March 18, 2011

August 5, 2010


Dear Family and Friends

It’s me again, with news about what I was up to for ten days this summer, while I wait for documents so I can return to the Russian Far East. (I could write a War and Peace sized documentary about my saga with documents…)

First a little background: one of my ministries in St. Petersburg has been volunteering at a shelter for homeless recovering alcoholics, run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity (MC’s). Once or twice each week I give a talk or lead a discussion, generally tying in the scriptures with the issues the homeless are dealing with as they begin their recovery from addiction and start life over again after sometimes years of living on the street. Homelessness here of course is not like being homeless in, say, Los Angeles; due to the extreme cold they must be extra resourceful to survive the winter. Usually they find a crawlspace under a building, where it will hopefully be warm enough not to freeze. Still, many do die over the winter, or lose toes and fingers or worse. Sergei, playing volleyball with crutches and singing with me as I play guitar [see photos], lost both legs below the knee; this spring he received a pair of wooden legs which he continues to adjust to, with great satisfaction.

Sr. Emmanuela, the head of the MC’s here [pictured with Marina, knitting], decided that the folks needed a break from the city, and arranged with the Divine Word brothers to spend ten days outside the city in their dacha. “Dacha” in the Far East, where I spent my first 4½ years in Russia, generally meant a flimsy cabin, perhaps with electricity, rarely with any plumbing or much in the way of furniture. Families who lived in apartments had a plot of land outside the city on which to grow garden vegetables and such, and they would put up a simple such cabin to get out of the sun or rain, store a few tools etc. Usually it was just used during the summer. What the Divine Word brothers have is really more like a modest retreat house – 2 stories, with heat and running water, and space for about 25 people, with large bedrooms containing several bunks each. We were 18 homeless guests plus myself, a couple sisters, and one or another of the Divine Word brothers on hand.

Each day we began with Mass at 8:00, which all attended even though none of the homeless guests were Catholic. The sisters basically require attendance; but interestingly, there was no grumbling about this, as I have seen in other places where, for example, people are required to hear a religious lecture before they are fed. It is a testament to the genuine love and integrity of the sisters and the people’s respect for them. The homeless see for themselves that in addition to caring for them 24/7, year after year, the sisters are in chapel several hours each day praying. No phony witness or hypocrisy here. If the MC sisters say that Jesus in the Eucharist is the core of their strength, the people are willing enough to pray with them and find out what this is all about. However, if a homeless guest shows interest in becoming Catholic, the sisters tell them: there are six Catholic parishes in the city; go and find one, and talk to the priest there; we’re not here to make Catholics. This serves two purposes. Practically, it protects them from accusations of proselytizing. Religiously, they know that feelings of gratitude are not enough of a foundation for real conversion and commitment.

Anyway, after mass was breakfast, and then free time until lunch. There was an old gravel pit which had filled with water and made a decent swimming hole, about half an hour’s walk up the road. A gang of us, accompanied by the guard dog Rambo, went for a swim most days. This included those on crutches, for whom we brought a wheel chair for when they tired out. The road started out cobblestoned, turned to dirt, then asphalt, and the last long stretch was gravel leading to the pit. A challenge for a wheelchair, and a long haul on foot for someone on crutches, but for people who have survived wandering the frozen streets, this was hardly an impediment. I taught one woman how to float and swim a bit; she was thrilled.

We also played volleyball and a little Frisbee, and since I brought my guitar, most evenings we sat around for a while singing. Aside from the Russian songs that I know, they also chimed in on “Yesterday” and “Let It Be” (Beatlemania lives…), and I taught them the chorus of “Guantanamera” which proved a big hit. [The singers pictured include Sr. Alberic from India, and Liena who lost all her toes to frostbite.] All made a point of getting sunburned. Aside from such activities, I enjoyed just relaxing with them, chatting and hearing their stories (after which one wonders how they can still be alive). One of the graces of spending time with these folks is it puts my petty frustrations into perspective.

During the afternoons I or another staff member gave a talk. They also had their daily AA meeting, and an evening wrap-up session. They were all expected to keep a log, as they do at the sisters’ shelter, of key moments during the day, where they record their feelings and reactions; it is part of their recovery, to be aware of their emotions, how they reacted, and if they responded in an alcoholic way or in a new, healthier way. They also had their daily chores; the sisters stress such things as cleanliness and neatness, and doing chores is a concrete way to establish new lifestyle patterns. Of course, one doesn’t do chores on the street; such things must be relearned. Even washing clothes (“Every week?!”) sometimes comes as a surprise to someone who has spent years simply wearing clothes until they are so disgustingly dirty/smelly/infested that they throw them out and find a replacement.

One surprise was getting my hair cut. One of the women had asked for a pair of scissors to trim her hair. She is legally blind but says she can feel the way it should be. I half joking said that I could use a haircut too. She agreed! – even though she had never cut anyone else’s hair before. Well, I figured, what’s the worst that could happen? Wear my hat back into town, and have a barber fix it. So I said, go for it. I gave her no instructions, and she didn’t ask, just started in.

 The other folks informed me I was reckless and asked Tanya how if she couldn’t see to read, how she could see well enough to cut hair; to which she replied that she would feel what she couldn’t see. They watched with interest, strolling by occasionally to have a closer look. I am not so naive; I know very well, that such a “reckless” show of trust wins me big points not only with her but with the others. While I practically got sunstroke during her hours of patient clipping, the result was very respectable as you can see from the guitar-playing photo. So now I have my own personal St. Petersburg barber!

