Russian Youth Meeting: An uninterrupted pilgrimage from Lisbon to Saint Petersburg

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

Between August 23rd and 27th, the tenth edition of the Russian Youth Meeting will take place in St. Petersburg. The event was conceived this year as an extension of the World Youth Day in Lisbon (August 1st to 6th), and which will bring together around 400 people, including participants and organizers. They want it to be a “continuous pilgrimage” originating in Lisbon and ending in Saint Petersburg and that will arrive from there, as the news released by Agenzia Fides says, “to each of the small Catholic communities spread across the territory of the Russian Federation, so that no one, wherever they are, is left behind.” It will also be an opportunity for a “long-distance dialogue” between young Russian Catholics and Pope Francis.

Despite the peculiar historical moment we are going through and the extreme difficulty of Russian citizens in obtaining visas to the European Union, the Portuguese capital will receive a delegation of 18 Russian Catholics, led by Father Markus Nowotny, who is responsible for training activities and the bursar of the Catholic Seminary of Saint Petersburg. This will be, so to speak, the first stage of the Russian Youth Meeting. Father Markus will later tell the participants of this event about his experience during the World Youth Day.

The Catholic Church of Russia, thus, responds to the needs of all its faithful, who for the most part, and for the reason explained above, will not be able to be present in Lisbon; and already guarantees the most anticipated event on the St. Petersburg stage at the end of next month: a “live” broadcast with Pope Francis. As part of the third stage of this “continuing pilgrimage,” its participants will return to their respective communities, scattered across the vast territory of the Russian Federation, to share what they experienced at the end of August. As for the 18 young people who had the privilege of traveling to Portugal, of course, it is expected that they will report on their experiences in Lisbon.

On the day of the “Russian Youth Meeting”, and before Pope Francis’ virtual address, the young participants will experience moments of reflection that will have as their theme the quote chosen by His Holiness as the motto for WYD in Portugal: “Mary got ready and left in a hurry” (Lk 1:39). The catechesis, based on the work materials distributed to the Russian presence in Lisbon, “will have the active participation of young people divided into groups of about thirty individuals spread across the various parishes of St. Petersburg,” a city that currently has eight places of Catholic worship.

Since the theme of the event is linked to the evangelical episode of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the pilgrimage of the participants begins in the parish of the Visitation of Mary, “with the opening service and an introductory evening.” The afternoons of each of these days include visits to the various Catholic parishes in the city and the celebration of Holy Mass. A varied program is planned for the evenings, “in which moments of community celebration will alternate with moments of personal and community prayer.” The young people, coming from the four dioceses of the ecclesiastical province of the Catholic Church in Russia and from 54 cities in the Russian Federation – similarly to what happens in Lisbon during WYD – will be welcomed by the Catholic parishes and families of Saint Petersburg.

During the virtual meeting with Pope Francis, some testimonies of young Catholics from the Russian Federation will precede their reflections. And on the last day, “after a moment of summary of the event,” the closing Mass will indicate to young people “the beginning of the mission of witness” in their own parishes and cities of origin. “The main objective of this type of event is, without a doubt, to give the opportunity to see faith, ecclesial belonging and commitment to the mission in which one is called grow,” explains to Agenzia Fides one of the organizers of the event, Oksana Pimenova, the director of the Institute of Saint Thomas in Moscow, also responsible for youth activities in the Archdiocese of the Mother of God.

“The young generations – she continues – are called to contribute to the renewal of their communities of origin according to their lifestyle.” The ecclesiastical province of the Catholic Church in Russia is made up of the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow and its three suffragan dioceses: the Diocese of Saint Clement in Saratov, the Diocese of Saint Joseph in Irkutsk and the Diocese of the Transfiguration in Novosibirsk. As Catholics in the Russian Federation make up less than 1% of the total population, they tend to be small or very small communities, which sometimes see the presence of a priest only very rarely during the year.

There is no accurate information about the total number of Catholics in the Russian Federation. According to a recent statement to the RIA Novosti news agency by Archbishop Paolo Pezzi, who has headed the Archdiocese of the Mother of God since 2007, the number of Catholics baptized in the country is less than one million.