Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, a native of Belarus, told a Catholic high school audience how he "grew up in the Soviet Union in a time of persecution" and "now there is another type of persecution."
That persecution is "secularization, modern relativism," said the archbishop, who is currently apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Pinsk, Belarus, in a homily during a prayer service with students at St. Paul Catholic High School in Santa Fe Springs.
But if Catholics live lives that are predicated on Jesus Christ, they can avoid falling prey to these types of persecution, he told the crowd of 100 that filled the school library. "Our faith must be a light in our daily life."
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz was at the high school in the Los Angeles Archdiocese March 13.
He came to the United States after being invited to attend the Western Region Canon Law Society meeting March 2-7 in Las Vegas.
He also visited different organizations and individuals in Los Angeles to continue to strengthen bonds between the Minsk and Los Angeles archdioceses. Archbishop Kondrusiewicz hopes to send one of his priests to the International Institute for Theological and Tribunal Studies in Los Angeles this summer.
It is an altogether different world than the one in which he grew up.
Born into an ethnic Polish family in a village in eastern Belarus in 1946, the archbishop grew up in a war-torn country with a long history of religious persecution: Clergy were slaughtered, worshippers were forced to convert, and many churches were destroyed.
As a 16-year-old, the future priest entered the department of physics and mathematics at a teachers' training college in his homeland, but had to leave after only a year because of "unpleasant voices" complaining about him being "a believer."
In 1964 he entered the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute in Russia, graduating as a mechanical engineer in 1970. Though some people knew he was a practicing Catholic, in Leningrad -- now St. Petersburg -- he did not experience the persecution he suffered while at college in Belarus.
At that time, it was state policy for postgraduate students to spend five years working in a location selected by the government. The future archbishop was sent to Vilnius, the capital of predominantly Catholic Lithuania where, for the first time in his life, he grew accustomed to seeing churches staffed by clergy.
"In Vilnius, there were 10 churches and 15 priests," he recalled. "It was incredible."
In Lithuania, there also was a Catholic seminary. At age 30, he entered it.
In 1989, just a few months before the Berlin Wall came down, then-Father Kondrusiewicz was ordained a bishop and appointed the apostolic administrator of Minsk, Belarus.
"That was a very good time," he said, "a time of big political changes. There were new policies, new openness."
During his two years in Belarus, he opened 97 churches and a seminary. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Belarus became an independent republic. That year, Pope John Paul II created the Archdiocese of Minsk-Mohilev, and then-Bishop Kondrusiewicz was named an archbishop and appointed apostolic administrator of European Russia, a territory of about 4 million square kilometers.
In an interview following the prayer service, he brushed aside a question about whether he disappointed to be called away from his homeland.
"I'm a soldier," he said with a combination of earnestness and good humor, one of his trademarks. "My general is saying to me to go, (so I go)."
When he arrived in Moscow, the city was home to about 10 Catholic parishes and about a handful of priests. In 2002 the pope created the Archdiocese of Moscow, which he then headed. When he left Russia after 16 years, there were 270 Catholic parishes, 150 priests and 400 monks. Six hundred books of Catholic thought and teaching had been published.
Now the archbishop has been back in Belarus for nearly five years. First as archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev and now, since 2011, apostolic administrator of Pinsk. And they have been "very good times," he said, both for the people and for the church.
Catholic programming airs weekly on national radio and national television. With the government's permission, Catholics consult with pregnant women who are considering abortion. The government even gives the church land to build on; in Minsk alone, the church has received eight pieces of land at no cost.
Belarus youths are particularly fervent in their practice of the faith, conducting pilgrimages not only to holy sites in Belarus and Eastern Europe, but also to Rome and the Holy Land. The challenge they pose to Archbishop Kondrusiewicz is that there are not enough churches to serve them, nor enough priests to staff them.
That being said, vocations are growing. Eighty seminarians are studying in the two diocesan seminarians, and another 40 seminarians are studying with religious orders. "I would like to have more," he said dryly, "but compared to other countries, it's not so bad."
The U.S. bishops' Collection for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe is helpful, he added, as he and his brother bishops continue to rebuild the church that was so wounded over the course of many decades of war and repression.
"The church is still alive in Belarus," said Archbishop Kondrusiewicz. "Not just alive, but developing dynamically."