Back in the city we are suffering a heat wave, about 30º C. with high humidity. It is muggy but people don’t complain too much; the winter was long and will return soon enough. It is a strange time personally, as I am in a holding pattern while I wait for my documents to be processed, which could take anywhere from a couple weeks to two months. The seminarians are gone, the parish is closed for renovation, and things generally slow down over the summer, so I am under worked and restless. I try to bone up on my Russian and attend to neglected projects; but like most people I get more done when I am busy and have a schedule to keep. It is an ideal opportunity for reading and contemplation – so I tell myself, as I somehow fritter away a whole day. Ugh. I am eager to get out of here, back to the Far East and that illusory “real” missionary life I’m still searching for…

Blessings to you all, from Russia with love, John

June 5, 2010

Back to Ussuriysk

Dear Family and Friends

First the big news – I am transferring back to Ussuriysk where I first landed in Russia almost 7 years ago. So any future snail mail correspondence should be sent to:

John Gibbons OFM
P.O. Box 36
Ussuriysk, Premorskiy Kray
692525 RUSSIA

I’m due to arrive June 29th, just a few short weeks from now. Basically my work has ended here – I was transferred to St. Petersburg to direct our 2 seminarians, but one decided to leave the program a few months ago, and the other one will study abroad starting this fall. My various other ministries – assisting at our parish, English masses downtown and with some sisters, working with the homeless, visiting the children’s crisis center, translating, giving an occasional spiritual talk – have all been sidelines, and other than the homeless folks I don’t think my presence will be seriously missed. And we have a homeless shelter in Ussuriysk so that ministry is waiting for me there too. I’ll be the pastor in Ussuriysk, also helping out in Arceniev on occasion (my assignment before being transferred), and no doubt other opportunities will present themselves. My Franciscan community there will include two Korean friars, Fr. Dominic and Br. Rogero, and a Polish priest, Fr. Eliot. We are all in our 40’s; they play soccer together a couple evenings a week, so perhaps I’ll tape my sprain-prone ankles and join in.

We had our yearly Chapter last month, which is a meeting of all the Franciscans working in Russia and Kazakhstan – 22 of us, plus a few visiting friars from Rome . The meetings were intense as we had some volatile issues to address, but overall the Chapter went well and as always it was good to see all the friars together and catch up on the news from our different scattered communities. The weather also cooperated and so during our few breaks we could enjoy exploring this remarkable city. Several friars stayed after a few days to visit, including a newly ordained Korean priest who is on his way to Kazakhstan to study both Russian and Kazakh – good luck!

Another visitor just left, a German friar who some years ago headed our whole Franciscan Order, ~15,000 friars (I think a few thousand more at that time). He is now retired and has a new hobby, studying Russian. He knows several languages, and after only 6 months of studying on his own in Germany he is already conversant in Russian. But in spite of his previous high position and obvious intellectual gifts, he is a very humble brother and was a welcome addition to our community.

One of my more interesting experiences recently was a trip to the morgue for a deceased parishioner. A small group of us took the Metro out to the morgue which was hidden behind the loading dock of a hospital, we had to ask directions 3 times. We finally found the loading platform which led to a room with an unmistakable odor of preservation. Inside were a dozen open caskets (occupied) lined up against each wall with a couple feet standing room between them. Clearly this was a morgue for the poor; the caskets were simple black plywood affairs. We gathered around our man and a couple babushkas from the parish adorned the body with flowers, a rosary, holy cards. Another door of the morgue led to a break room for the hospital staff where a heated argument broke out, much swearing and other angry noises, an appalling disregard for the people praying with their deceased loved ones just a few feet away. 3 family members showed up, were taken aside by a nurse, something was decided. Shortly afterwards we boarded a rickety bus to take us to the crematorium; there was a space in the back of the bus for the casket. We jostled through city traffic to a massive squat concrete structure that looked like a caricature of a Soviet crematorium – I cannot recall a more depressing and godless building. We mounted two tiers of concrete steps and then waited a while in the dim lobby (concrete walls, polished concrete floor); a few went outside to have a smoke (concrete slatted benches); eventually we were led to a square room, bare save for a raised concrete platform in the center on which the casket had been placed. We opened the casket; the body had shifted diagonally in the bouncing bus. A couple of us tried to straighten him out but the head almost detached so we let him lie as is. Our humorless escort told us we had exactly 30 minutes to pay our last respects. We lit a few candles, placed them around the body and said a simple funeral rite. Then a couple lackeys arrived to nail the coffin closed, after which they activated some sort of internal elevator and the casket quickly dropped with considerable scraping and clanging of ungreased machinery – imagine this being your last memory of your loved one! I half expected flames to shoot up out of the pit as they incinerated the corpse on the spot.

On a lighter note, one recent sunny afternoon I strolled downtown to the island fortress where the city of St. Petersburg was founded. A section had been invaded by “Vikings” – Norwegian enthusiasts who recreate life as they imagine it was a thousand years ago. Everything was hand made – the beached Viking boat (which leaked – perhaps this was an authentic touch), weapons and armor, tools and cooking utensils, musical instruments, various handicrafts, clothing and jewelry…an historically earnest Telegraph Ave Berkeley scene, delightful. One loquacious, thickly bearded guy demonstrated the effectiveness of his armor: he had a bystander put on the mail, a vest of finger-sized overlapping plates, after which he swung an axe smartly into the startled man’s chest. “You’ll have a bruise, but no broken bones!” Probably he would not get away with this in our lawyer-crazed Land of the Free, but in Russia it’s all in good fun.

We are now beginning the month of white nights, with swarms of tourists, downtown street faires, evening concerts, canal tours, weekends of all night disco beats and drunken revelers. It is interesting but I won’t miss it, and I look forward to the more peaceful life of the Siberian outback, the Russian Far East. Not far from North Korea , but they generally aim their belligerence the other direction. So if you’re in the neighborhood, drop by! My prayers and best wishes to you all.
Love, Fr. John J

March 15, 2009

A Toe in the Door

California Franciscans travel to far away places to bring lost Catholics bring back to the faith
“Ever since I joined the Franciscans 20 years ago, I’ve always wanted to do mission work. I’ve always enjoyed being with other cultures,” said Fr. John Gibbons, a Franciscan priest who served at St. Elizabeth’s parish in Oakland this summer. Fr. Gibbons, who spoke to the Sept. 8 Catholic Voice, was in Oakland on leave from his mission parish in the Russian Federation province of Premorskiy Krai, on the Japan Sea, because his one-year visa demands that he spend six months every year outside of Russia. Fr. Gibbons has thus spent about half of the last five years doing missionary work in Russia.

