Staunton, December 25 – In his Christmas message, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the leader of the 1.5 million Roman Catholics in Belarus, called on the faithful not to be afraid of the current situation, echoing the words of the late Pope John Paul II to Poles at the beginning of his pontificate.
Shortly after his election in1978 as head of the world’s Catholics, John Paul returned to his native Poland on his first foreign pilgrimage. On his arrival, he was told by Catholic leaders there that he could say anything to the increasingly restive Poles except to exhort them not to be afraid.
Such an appeal, these Polish Catholic leaders said, would inspire the Poles to resist the communist government in ways that would almost certainly trigger Moscow to intervene and suppress Poland even more thoroughly than the Soviet Union already had. The pope must avoid that, they argued.
But John Paul was not impressed with their arguments. He began his first homily there with the words “do not be afraid.” And he included them in all his other public appearances while in his homeland. Thus encouraged, the Poles and ultimately all the other peoples in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe took courage and recovered their freedom.
The Belarusian archbishop, himself an ethnic Pole born in Belarus, is certainly aware of the parallel his words have with those of Pope John Paul. And he is someone who has had long experience in dealing with both the process of overcoming the Soviet legacy in Belarus where he has opened more than 100 churches and difficulties of dealing with Moscow’s often hostile stance toward Western Christendom as leader of Catholicism in the region since 1989.
At the same time, even though Catholicism has roots in Belarus extending back a millenium, it does not play the same role that the Church did and does in Poland. At present, there are 1.5 million Roman Catholics in Belarus, approximately 15 percent of the country’s population.
Almost all members of the Polish and Lithuanian minorities there are Catholic, but a sizable number of the followers of the faith – perhaps a million – are ethnic Belarusians. And consequently, what the archbishop says will inevitably spread throughout the Belarusian nation and have an impact on the attitudes of its members.