In a twist, the remaining European descendants are among the poorest in the country. The Europeans are the visibly obvious minorities. In the Asian setting, among the Muslim majority, with the continuing Soviet-style government, the Catholics are viewed with suspicion, often treated with contempt, and consistently held outside of the few structures of success available in the country.
It is not accurate to call this shocking, but it is interesting to wrestle with the surprise felt when realizing that, in the case of the Catholic Church of Kyrgyzstan, the periphery looks like us.
As pastor to an entire country, Fr. Tony, with the six Jesuit priests and a handful of Slovakian sisters, love the remnant Church in their care. They speak hopefully about re-establishing communities where the marginalized, fearful Catholics can live their faith openly. Fr. Tony hopes to open the country’s first Catholic school. They all understand that this place on the periphery, as it lay at an intersection of Asia, Islam, and the Church, could well be the most important place in the world needing evangelization, re-evangelization and our support.