Fr Gibbons, 45, a native of Portland, Oregon, is a graduate of Berkeley’s Franciscan School of Theology. Before going to Russia, he and a fellow Franciscan, Fr. David Gaa, worked on the Tonono O’odom Indian Reservation in Tucson, Arizona. Both desired to do missionary work abroad. It was Gaa who suggested that they “trust the Holy Spirit and the needs of our Franciscan brothers more and just say that we’ll serve in the place where the need is greatest,” Fr. Gibbons told the Voice, the newspaper of the Oakland diocese.

With permission from their superiors of the Santa Barbara Franciscan province and the Franciscan mission office in Rome, both priests were able to pursue mission work. Gaa went to the largely Muslim nation of Kazakhstan bordering Russia, 3,000 miles from Gibbons’ destination – Ussuriysk in Premorskiy Krai, where he studied Russian. After two years there (where he was forbidden to do any priestly ministry), Fr. Gibbons was sent to Arceniev, a town of about 60,000 people, 100 miles from Ussuriysk.

There, Fr. Gibbons has ministered in a parish of about 50 Poles, Ukrainians, other Slavs, and East Germans – descendants of people the old Soviet government had forcibly relocated to Siberia. Since they had not had a priest for many years, these Catholics kept their faith alive through oral traditions – but they knew little of the Faith. “Very few of them knew much more than the fact that they are Catholic and a few traditional prayers,” said Gibbons.

Fr. Gibbons said it took time for the people in Arceniev to accept him, but “now it’s just like family.” He sought ways to teach them that respected their culture. Fr. Gibbons established an RCIA program and was able, with the help of local Catholics and American donors, to build a church, called the Church of the Annunciation.

In his mission work, said Gibbons, “I can reach out to people who are of Catholic heritage, who simply have lost touch with their faith. But I can’t go and evangelize Orthodox or other people.”

“Our job is not to do evangelization in the traditional sense, but to find the people of Catholic heritage,” he told the Voice.

Fr. Gibbons will not return to Siberia but will go to St. Petersburg to help establish a native Russian priesthood. Though there are only 14 Franciscans in all of Russia, said Gibbons, there are three native Russians studying for the priesthood in St. Petersburg. “People in my parents’ generation were raised praying for the conversion of Russia,” Father Gibbons told the Voice. “Well, now we’ve got a toe in the door -- but don’t stop praying yet.”

February 2, 2009

Back in St. Petersburg

Dear Family and Friends:

As I write I am in my second week back in St. Petersburg . Here’s a window into what missionary life is REALLY like. I spent the first week collecting various documents needed to process temporary residency: Notarized translation of passport, notarized translation of FBI clearance, tests for TB, HIV etc., copies of visa, registration and passport control documents, copy of the apartment owner’s deeds, letter (notarized of course) from apartment owner giving me permission to live there, bank receipt affirming my address and paying some tax (even though I am forbidden to work), and 2 handwritten copies of the application form: 4 pages of sundry questions in Russian legalese and tiny boxes where you are supposed to cram family information and addresses in English and Russian. Lots of running around, asking questions, returning to every place at least twice (I’m on first name base with the notaries), and finally comes the time to turn all this in. The office that receives these applications only accepts them from 2:00-4:00pm Mondays. I, along with Rwandan Fr. Bonaventure and a couple ancient Polish sisters, get there about an hour early, of course there is already a mob of people milling about outside a tall ugly sheet-metal fence. Last week the seminary managed to get us on a waiting list; I am #72 so there is really not much hope of me being accepted this day but you never know, and at least I’ll get the lay of the land.

At about 2:00 a gate in the sheet metal wall cracks open and instantly the crowd shuffles forward and the press begins. People squeeze through the gate and surge toward the entrance. A Russian woman comes out and in a voice of high authority but low decibels, orders all people from “-stan countries” on one side, everyone else on the other. She then explains the process, much of which is lost, but I get the drift that if things get unruly they will simply lock us all out. She wants 2 lines but the best we can do is create a snaky passageway between the “Stan” clump and the rest of us. She announces that there is no list; they will simply accept a few people at a time from the front of the line, until about quarter to 4:00 when she will make a list for next time. Interestingly, there is very little complaining about the previous list being jettisoned; this is Russia , we have all lived here a while so we know it is useless to complain or expect anything other than arbitrary rule changes.

It is snowing lightly, but the temperature hovers around 32F so the flakes melt on contact and we just get wet. Except, that is, for a few like me who have umbrellas. On the ground is thick slush. The first group of 10 bursts through the door, the rest of us wait. And wait. If feels longer due to the cold, which could be much colder of course but with the dampness and a bit of wind, it starts to chill me even though I am bundled up. The snow stops so I drop the umbrella, then debate putting it up again since it holds in the body heat. People drift back and forth, smoke, exchange small talk, smoke some more. A couple of young guys threaten each other with slushballs. Despite the urgency to be processed, there is a certain etiquette that prevails in each clump. The Stan group, mostly burly young workers, lets their few women go to the front, where they preen. Our Polish sisters, amoeba-like, inexorably ooze forward in their burka-like habits and no one looks askance. A Russian woman arrives late saying she is with her husband, and pushes through. I don’t see any man claiming her, but people shrug and so she manages to get close to the steps until the crush is impassable. An hour goes by and the first group has not been discharged. Clearly they are in no hurry in there and most of us have wasted our time. Still, no one leaves, we just stand in the slush dully accepting our fate.

