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April 2012

Extracted from Dominus Est – It Is the Lord! Reflections of a Bishop of Central Asia on Holy Communion [Newman House Press, 2009].

"EUCHARISTIC" WOMEN AND HOLY COMMUNION IN THE SOVIET UNDERGROUND

BISHOP ATHANASIUS SCHNEIDER

The Soviet Communist regime, which lasted about seventy years (1917-1990), had the pretension of establishing a kind of earthly paradise. But this kingdom could not last, because it was founded on lies, on the violation of the dignity of man, on the denial and even hatred of God and of His Church. It was a kingdom in which God and spiritual values could not, should not, have any place. Every sign that could remind men of God, of Christ, and of the Church was removed from public life and from the sight of men. Yet there continued to exist a reality that could remind men of God, namely, the priest. Because the priest was a reminder of God, he should not be visible; in fact, he should not even exist.

The persecutor of Christ and His Church considered the priest to be the most dangerous person because, implicitly, they knew that only the priest could give God to men, give Christ in the most concrete and direct manner possible, that is, through the Eucharist and Holy Communion. Therefore, the celebration of the Holy Mass was prohibited. But no human power could conquer the Divine Power that was at work in the mystery of the Church and, above all, in the sacraments.

Cum amore ac timore
During those dark years, the Church, in the immense Soviet empire, was forced to live underground. But the most important thing was this: The Church was alive, indeed very alive, even though she lacked visible structures, even though she lacked sacred buildings, even though there was a tremendous scarcity of priests. The Church was most alive because she did not completely lack the Eucharist, even though it was rarely available to the faithful; because she did not lack souls with solid faith in the Eucharistic Mystery; because she did not lack women - often mothers and grandmothers - with a "priestly" soul who safeguarded and even administered the Eucharist with extraordinary love, with care, and with the greatest reverence possible, in the spirit of the Christians of the first centuries, expressed in the adage cum amore ac timore (with love and fear).

Among the numerous examples of "Eucharistic" women in the Soviet Underground there will be presented here the example of three women known personally by the author: Maria Schneider (the author's mother); Pulcheria Koch (sister of the grandfather of the author); Maria Stang (a parishioner of the Diocese of Karaganda).

The women and Blessed Alexij
Maria Schneider, my mother, used to tell me that after the Second World War, the Stalinist regime deported many Germans from the Black Sea and from the Volga River to the Ural Mountains to engage them in forced labour. All of them were interned in the most impoverished barracks in the city ghetto. There were a few thousand German Catholics. Some Catholic priests would go to them in the most secretive manner in order to administer the sacraments, putting their own lives in jeopardy. Among the priests who came most frequently was Father Alexij Saritski, a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic and bi-ritual priest who died a martyr on October 30, 1963, near Karaganda (he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2001). The faithful affectionately called him "God's vagabond." In January of 1958, in the city of Krasnokamsk near Perm in the Ural Mountains, Father Alexij, from his place of exile, suddenly and secretly arrived in the city of Karaganda in Kazkhstan.

Father Alexij worked so that the greatest number of faithful could be prepared for the reception of Holy Communion, making himself available to hear the confessions of the faithful literally day and night, without sleeping and without eating. The faithful begged him, "Father, you must eat and sleep!" But he would reply, "I can't, because the police can arrest me at any moment, and then many people would be left without confession and, therefore, without Communion." After everyone had gone to confession, Father Alexij began to celebrate the Holy Mass. Suddenly, a voice resounded, "The police are coming!" Maria Schneider, who was attending the Mass, said to the priest, "Father I can hide you; let's flee!" The woman led the priest into a house outside the German ghetto and hid him in a room, also bringing him something to eat, and said: "Father, now you can finally eat and rest a bit; and when it was dark, we will flee to a nearby city." Father Alexij was sad, because, though all had made their confessions, they could not receive Holy Communion, because the Holy Mass, which had just begun, had been interrupted by the police raid. Maria Schneider said: "Father, all the faithful will make a Spiritual Communion with great faith and much devotion, and we hope that you will be able to return to give us Holy Communion."

With the coming of evening, preparations were made for the flight. Maria Schneider left her two little children (a two-year-old boy and a six-month-old girl) with her mother and called on Pulcheria Koch (the aunt of her husband). The two women took Father Alexij and led him for twelve kilometres through the forest, in the snow and the cold, 30 degrees below zero. The women arrived at a little train station, bought a ticket for Father Alexij, and sat with him in the waiting room; the train was not due for an hour. Suddenly, the door opened. A policeman entered and spoke directly to Father Alexij; "Where are you heading?" the priest was not able to respond, out of fear - not for his own life, but for the life and fate of the young mother, Maria Schneider. The young woman herself responded to the policeman: "This is our friend, and we are accompanying him. Look, here is his ticket," and she handed the ticket over to the policeman. The policeman, looking at the ticket, told the priest: "Please do not enter the last car, because it will be dislodged from the rest of the train at the next station. Bon voyage!" The policeman exited the waiting room. Father Alexij looked at Maria Schneider and said. "God has sent us an angel! I will never forget what you have done for me. If God will permit it, I will return to give all of you Holy Communion, and in my every Mass I will pray for you and your children."

After a year, Father Alexij was able to return to Krasnokamsk. This time he could celebrate the Holy Mass and give Holy Communion to the faithful. Maria Schneider asked him a favour: "Father, could you leave me a consecrated Host because my mother is gravely ill and wants to receive Communion before dying?" Father Alexij left a consecrated Host, on condition that Holy Communion be administered to the woman with the greatest possible respect. Maria Schneider promised to act in this way. Before moving with her family to Kirghistan, Maria administered Holy Communion to her sick mother. In order to do this, Maria put on new white gloves and with tweezers gave Holy Communion to her mother. Afterwards, she burned the envelope in which the consecrated Host had been kept.

