The country has become a bastion of doctrinal traditionalism. Its traumatic history may be part of the explanation

Of all the countries you might expect to take centre stage in the Church’s internal drama, a Muslim-majority former Soviet republic with a minuscule Catholic flock does not seem the most obvious candidate. But last week’s open appeal from three of Kazakhstan’s bishops confirms it: some of the most eloquent voices in defence of Catholic doctrine are coming from Central Asia.

The bishops asked Catholics to pray for Pope Francis, because only he can revoke the pastoral guidelines issued in some countries, which have permitted Communion for the remarried. Such reforms, they said, present Catholic teaching on adultery as an “ideal” rather than a “commandment”. Bishops who teach their flock to downplay that doctrine risk “misleading them or encouraging them to disobey the will of God, and in such way endangering their eternal salvation”.

To those familiar with the bishops in question, the appeal was not entirely surprising. The oldest of the three, Archbishop Paweł Lenga, declared in 2015 that his conscience obliged him to say that too few bishops were “courageously preaching the doctrine of Christ” and “standing firm in the defence of truth and of morals”. Later that year, at the family synod, Archbishop Tomasz Peta quoted Blessed Paul VI’s expression about the “smoke of Satan” entering the Church.

The third, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, has emerged in the last few years as a determined voice for orthodox Catholicism. He is also an enthusiast for the Traditional Latin Mass, and has good relations with the SSPX, whom he has urged to accept a Vatican deal.

Kazakhstan is not a capital-T Traditionalist country: the Extraordinary Form is not regularly celebrated. But many practices associated with pre-Vatican II liturgy are common. Reception of the Eucharist on the tongue and kneeling is the norm. Bishop Schneider tells me over email that Kazakhstan has preserved the “spirit” of the Latin Mass. “The faithful have a deeply rooted Catholic piety and reverence towards the Eucharist and the sacraments of the Church,” he says.

Fr Paweł Blok, a Polish priest who came to Kazakhstan in 2008, paints a similar picture. Kazakh Catholics “are rather traditional and conservative,” he says. “For us, it means being faithful to Holy Church, to Catholic teaching, to God.” The Eucharist and Our Lady are at the heart of it: “The majority of parishes have daily Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and we pray the rosary every day in our parishes.”

The size of the Catholic population makes such generalisations possible: depending on how generously you define it, there are between 100,000 and 250,000 Catholics in the country. According to Fr Blok, many parishes have only 10 to 30 regular worshippers. Those with more than 500 are a rarity.

I’m curious to know whether Catholics in Kazakhstan share their bishops’ anxieties at the present situation in the Church, which has seen the Maltese bishops permitting Communion for any remarried people who feel “at peace with God”, and some Canadian bishops seeming to approve the last rites for those about to be euthanised.

Fr Blok says Kazakh Catholics are “very confused by some changes in the practice of some local Churches – especially about marriage, the defence of life, euthanasia”. It’s normal to resist such changes, he says. “Catholics have experienced many persecutions in the past just for being faithful.”

Bishop Schneider, similarly, believes past persecutions have a lesson for today, as Catholics face “the new atheistic and totalitarian gender ideology”. The lesson of history, he says, is “not to conform and not to adapt to this spirit of the world, but to remain true Catholics, and a true Catholic should be always courageous, he should wish to belong to the family of the confessors of faith which preceded us in all ages.”

In Kazakhstan, martyrs and confessors are part of recent family history. Until 1991, when John Paul II appointed Bishop Lenga, Kazakhstan had not had a Catholic bishop for more than 500 years. First the Khans and then the Tsars ruled. It was Stalin who accidentally revitalised the Kazakh Church by deporting large numbers of Catholics there. A small flock kept the faith through lean years, supported by clandestine priests who are today venerated as heroes. Sacramental life was limited by circumstances: after the collapse of communism, there were men and women in their 80s who finally received the Sacrament of Confirmation.

Bishop Schneider grew up amid similar experiences. His German parents had been sent to the Urals, and eventually ended up in Estonia, where children were officially banned from Mass attendance. The Schneiders would leave the house in the early hours to catch the first train, and travel 60 miles to hear Mass said by a priest who had once been imprisoned in a Kazakh Gulag. Where the Gulag once stood is now the cathedral of Karaganda – dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima, who in 1917 spoke of the carnage Russian communism would bring.

“The more the Church was persecuted,” says Bishop Schneider, “the more she was vital and bore plenty spiritual fruits.” In an atmosphere of official atheism and communism, “Catholics were ready to prefer great sacrifices in order to confess the purity and integrity of the Commandments and of the truths of God.”

If anyone symbolises the endurance of Catholicism under Soviet rule, it is Pope St John Paul II, whose influence is everywhere in Kazakhstan. It is there implicitly, in the devotion to the sacraments, Our Lady, and traditional doctrine, which stops short of Latin Mass Traditionalism. John Paul’s legacy is also kept alive by the largely Polish clergy, and his 2001 visit has stayed long in the memory. “Everybody – not only Catholics – in Kazakhstan knows JPII,” says Fr Blok. “Everybody remembers his visit.”

It’s appropriate, then, that the Kazakh bishops’ appeal quotes from John Paul, in particular his affirmation of Church teaching about Communion for the remarried (in Familiaris Consortio) and absolute moral norms (in Veritatis Splendor). Kazakhs understand why John Paul, who came of age under Soviet rule, placed so much emphasis on the importance of truth. Bishop Schneider thinks Kazakhs are unusually attached to moral truths: “even in the secular society there are not a few people in Kazakhstan who are still keeping a deep sense of the natural moral law.”

The bishop says he and his colleagues wrote the appeal to defend “the most holy things in the Church”. Marriage, Confession, the Eucharist and the moral law are dishonoured, he believes, by official directives allowing Communion for the remarried outside the conditions of the Church’s traditional teaching. “I as a member of the college of bishops cannot remain silent and feign as if nothing had happened,” he says.

When I suggest to Fr Rafal Lar, another Polish priest, that Kazakh Catholicism is becoming more significant than ever, he demurs. “I don’t think the Church in Kazakhstan is playing an important role today,” Fr Lar says. “Preaching the truth publicly is an obligation for all Catholics.”

But if the Kazakh Church seems to find that obligation easier than most, it surely has something to do with their fervent piety, tested and strengthened by years of persecution. And they have fewer reasons to forget their past. Unlike, say, Poland, the country has not become a liberal democracy – it has been ruled by Nursultan Nazarbayev since 1991 ­– and nor is it a Catholic culture. The Church is mostly safe from persecution, but Kazakh Catholics cannot get so comfortable as to forget what they have been given.

Ministering in Kazakhstan is “beautiful but hard”, says Fr Lar, who has been in the country for 11 years, and who counts as one of his proudest achievements the building of a church in the northern city of Schuchinsk. It was, he says, all thanks to the rosary.

This article first appeared in the January 27 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here