But hope springs eternal; after the first hour, the door cracks open, then again, and small groups of people are accepted. At 3:30 the sisters are in and Fr. Bonaventure and I are at the bottom of the steps. Another 15 minutes and we are on the platform in front of the door with about 20 others mashed together. Claustrophobic, but warm. 4:00pm, and we are in front of the door. Bonaventure says, “Now we pray.” It is too late to hope for processing, but maybe there will be a new attempt at a list and we will be favored. The door opens: “4 more!” More than 4 burst through and there is an instant argument with the officials. But we are in! A woman from the seminary who was assisting the sisters grabs Boni and I and ushers us over to a counter. We show our passports and medical forms and my FBI clearance, and we are put on a list – come back in 2 months! I am not sure that this is cause for celebration, but the woman assures me that this is good news, we now have a guarantee to be processed; those outside are out of luck for the foreseeable future. I was literally the last through the door.

Things like this are one of the reasons that I believe I am supposed to be here. Against the odds, God arranges for me to continue my presence in this mission. These past 3 months away I admit to moments of ambiguity; but as soon as I arrived, back with the Petersburg friars, navigating the Russian bureaucracy with my passable Russian, reconnecting with other people in ministry, I knew anew that this is where I should be. Thank you for your support! Let us continue to pray for each other.

Peace and all good, Fr. John J

PS: No photos this time – it was not exactly a place for a camera.

January 13, 2009


Homily of Bishop Werth at the memorial service for
Fr. Otto Messmer, S.J. and Fr. Viktor Betancourt, S.J.

Novosibirsk, 29th November 2008

Gospel reading: John 11, 17-44

We commemorate the slain and innocent Jesuits Fr. Otto and Fr. Viktor. They must have read this part of the Gospel many times at the funeral services they presided. And with this text they comforted the loved ones of the departed: brothers, sisters, children and parents. May the same words comfort today Fr. Otto's own sister, Sister Lina, and all of us brothers and sisters in Christ.

Jesus says to Lazarus' sister, Martha: "your brother will rise up". Ine turn, Martha professes her faith in Jesus Christ, her faith in the resurrection: "I know he will rise up at the resurrection of the dead on the last Day."

It is significant that this event took place in Jesus' lifetime. He had not died yet, nor had he risen from the dead. Jesus had told his disciples many times: the Son of Man will suffer, be put to death, and rise on the third day. But each time they had failed to understand what He meant. In contrast, the profession of Martha shines forth: "I know that he will rise…" Following her words, Jesus solemnly proclaims: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Here, Jesus does not refer to the faith of Martha any more: - if you believe; - no, He is already talking about the faith of Lazarus who is dead: if you believe in me, even if you die, you will live. And Jesus brings up our own faith as well: anyone who believes in me will not die in eternity!

Dear friends,
May the death of the fathers Otto and Viktor kindle our faith in Jesus Christ, our own faith in eternal life with no boundaries of space or time. "Whoever lives and believes in me will never die!"

Do we understand the meaning of this? It means that riches or poverty, fame or shame, health or sickness, life or death do not count; all these do not make any difference once we know that anyone who lives and believes in Jesus Christ will never die! All sufferings in this life are, therefore, nothing in comparison with the eternal splendour with Christ!
Soon after the war, an awful tragedy took place in Germany: a bus carrying Jesuit novices was involved in a fatal accident; the entire Novitiate perished. That disaster shook the whole Church in Germany. The following year so many Jesuit candidates presented themselves that there was no room enough to accept them all.

The death of these two Jesuits shook the Jesuit Order, in Russia and in the rest of the World. In their meetings, Jesuits are talking more often nowadays about the Ignatian spirit, which should ignite their service more and kindle their apostolic zeal. It is hard to keep such fire burning. But today I heard it several times already: the Jesuits in Russia are, from today, different Jesuits.
Dear friends - But we ourselves?

Many years ago Fr. Jan Fratzkevitz perished – but we remained the same. Afterwards, a priest was murdered in Astrachan – but we remained the same. Two years ago, youngsters killed an old priest in the Moscow Diocese – but we remained the same.

And today, after the death of Fr. Otto and Fr. Victor – will we remain the same?
How many more sacrifices do we need for the Church in Russia and Siberia to wake up? We say too easily that we build upon the foundation of the martyrs of the 20th century. But those martyrs lived and died many years ago. Who among us have known them? The death of both these priests, who we knew, saw, and had on the phone only three days ago – will these deaths change us, finally?

May the new victims Fr. Otto and Fr. Victor pray for us before God. And we, let us pray for their souls:

Lord, give them eternal rest and may Eternal Light shine upon them. May they rest in peace.

+ Bishop Joseph Werth, S.J.

October 29, 2008

Priests Killed in Moscow

Two Jesuit priests in Moscow found brutally murdered in apartment

Father Adolfo Nicolas, superior general of the Jesuits, called on all Jesuits to pray for their brothers in Russia and for the end to all violence.

We have to pray for these priests, their assailants, and for Fr. John and his fellow priests in Russia.
Eternal rest, grant them o Lord. May your perpetual light shine upon them and give them peace.

October 16, 2008

Hello from… Canterbury

Peterhof Palace

Fountain at Peterhof Park Colonade near apt

Oct. ‘08

Dear and Friends:

Hello from… Canterbury! This is where I plan to be studying next week. What is the missionary to Russia doing in England ? Let me back up. The last visa I received reflects a growing anti-foreigner sentiment in the Russian government, and with that visa I can only be in Russia for 6 months out of the year. As many of you know, I spent 3 months this past summer in California , working at a parish and preaching (i.e. fund-raising). Now I will be gone a second 3 months, this time using the required time away to study formation (my new assignment in St. Petersburg ). My Franciscan Provincial (boss) dryly noted that it must be difficult to direct a seminarian program when I am only present half the time, which is of course true. My hope is to be granted temporary residency next spring, which would solve this problem. But, if my application for residency is denied, I don’t know what will happen. Keeps life interesting!