First Friday devotion
The families of Maria Schneider and Pulcheria Koch later movher mother. Afterwards, she burned the envelope in which the consecrated Host had been kept.

First Friday devotion
The families of Maria Schneider and Pulcheria Koch later moved to Kirghistan. In 1962, Father Alexij secretly visited Kirghistan and found Maria and Pulcheria in the city of Tokmak. He celebrated Holy Mass in the house of Maria Schneider and, another time, in the house of Pulcheria Koch. Out of gratitude to Pulcheria, this old woman who had helped him escape in the darkness and cold of winter in the Ural Mountains, Father Alexij left her a consecrated Host, giving this precise instruction: "I leave you a consecrated Host. Practice the devotion in honour of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the First Friday for nine consecutive months. Every First Friday of the month, expose the Blessed Sacrament in your house, inviting for adoration persons who are absolutely trustworthy, with everything carried out in the greatest secrecy. After the ninth month, you must consume the Host, but do so with great reverence!" And so it was done. For nine months, there was clandestine Eucharistic Adoration at Tokmak. Maria Schneider was also among the female worshippers.

Kneeling before a little Host, all the adoring women, these truly Eucharistic women, ardently desired to receive Holy Communion. But, unfortunately, there was only a little Host and at the same time many people who desired to receive Holy Communion. For this reason, Father Alexij had decided that at the end of the nine months only Pulcheria would receive Holy Communion, with the other women making a Spiritual Communion. Nevertheless, these Spiritual Communions were very precious, because they rendered these "Eucharistic" women capable of transmitting to their children, as if with their maternal milk, a profound faith and great love for the Eucharist.

Living Flowers of a Eucharistic saint
The entrustment of this little consecrated Host to Pulcheria Koch in the city of Tokmak in Kirghistan was the last pastoral action of Blessed Alexij Saritski. Immediately after his return to Karaganda from his missionary journey in Kirghistan, in April of 1962, Father Alexij was arrested by the secret police and placed in the concentration camp of Dolinka, near Karaganda. After much mistreatment and humiliation, Father Alexij obtained the palm of martyrdom ex aerumnis carceris (from the sufferings of prison) on October 30, 1963. His liturgical memorial is celebrated on this day in all the Catholic churches of Kazakhstan and Russia; the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church celebrates it together with other martyrs on June 27. He was a Eucharistic saint, who could educate Eucharistic women. These Eucharistic women were like flowers that grew up in the darkness and desert of a clandestine existence, thus keeping the Church truly alive.

Maria Stang
The third example of a "Eucharistic" woman is that of Maria Stang, a German woman from Volga, deported to Kazakhstan. This saintly mother and grandmother had a life full of incredible sufferings and continual renunciations and sacrifices. However, she was a person full of faith, hope and spiritual joy. Already from childhood, she desired to dedicate her life to God. On account of the Communist persecution and deportation, her pilgrimage of life was filled with sorrow. Maria Stang writes in her memoirs:

"They took away the priest. In the nearby village, there was no longer a priest there, nor the Blessed Sacrament. But without the priest, without the Blessed Sacrament, the church was so cold. I had to cry bitterly."

From that moment, Maria began to pray every day and to offer sacrifices to God with this prayer: "O Lord, give us a priest again, give us Holy Communion! I suffer all things willingly for love of You, O Most Sacred Heart of Jesus!" In the vast place of deportation in the eastern part of Kazkhstan, Maria Stang secretly used to gather together other women in her house every Sunday to pray. During these Sunday gatherings, the women often cried and prayed:

"Mary, our most holy and dearest Mother, see how poor we are. Give us again priests, teachers and shepherds."

From 1965 on, Maria Stang travelled once a year to Kirghistan, where a Catholic priest was living in exile (a distance of more than a thousand kilometres). In the vast villages of eastern Kazakhstan, German Catholics had not seen a priest for already more than twenty years. Maria writes:

"When I arrived at Frunse (today Bishkek) in Kirghistan, I found a priest. Entering his house, I saw the tabernacle. I had not been able to imagine that in my lifetime I would be able to see once more the tabernacle and the Eucharistic Lord. I knelt down and began to cry. Afterwards, I drew closer to the tabernacle and kissed it."

Before Maria Stang left for her village in Kazakhstan, the priest handed over to her a pyx with some consecrated Hosts. The first time that the faithful gathered together in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, Maria said to them: "We have a joy and happiness that no one can imagine: We have with us the Eucharistic Lord, and we can receive Him." Those present responded: "We cannot receive Holy Communion because we have not gone to confession for so many years." Afterwards, the faithful held a council and made the following decision:

"Since the times are most difficult and the Blessed Sacrament has already been brought to us from over a thousand kilometres away, God will be merciful toward us. Let us place ourselves spiritually in the confessional before the priest. We will make a perfect act of contrition, and each one of us will impose an individual penance."

Everyone acted accordingly, and then all received Holy Communion on their knees and in tears. They were tears at one and the same time of penitence and of joy.

For thirty years, Maria Stang gathered the faithful together for prayer each Sunday, teaching catechism to the children and the adults, preparing couples for the Sacrament of Matrimony, carrying out the Rites of Burial and, above all, administering Holy Communion. Every time she distributed Holy Communion, she did so with an ardent heart and a reverential fear. She was a woman with a truly priestly soul, a "Eucharistic" woman.