The Central Asian Church comes of age – Catholic Outlook

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Interview with Bishop José Luís Mumbiela Sierra

The Church in Central Asia is shedding its Polish and German images as more local people take on leadership roles, says Bishop José Luís Mumbiela Sierra, president of the newly formed Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Central Asia.

The conference constituted in April 2022 brings together the bishops of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as well as the heads of the Catholic structures of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which were part of the former USSR. Additionally, the new conference also includes Ulaanbaatar, the only diocese in Mongolia.

Following the breakup of the USSR, in 1997 Pope John Paul II created the Apostolic Administration of Kazakhstan as a mission sui iuris. Later in the same year, its territory separated to create administrative units in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Bishop Mumbiela Sierra, 53, of Almaty, attended the Oct. 12-30 meeting of the Asian Bishops’ Federation Conference in Bangkok, representing the Central Asia Conference. The Spanish-born missionary talks about the growth of the Church in Central Asia in the following interview.

Is the new Episcopal Conference of Central Asia a member of the FABC?

The Church of Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations are considered part of Asia and we believe we belong to the FABC.

The bishops of Kazakhstan have had a conference since 2003. But this conference was integrated into the new Conference of Catholic Bishops of Central Asia around last Easter. We see it as a new path for us. We are very happy that Mongolia has also been included in our conference. Our conference is new, but we bishops know each other because we meet every year.

We were invited here (for the FABC meeting) because we are officially a FABC member conference.

Are the Catholics of Central Asia different?

I love the history and presence of the Catholic Church across Asia. For example, Indian Christians claim the apostolic tradition of Saint Thomas. Others in Asia have the Nestorian Church. But in Central Asia, Christianity began after the arrival of Franciscan missionaries on the Chinese border in the 14th century. Later, in the territory of Samarkand, a diocese was established under the Italian Dominicans.

Our Catholic communities are at least 500 years old. But they are different, in the sense that they are not homogeneous. Catholics in the Soviet Union were considered to have Polish or German origins, going back to European roots. But that period is over. Our communities are more local now and it’s a new page in our history.

When I listen to the bishops here at the FABC, I realize that we are a minority in our country, but a different kind of minority. In some South Asian and East Asian countries, Catholics number in the millions. But the bishops say they are a minority. But this is not the case in Central Asia.

For example, the whole of Kazakhstan has only less than 200,000 Catholics in its three dioceses. Official statistics indicate that we represent 1% of the population of Kazakhstan (out of some 20 million people). But the actual numbers in our churches are far less…perhaps some 4,000 Catholics attend Sunday Mass. In Almaty there are two million people, and the 1% should be 20,000 Christians. But how many would come to Sunday Mass? Maybe 300, and on feast days, about 500.

Our Churches are more Central Asian than European. This is a new hope for the Church in Central Asia. We have to start over. This is a very inspiring thought, but also a challenge for us. It’s wonderful to see the beginning of life. We are the embryo of the Church for the future of the Church in Kazakhstan and in the rest of Central Asia because the period of Polish and German domination is over.

How do you find the FABC sessions?

I don’t know much about Asia because Kazakhstan is at the end of Asia. In Kazakhstan, I don’t read Asian news, because it’s all in English. Our world is the former Soviet Union, and we all work and think in the Russian language.

Moreover, our people study in Russian or local languages. English is the third or fourth language. But we are not Russians. We have our own national identity. Here in this part of Asia, to some extent, English is the common language. For me, English is more difficult than Russian.

I do not know the concrete reality in Asia. Gradually by listening and discussing, I understand better the concrete situation of each country, the political and ecclesiastical situation and the spirit of the leaders. This meeting is a good vehicle for understanding the diversity of Asia. We Catholics in Central Asia are a bridge — a bridge between Asia and Europe.

How come a Spaniard is bishop of Kazakhstan?

My seminary studies were done in Spain and I arrived in Kazakhstan in 1988 as a missionary. In 2008, I went to teach at the seminary. As rector and director, I taught philosophy and theology for five years.