Easing back into the Russian language after 3 months away was made easier by a few visits from English speaking friends. My Russian tutor from Ussuriysk, who speaks excellent English, was invited to St. Petersburg for a wedding, so we met and spent a day strolling around the old parts of the city. We were on the ramparts of an island fortress, the oldest part of the city, when a cannon went off from somewhere in that fortress to mark midday. It sounded like it was right next to us! This was followed by a fountain display in the middle of the river, quite lovely. I apologize for forgetting my camera and not capturing the moment for you. Another old friend stateside wrote me to say that his brother is living in St. Petersburg . So we met for lunch and another stroll, along with an Irish guy who is interested in the friars. He is working here, so we will keep in touch. Another Irish guy, also working here with street kids, is interested is on his way to the Ukraine . We watched a fun run in the heart of the city; actually it looked like all the students had been conscripted to participate. We speculated that it was part of Putin’s plan to improve the health of the nation. One kid stopped to ask me for a cigarette, so clearly all are not on board. Later a Russian nun from Vladivostok came, something to do with documents, anyway we also strolled around the city and visited the famous Hermitage and Russian Museum .

Besides my responsibilities with the seminarians, I sometimes say mass in English for the Missionary of Charity sisters (these are the sisters who joined Mother Teresa of Calcutta, now they serve all over the world), and at a parish downtown, plus mass in Russian for the friar community when the pastor is at the parish. I meet each week with a group of recovering alcoholics that the MC sisters work with here. I attend and sometimes help plan young adult meetings, which are city wide. Recently I met with a group of medical students from India – it brought back many fond memories from the 6 months I traveled there, 23 years ago. I participated in a joint Catholic-Orthodox conference, considering St. Francis of Assisi a bridge between us – an interesting mix of clergy, teachers, musicians and artists. Other meetings seem to come up every week or so with some or other Catholic group. I don’t always have a personal interest, but it is good for getting to know the other priests and keeping up with what is going on with Catholics in St. Petersburg .

This past week our community did a general fall cleaning of the apartment, and then some of us went on a field trip to Peterhof, one of the summer palaces of the tsars, with vast forested lawns interspersed with gardens and fountains. We also made a day pilgrimage to an Orthodox church and monastery outside of town – the main church was leveled by Khrushchev, but the monastery and monks’ chapel survived. Thanks to my recent visitors I am gradually getting to know the city better, so the parks, museums, historic churches, are not just dots on a map.

If all goes well next spring my application for residency will be accepted, and I’ll be allowed to live here without constantly preparing new visa, registrations, and travel plans. We have a few guest rooms here – if you are passing through, please stop by!

Peace in Christ, John J

September 22, 2008

Fr. John in the News

“A Toe in the Door”

California Franciscans travel to far away places to bring lost Catholics bring back to the faith

“Ever since I joined the Franciscans 20 years ago, I’ve always wanted to do mission work. I’ve always enjoyed being with other cultures,” said Fr. John Gibbons, a Franciscan priest who served at St. Elizabeth’s parish in Oakland this summer. Fr. Gibbons, who spoke to the Sept. 8 Catholic Voice, was in Oakland on leave from his mission parish in the Russian Federation province of Premorskiy Krai, on the Japan Sea, because his one-year visa demands that he spend six months every year outside of Russia. Fr. Gibbons has thus spent about half of the last five years doing missionary work in Russia.

Fr Gibbons, 45, a native of Portland, Oregon, is a graduate of Berkeley’s Franciscan School of Theology. Before going to Russia, he and a fellow Franciscan, Fr. David Gaa, worked on the Tonono O’odom Indian Reservation in Tucson, Arizona. Both desired to do missionary work abroad. It was Gaa who suggested that they “trust the Holy Spirit and the needs of our Franciscan brothers more and just say that we’ll serve in the place where the need is greatest,” Fr. Gibbons told the Voice, the newspaper of the Oakland diocese.

With permission from their superiors of the Santa Barbara Franciscan province and the Franciscan mission office in Rome, both priests were able to pursue mission work. Gaa went to the largely Muslim nation of Kazakhstan bordering Russia, 3,000 miles from Gibbons’ destination – Ussuriysk in Premorskiy Krai, where he studied Russian. After two years there (where he was forbidden to do any priestly ministry), Fr. Gibbons was sent to Arceniev, a town of about 60,000 people, 100 miles from Ussuriysk.

There, Fr. Gibbons has ministered in a parish of about 50 Poles, Ukrainians, other Slavs, and East Germans – descendants of people the old Soviet government had forcibly relocated to Siberia. Since they had not had a priest for many years, these Catholics kept their faith alive through oral traditions – but they knew little of the Faith. “Very few of them knew much more than the fact that they are Catholic and a few traditional prayers,” said Gibbons.

Fr. Gibbons said it took time for the people in Arceniev to accept him, but “now it’s just like family.” He sought ways to teach them that respected their culture. Fr. Gibbons established an RCIA program and was able, with the help of local Catholics and American donors, to build a church, called the Church of the Annunciation.

In his mission work, said Gibbons, “I can reach out to people who are of Catholic heritage, who simply have lost touch with their faith. But I can’t go and evangelize Orthodox or other people.”

“Our job is not to do evangelization in the traditional sense, but to find the people of Catholic heritage,” he told the Voice.

