Interview with Fr. Wojciech Ziółek S.J., former provincial of the Southern Polish province, since 2015 working in Tomsk (Russia) by Agnieszcka Huf and Piotr Sacha (Gość Niedzielny).

Agnieszka Huf, Piotr Sacha: In your column published in the April issue of the monthly 'W drodze' you write that you have been crying a lot recently. What do you mourn the most?

Fr. Wojciech Ziółek SJ: Maybe the most painful thing is that not everyone cries. There are various reasons. Some do not cry from fear, because fear is omnipresent here. Most often unnoticed, unconscious, but "innate", from time immemorial. One to which they become accustomed and which becomes something "natural" and they cannot even imagine life without it. Nobody asks "how to live without fear?", but very many and very often say: "Nu, shto sdiel you? Pridiot pry." What will you do? You will have to get used to it. And there are times, as one of my interlocutors said: "Why do I need any freedom if I have everything I need?" These are words that frighten and bewilder me. After the war, the Germans carried out denazification - in practice they did not do it well enough, but in the symbolic and declarative sphere they condemned Nazism unequivocally. And that was very important, because it was followed by concrete actions in many areas, especially in education. There has never been anything like this here. Recently, I was talking to someone and I asked him directly: why, after the fall of the Soviet Union, was there no decommunization, no educational measures and no condemnation of the Great Terror? The answer was immediate and unequivocal: because the Great Terror never ended here. And this is unfortunately true. It took on other forms, but it still continues.

You live and work in Russia, among people who are often on the side of the aggressor. How do you preach the Gospel to them despite these tears?

I do not know. I was counting on you to give me a hint... Really. I am grateful to the editor Jakimowicz for his text, in which he reminded us that when Lord Jesus said: "Love your enemies", he did not add: "well, unless they are Russians". This is a very important comment. For me, remaining here - among the people to whom I have been sent - is something unquestionable. After all, the Lord God was not mistaken in sending me to Tomsk, and not to some other place where advocating good and against evil is easier and more obvious.  As long as there is no order or direction to leave, I and my confreres are not going anywhere.

But how to preach the Gospel in such conditions?

Expanding on editor Jakimowicz's thought I would say that Lord Jesus did not say to us: "Go and preach, unless the conditions are unfavourable, in which case go home and have a barbecue". The Gospel should be preached always and everywhere, but not always in words. After all, the New Testament is full of stories about people who believed, not because of preaching, but because their hearts were moved. The flagship example is the Good Scoundrel - a heartless criminal who was moved by the goodness and lack of hatred in the innocently suffering Lord Jesus. This is how I understand my and our current mission in Tomsk: to help people so that their hearts start working properly, so that they start feeling, sympathising, hurting, crying. After all - as Andrzej Sikorowski sings - "tears are a sign that the heart is beating". Yes. It is not only with words, but with our behaviour, our human gestures and our tears that we are supposed to lead people whose hearts have stopped working to feel again, to feel compassion, to cry and to see the human being in another person.

A spiritual cardiology department?

Yes, but not cardiology, but cardiac surgery. In this ward we are only nurses and room attendants, bringing patients to the operating theatre and performing the lowest services for them. The operation to open the heart and restore its normal functions can only be performed by the chief surgeon - the Lord Jesus. Yes, dead hearts are the biggest problem here. I recently spoke to a young but very mature woman. She told me that the most frightening thing is that although there has been no warfare here in Siberia, in a few weeks a great change has taken place in people: they are ready to accept killing, justifying it or not reacting to it. This is a fact and one can be indignant about it, but are they indignant at the Heart Centre in Zabrze about patients having failing hearts? Therefore, if one wanted to look for a patron saint for our cardiac surgery unit, the best would be the prophet Ezekiel and the promise he made to God: 'I will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh'.

How many Catholics live in Tomsk?

In our whole parish, which is a bit bigger than Poland, there are about 2000. We have three Masses on Sunday and one on Saturday evening. A total of 300 - 350 people used to come to these four Masses. But that was before the pandemic. Now about 250 of them turn up at church. At the same time this is a very lively parish - international and multi-generational. Tomsk is a university town, so there are students from Europe, South America, Africa and, of course, Asia. There are families, children and young people. Besides the Jesuits, there are two congregations of women. We run the only Catholic school in all of Russia. The laity are very active. Catechization takes place here only on Sunday, after mass: 10 age groups meet in the parish house, including two groups of adult catechumens. Three groups are led by the sisters. The rest are lay catechists.

In your opinion, could the cautious tone of Pope Francis' statements on the war in Ukraine stem from a concern to protect Catholics living in Russia? How real is this sense of danger for you? 

Yes, the Pope is also concerned about us Catholics in Russia. We need this concern. Not long ago, on 25 April, an American confrere left us. He was with us for seven months. He came here to work in our school because he had a lot of experience working in Jesuit schools in the United States. He was told to leave. Not directly. He was called and told: "We strongly recommend that you leave Russia because we are responsible for your safety and we do not want anything bad to happen to you. It would be so sad to read in the newspapers that something has happened to you'. No charges were brought against him - he was advised to leave. Many of our parishioners, especially the elderly, fear that they will again be left without the pastoral care of a Catholic priest. Because the fact that we have a permanent residence permit in Russia is no guarantee. A priest from Mexico, who until three weeks ago was a parish priest in Moscow, also had a permanent residence permit. He had worked in Russia for eighteen years. He was given 24 hours to leave the country.

In the general consciousness the Catholic Church is perceived here as a sect. Many of my parishioners have heard this accusation before: 'Why are you a Catholic and not a Christian?' With the word "Christian" being equal to the word "Orthodox". But Francis is also concerned for all of us in the sense that he wants to protect us from the somehow natural but actually deadly reaction of hatred. That is why I do not consider the tone of his statement to be cautious, but prophetic.