Kazakhstan also had vocations during the time of the Soviet Union, in particular in the dioceses of Karaganda, where the deportees from Germany and Poland were located. There are vocations to the priesthood and religious life that seem unbelievable, but there are many. During the Soviet era, they studied in Latvia. We have vocations from different roots – Polish, Russian and Kazakh roots, mixed from different regions.

How do you see your role as bishop and missionary?

My mission in the Church is first of all to be a good Christian, a good disciple of Jesus Christ. This is the main call. Baptism is an important and strengthening sacrament. Let us not forget the power and richness of baptism. All of us, bishops, priests and laity, are above all disciples of Jesus because of the power of the sacrament. This is the most important: to give the testimony of the Gospel. I think the first concern is to empower people with the reality of baptism. Dialogue with the world is the first witness of the laity in the world. A bishop cannot do this dialogue as effectively as lay people. This dialogue of the gospel with the world is the witness of the laity in the world.

The laity are a reality of the Church, working with the bishop for a common vision of the Church as equal partners. The laity are a reality of the Church, working with the bishop for a common vision of the Church as equal partners. The laity can bear witness in the world – in the places of their businesses, at school, in the family. Our reality in Kazakhstan is so much poorer because we have far fewer Catholics to bear this witness.

Do you have local vocations?

Currently in Kazakhstan we have 15 local priests. There are about 100 overseas missionary priests. This means that we have about 15% local vocations. We are a missionary Church. For example, it depends on the missionaries of congregations such as the Jesuits.

The first major Catholic seminary — Mary, Mother of the Church — was created in 1998 in Karaganda. It is an interdiocesan seminary and the only major seminary in Central Asia. A native Kazakh priest is now the rector of the seminary.

There are 15 vocations this year at the seminary, including six from Kazakhstan. We also have candidates from Georgia in our seminary. So we have seminarians from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia and one from Russia too.

The number of nuns is more. Some people, for example from Kazakhstan, serve in foreign missions.

How difficult is mission in the midst of different cultures and identities?

My experience in Kazakhstan is that the simplicity of the gospel is key. There are many traditions. But sometimes these traditions do not help us find the gospel. Tradition and the Gospel sometimes collide.

And we should not look for traditions. We only have the Gospel, the Eucharist, the Rosary… it’s very simple, very simple. And people, people without Christian roots, come to us. There are many conversions. We don’t have big demonstrations of our faith like charismatic shows with people filling a football stadium. No nothing.

We only have images of Jesus Christ and his message in the Gospel. The message goes to the heart of these people, and the Holy Spirit touches their heart and they come to church.

Sometimes I think the bishops of Europe are always depressed because of the migrants who enter their churches. They say these people don’t understand the local culture and the Church. But I say it’s a joyous occasion. Take these new people as new oxygen for the communities. It’s wonderful, really wonderful.

When I was rector at the seminary, I said to my seminarians: we believe that the Church is one, holy and catholic, or universal. Do you believe that? Being Kazakh is Catholic. Catholicity includes Kazakh identity. You cannot say that we believe in the Catholic Church and that we do not like the catholicity of the Church.

How has the visit of Pope Francis in September helped your Church?

When the Pope was in Kazakhstan (September 13-15 to attend the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions). I told my people that the pope’s presence at this congress showed that people looked to the Church as a force of unity.

The Holy Father is for unity and peace in the world. He can unite different religions and different cultures for the good of mankind. He is a unique person in the world who can do this because he is free from other interests such as economic or political.

His message to Astana was for unity. Nearly 10,000 people attended his mass on September 14. The crowd included mothers, grandmothers and children from various small communities of Catholics. We know that such a gathering was only possible because the pope came. It showed the unity of the Church.

The papal visit helped us to come closer together as Catholics. It has helped us show that the Catholic Church has a unique role to play in the life of our nation. It doesn’t matter if you are a minority or a majority, what is important is to be faithful to Christian values.

Christopher Joseph is an India-based journalist with over 30 years of experience in news reporting and editing. He is currently editorial coordinator of UCA News.

With my thanks to News from the Union of Asian Catholics (UCA) and Christopher Joseph, where this article originally appeared.

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