Fr. Gibbons will not return to Siberia but will go to St. Petersburg to help establish a native Russian priesthood. Though there are only 14 Franciscans in all of Russia, said Gibbons, there are three native Russians studying for the priesthood in St. Petersburg. “People in my parents’ generation were raised praying for the conversion of Russia,” Father Gibbons told the Voice. “Well, now we’ve got a toe in the door -- but don’t stop praying yet.”

March 6, 2008

Cathedral Resoration

(Fr. John concelebrating at rededication mass, seen on far left)

CLICK HERE to read a letter from Fr. Dan about the reconsecration of the Most Holy Mother of God Cathedral posted on the webpage of the Mary Mother of God Mission Society

It begins...

Dear Friends and family,

The day of the ceremony (of the re-consecration on Feb. 3rd) was beautiful, not too cold with clear blue skies. Everything went off as planned or even better than planned. Greatly adding to the festivities were three busloads of parishioners and priests from some of the surrounding parishes that we started in years past but that are now served by others: Romanovka and Bolshoy Kamyen with Fr. Christopher Gotts; Nakhodka with Fr. Sebastian (our good friend who lived with us for four years); Arsenyev with Fr. John Gibbons, OFM; and a large group of parishioners and their Sisters of the Visitation who came by train (14 hours) from Fr. Myron’s former parish in Khabarovsk. They all joined our Bishop Kirill Klimovich from Irkutsk, our deacon Br. Oleg from Slovakia, priests from as far away as St. Petersburg and the great Kamchatka Peninsula, local members of our two Vladivostok Catholic parishes, a Catholic film crew from Novosibirsk, local friends and workers, representatives of other faiths (Armenian, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist), local and state government officials, and benefactors and representatives of our order of Sisters in Jesus the Lord from the United States, to make a crowd of well over 400 people, undoubtedly the largest group we have ever had inside the church.

Please follow the link above to read the rest and to see some more lovely photos...

September 15, 2006

Back in Russia

Dear Family and Friends

I just returned from a month in the U.S. I renewed my Russian visa, and I also did a little preaching and took some vacation time to visit Franciscans and family. I was delighted to be in Oakland when two of my brothers, Jose Luis and James, made their solemn vows. And my parents were delighted that I was home for my birthday – we celebrated with a day at the Oregon Coast. I also met with a few old friends who support me spiritually, giving my soul a much-needed renewal.

(Fr. John sharing the news of his mission to Catholic families)

(Fr. John relaxing on the Bear River, in the warm Californian Sun!)

Now I am back in Russia. I am pleased that the construction has continued in my absence thanks to the tireless efforts of my administrator Lecya. Tengiz, my handyman, did some repairs on my humble home, re-plastering and adding a fresh coat of paint and new bookshelves. The church is shaping up nicely, we are ready to hang lighting fixtures and once the radiators are installed, finish the floor. If all goes well, we’ll be moving in in another month or so! I need to start checking into furnishings and such.

The septic tank, which had stood out on the front yard since last fall, finally got buried 2 days before I arrived. They couldn’t set it quite as deep as they had hoped since “there is an underground river” (I am hoping this simply means that the water table is high), but they assure me it will be fine. We must just be sure to never empty it completely, so the composting organic material will keep it from freezing. I’m still doubtful, as the manhole-sized tube on top of it pokes out of the ground a couple feet, rather conspicuous outside my breakfast nook. Maybe I can put a picnic table on top of it?

When I drove in from Ussuriysk, there was a crane installing electrical lines (we need more power since our needs exceed the few light bulbs we currently burn). There was a crew of six guys – the chief was drunk, as was the head of my construction crew, as was Tengiz. This is Russia, and no one made any apologies, it is par for the course here. Of course I got after Tengiz, but the other guys, so long as they complete their work O.K., get away with it. I know from experience that if there are any problems I can call them on it, and they will sheepishly, soberly return and make the necessary corrections.

The next day we went to the little Chinese market in town to pick out lighting for the chapel. This took all of about 20 minutes, as the selection is limited, but we found 4 matching fixtures which will do just fine. We then made the rounds picking up nails and lumber. I also registered myself with the city of Arceniev. When I get the stamp tomorrow, it will be the first time I am fully legitimate to serve as a priest here. Up unto this time I have technically been on loan from Ussuriysk 100 miles down the road. I am also eager to get a Russian drivers license, which should save the sometimes lengthy explanations about my international license. In Russia there are checkpoints at every city and cars are randomly waved over to check documents and driver sobriety (not a bad thing). I go through this ritual on average every couple weeks, so it is good to have one’s documents as streamlined as possible.

Days are still warm but nights are crisp. Time to break out the sweaters. And give thanks that the mosquitoes are going back into hibernation.

Thank you for all of your prayers. God bless and keep you.

Yours in Christ, Fr. John J

August 29, 2006

Corner of the World

Fr. John sent us a thank you note today. He also wanted to clarify a statement I made early that he was the "first priest ever to be where he is and he is currently the only priest for a hundred miles" which was later mentioned at CathNews:

Thanks Mary! But you should have someone amend the little note (at CathNews) to say I'm the first resident priest in Arceniev, vs. "in that corner of the world", since there have been priests living and working in Vladivostok (100 miles away)
since 1992, and in Ussuriysk (four hours away) since 2001, and a couple other
places in Premorsky Kray have priests now too. I don't want to give people
misinformation or annoy my fellow priests! Fr. Myron Effing was the first priest there and he continues to serve faithfully in Vladivostok. He began visiting Arceniev once a month about 7 years ago, and people still remember him fondly as
their first pastor.

In any case, thank you for the good press!

Peace in Christ, John :-)

August 28, 2006

Happy Catholics

Welcome to all the "Happy Catholics" visiting from Julie's Blog. Thanks for your help Julie!

The donations have been steady. We've collected nearly $300 - that's one month average wage for a parishioner at Assumption parish.