However, when we see the images from Bucza, Kramatorsk it awakens in us a righteous anger, arising from a sense of justice. How to fight it?

We don't have to fight against anger, but against hatred, to which it can lead, and which attacks us all and is deadly dangerous. In the Gospel, the Lord Jesus says: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do". He does not say this in Bethlehem, because they are fiddling with his carols, and he does not say it in Cana, because they have inadvertently broken two jars of fine wine that had just been changed. The Lord Jesus says this as he hangs on the cross, battered, bloodied and mocked. That is when he asks the Father's forgiveness for his tormentors, his enemies and those who watch his passion with indifference. I want to make it clear: I do not know anything about love and I do not know what it is like to love your enemies. But I do know that if we move towards hatred, we have already lost. If we give in to hatred, we are both victims and executioners.

But what does this mean in concrete terms? How do we protect ourselves from hatred?

It is not about making gestures like in American films, about throwing yourself around each other's necks and saying that everything will be all right now. It is about not allowing hatred to nestle and grow in your heart. We look at the bloodied bodies and luggage at the train station in Kramatorsk and hatred is born in us from this pain. When I try to help people not to succumb to hatred, I explain to them that you can't dehumanise someone by calling them a fascist or a Nazi, because that's just justifying your hatred, aggression and evil towards them. But in order for me to say that, I must first explain to myself, to Ziółek, that I cannot hate those who hate. For in so doing I would enter up to my ears into the logic of evil. No, I do not in any way justify aggression, cruelty, rape and murder, but I cannot allow hatred to take possession of me. I have to defend myself against it. War breeds death. It erupts, it kills, it wounds. In a physical sense, but also in a spiritual sense. If someone hates - the Ukrainians (because they are fascists), the Russians (because they are heartless torturers), the West (because they are enemies), the Pope (because he has spoken wrongly and has not sufficiently condemned) - evil has already conquered him.

Does it happen that your pastoral activity is somehow hindered?

There are no formal prohibitions. But there is full control of everything and constant suspicion. The local authorities find it hard to believe that we Jesuits have come to their country to serve the people. Jesuits? From the Vatican? You know - their main principle is "the end justifies the means", and their founder demanded blind obedience from his followers, although in return he allowed them to seduce women... This is how the Soviet propaganda wrote about us, and such a memorial portrait of the Jesuit survived in the social consciousness.  

On 12 March this year it was 400 years since the canonisation of St Ignatius. On this occasion, already in September, we proposed to the Philharmonic to organise a commemorative concert. Everything was ready when suddenly, the day before the concert, the decision was made to cancel it. The reason for this was a letter from anonymous "concerned people" who "were astonished to learn about the concert dedicated to Ignatius Loyola" and believe that "at this time concerts should not be organised that promote values that are alien to us". They also asked to "do something about it". This was enough to cancel a major, long-prepared, cultural event.

Our parishioners know that we will be with them wherever we can. But not at any cost. If someone asks us to do something that would be a denial of the Gospel, we will not be able to agree to it.

9 May 2022 - what does this date mean for the people of Tomsk?

It should be made clear that in Russia the state religion is not Orthodoxy but the Great Patriotic War. That is why the biggest state and religious holiday at the same time - incomparable to any Passover and Christmas - is Victory Day, which is 9 May. I have more than once told parishioners that we have let ourselves be stolen from Easter, because for a Christian it is the Resurrection that is the real day of victory. My talk, however, does not change the fact that crowds take to the streets of all towns and villages on 9 May. In itself, this is not a bad thing, but what is frightening is the utter lack of reflection on this holiday. It is a holiday under the slogan: We are good, because we have won. Everyone else is either our enemy or our debtor.  

This year, all this is compounded by fear. Nobody knows what will happen. There is talk of a general mobilisation, of some other decisions. Officially, very few people admit to being afraid, but a great many begin to repeat the formula they have learned over the centuries: We have already lived through so much, so we will live through this too. Therefore, although many do not want to participate in the parade, under the influence of additional means of persuasion, they will take part in it, because "Nu, shto sdielajesz? Pridiot prividuć." Also the young say this. Not all of them. Some want to leave. They don't see their future in Russia. I told one of them that I understood him. He said: "Don't be angry, but you don't understand anything. Because you are Polish. And when you return to Europe, no one will say anything bad to you. And me... Where will I go with my red passport and who will I show it to?

Is it more difficult to talk to God when there is a war on?

Since the first day of the war, together with my parishioners, I pray the Rosary every day before the Blessed Sacrament. There are also moments of weeping, of emotion, which is also a prayer. Encounters with this great insensitivity, with this heart of stone, are difficult. It is frightening to hear that 'they are Nazis there in Ukraine', so you can, and even have to, 'annihilate them'. When I hear such words, I think of the people saying them as cripples. This is a terrible disability. It is an unimaginable tragedy. If you look at a person who without any emotion inflicts pain on another, or simply condones it, you are horrified. It is like visiting the most severe ward of a psychiatric hospital. I will admit that I find myself preaching much more concretely during this difficult time. This is probably because the heart is so moved that it prompts itself. But that same heart also rebels. After all, what is happening now is difficult to put together in some kind of divine mosaic.

Here in Tomsk we ask God to protect our hearts from hatred, from indifference and insensitivity, and we try to lead the "dying" to make their hearts beat. Maybe someone will say that this is a minimum plan, but I am convinced that if we succeed even a little, it will be the greatest victory. 

Source: https://www.gosc.pl/doc/7528486.Obronic-serce-przed-nienawiscia

Jesuits in Poland