In addition to buying religious items, books, and vitamins, Fr. John mentioned that he'd like a ping-pong table! What do you think? Should we try to get one for him? What would that cost?

(posted by MaryH)

August 27, 2006

Catholic Encyclopedia in Russian

"For a number of years now a group of Franciscan scholars have been engaged in the publication of a Catholic Encyclopedia in the Russian language. The total project will involve four volumes, plus a supplementary volume. Of these, two have appeared so far and Volume 3 will be available by 2007. According to a number of leading Russian Orthodox theologians, this encyclopedia represents a substantial step forward in the ecumenical dialogue, above all on account of its balance and objectivity. "The encyclopedia conveys a broad knowledge of the history of Catholicism in general and in Russia in particular", states one of the numerous letters of appreciation that have been sent to the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) by different Orthodox eparchies (dioceses) and seminaries. The book likewise conveys a basic knowledge of the Catholic Faith that had been submerged during the decades of the Soviet dictatorship. The Moscow patriarchate has welcomed this initiative. The volume has been launched not only in many of the major cities across the country but also at the Russian Academy of Sciences. In Rome, on the 19th of October last year, Pope Benedict XVI was presented with a copy of Volume 2 of the encyclopedia, which had an initial print run of 10,000 copies.

Aid to the Church in Need is contributing $42,000 towards the printing and publication of this important work."

Photo: A copy of the encyclopedia that was presented to Pope Benedict XVI

G'day Australia!

May God bless our generous friends at:

CathNews Australia for the Ad promoting this blog and Fr. John's Mission. A big thanks to Stefan, the editor, who put up the feature. Stefan has dedicated his life to lay-missionary work around the world. God bless you!

Video meliora, proboque; Deteriora sequor: Thanks to TSO for the link. Tom is one of the most kind fellows I've never met (at least not in person). He's a faithful blogger with a lot of heart! Thanks Tom!

PhatMass: Thanks to whoever put up our link! PhatMass is one of the most resourceful blogs around. A bit crazy at times but always faithful!

The Agonist: Thank you also for the link! May God bless you :) Your help in promoting this mission is simply wonderful!

And a Big thanks to all those who have sent in donations.
Your generosity is making us smile!

August 13, 2006

The New Church

The construction of the new church/chaple is slow but steady. Fr. John says that he has enough to finish the major construction. For that he is very grateful! The new church will have indoor plumbing (a major plus in evangelization imho), and it will sit 60 people. Currently there are 50 members of this remote parish so that should work well for now. When the parish grows, Fr. John can add another mass and when it grows more he plans to turn this little church into the parish hall and build "a real church."

The new building will have a guest room but Fr. John plans to continue living in his little house in solidarity with the neighbors. He will live as they do.

August 11, 2006

Where's Premorskie Kray?

The Federation of Russia covers one-eighth of the earth's surface and spans eleven time zones.

Premorskie Kray is in the far south east corner of Russia - east of Siberia, near China and North Korea. Moscow is in the opposite direction to the north west, and is seven time zones away!

Russia's population is estimated at 143,500,000. About .005% (7-8,000) are Catholic. Fr. John is the first priest ever to be where he is and he is currently the only priest for a hundred miles.

August 10, 2006

Home Sweet Home in Arceniev

Dear Family and Friends:

Hello again from Russia. A few days before Thanksgiving and yes, it’s getting cold. Some days it doesn’t get above zero. But thankfully so far little snow, so construction continues on our little chapel. I have to watch the quality though, since cold hands tend to want to get things done quickly. When I left Arceniev a few days ago the beams to the second floor were up, they were starting the staircase and the boiler room, and preparing to install window frames on the first floor. I have given up worrying about the roof. If not this month, later….

I thought I would give you a few details of life in the “chastney doam” where I live. It is typical of Russian homes, for people who don’t have an apartment. In Russia, for most people, an apartment is a step up. This is because apartments have central heating and running water. A house like mine has electricity, but water comes from the pump down the road, and heat is from a wood or coal stove, which you generally feed twice a day, morning and evening. The stove is brick and a very efficient design, which holds the heat and routes the smoke through the interior walls (all 2 of them) so they radiate warmth. On top is a big cast iron plate for cooking, also very efficient when the fire is stoked.

Assumption Parish Church/ParishHall and Rectory
Parish Shed and Outhouse

The house is small, about 6X6 meters/yards with 3 rooms, and an enclosed veranda. The first room contains the stove and so is the kitchen. Tengiz, the all-around handyman who also guards the place when I’m in Ussuriysk, installed a sink in one corner that drains into a bucket, and a metal reservoir suspended above. He always has a bucket of water on the stove, so we pour hot water into the reservoir which makes dishwashing more enjoyable. No plumbing means that the toilet is out back, an enclosed hole to squat over. There is a light on the house cleverly mounted to illuminate the path, but shadowing the interior of the outhouse. The house blocks the view from the street, so at night I squat with the door open and enjoy the stars. Tengiz has already advised me that if the weather is really cold, to just fill a bucket half full of water, squat over that and empty it when the storm lets up. I am grateful that I have done so much camping and backpacking, so I take all this in stride.

When we first fired up the stove this fall, it was smoking badly, and Tengiz thought maybe a new chimney was in order. So he climbed up on the roof and started knocking bricks off, tumbling them down to where our watchdog Jessie was tethered. Jessie is usually brave but she decided not to challenge the bricks. Tengiz installed a pipe in place of the bricks and cemented it in, but it didn’t do the trick. So he tore apart the stove in the house and reconfigured the bricks for a better draft. Better, but still not the result he’d hoped for. The last resort? Clean out the flu, which meant going into my bedroom and pulling some bricks out of the wall. Sure enough, it was packed with soot. So after cleaning all that out and cementing the wall back in place, the system works like a charm. I was thinking, too bad I didn’t have a video of the whole process, it looked like something out of Oliver Twist and I could have shown it around and raised some big bucks.

Other amenities: in addition to the brick oven I have an electric stove which looks like a relic from WWI. It has 2 burners and an oven underneath, but all that works now is one burner which is either off or on. It takes a while to heat but then really puts out the watts. Of course I could buy a new one but Tengiz points out that so long as it is still working, why bother? Since I am trying to live Russian style I acquiesce. Tengiz is very creative and in addition to the stove and chimney repair has built various shelves and cupboards, installed and rearranged light fixtures (i.e. bulbs), put a roof on the entrance, constructed a first class outhouse with charming stone pathway…. He also has a green thumb and the summer vegetable and flower garden flourishes. He only complains that he cannot grow beets, but he trades with the neighbors and then it’s borscht time.

When I first showed up to live in Arceniev there wasn’t any big housewarming reception. I would characterize the neighbors as initially reserved and suspicious. But once they had seen me around and decided I was alright, they started greeting me and dropping by, sometimes to use the phone (this is still somewhat of a luxury, though many people now have cell phones) and bring a treat. The woman across the street whose name is Raya (“Paradise”) is very friendly and also can do and fix anything. She was the one who advised Tengiz how to change the draft in the brick stove. She brought over some tiny fish she had caught and cooked. Very tasty so I asked the recipe. Simple, she says: throw them in a pot, add very strong tea, vegetable oil and some homemade vodka, boil them in this concoction for 2 minutes and voila! She also added peppers or something which gave it some kick. She complains that her husband doesn’t know how to build or fix anything, “not useful.” But he is kind and good-natured, so she’ll keep him. She was the one I mentioned in my last letter, who advised me to “drink kerosene – not too much” for a sore throat.

I generally have lots of company (not counting the mice – but Tengiz has them on the run). Tengiz is around puttering everyday and also prepares lunch. He claims he sliced bread for 2 years as a young sailor but has obviously learned some things since then. The construction workers are building the chapel a few meters away Mon – Sat and occasionally I stop by to check out their progress and we chat for a few minutes. The contractors, Sergae and Shamile, might even break for a cup of tea as we discuss the next stage of construction. My bookkeeper and now construction manager Lecya also is there every day. Br. Conrado comes Fri – Sun and since he gives free acupuncture to parishioners, people drop by to get needled. I celebrate mass there Thu and Fri evenings and Sunday morning, and parishioners often come by early or linger. There is always tea and cookies on hand. It’s a cozy place.

I’ll sign off for now, and try attaching a few photos taken last August. Flowers were in full bloom and construction was just beginning. There is lots more to tell – come and visit!

Peace in Christ, Fr. John J

August 9, 2006

Ruminations from Russia

Dear Family and Friends

Today is our community “Day of Recollection” – once a month we Franciscan friars in Ussuriysk set aside a day for quiet prayer and to discuss a spiritual theme. Br. Mario suggested the theme “new beginnings.” One of St. Francis’ quips was, “Brothers, let us begin again, for up to now we have done nothing.” And so, I am beginning again. A few weeks ago I turned 43. Oct. 3, “Transitus”, the day St. Francis died, marks 2 year since I arrived here in Ussuriysk, Premorskie Kray (“The edge of the sea”) in SE Russia. I finished my formal language studies last June, and after several weeks in the States, began my full-time ministry as pastor of Arceniev.

Yesterday I read a short book of quotations of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She says nothing new, nothing that I have not heard or reflected on before. But when she talks about prayer, love, generosity, holiness of life, joy, sacrifice, serving the poor, her words have power because, like Jesus, she lived those virtues without compromise. Her words cut to my heart because my life is a portfolio of compromises. I became a friar, a monk whose cloister is the world, in part to live a radical Gospel life. I have been a friar now for 17 years. I confess, my attempts at the virtues Mother Teresa names and lived are presently, for the most part, lame and half-hearted. My life is not so different from any money-grubbing capitalist (my apologies to any money-grubbing capitalists who are reading this.) I am not talking about externals – money, clothes, cars, houses. I am talking about worrying about myself more than others. Of being afraid to love, afraid to make the personal sacrifices that are integral to really caring about another person. Since Jesus taught that love is the greatest Commandment, this is a troubling shortcoming.

I came to Russia because, I was told, people here are hungering for spiritual food, and there are few volunteers to teach them and walk with them. After 2 years, I realize that I have shared very little that is specifically spiritual. True, I am a pleasant enough fellow, and the Russians seem to like me. But Jesus’ mission was not to be nice, nor is my mission one of trying to be likeable. If I am living authentically the Gospel life, I will ruffle people’s feathers, I will at times offend and be misunderstood. As one of my brothers loved to say when I joined the Franciscans, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It occurs to me, that afflicting the comfortable begins at home, i.e. with myself. If my daily goal is to be comfortable, to anticipate and fulfill my daily needs, to plan my life and live my plan, something is awry. I have no reason to do such a thing; I have never worried about my daily bread. I tell people that I am one of God’s spoiled brats – God has always provided. But since I have so many advantages, I know that God expects a lot. If I am not living a prophetic life, it is sheer laziness.

Mother Teresa notes: “Often we Christians constitute the worst obstacle for those who try to become close to Christ; we often preach a gospel we do not live. This is the principle reason why people of the world don’t believe.” I think that she is not saying that Christians are bad people. I think she is saying, no one is inspired by milquetoast. One of my advantages in Russia is that I blend in. I was the only foreign student who was not hassled on the street by the police – because I was the only one who was not Chinese or Korean. Of course my accent and pitiful grammar give me away as soon as I speak. But getting back to Mother Teresa, I am an obstacle not because I do bad things, but because I do nothing. I could just as easily be a pleasant atheist. I do nothing to inspire people to take Jesus’ teachings seriously. So this is where I hope to begin again.

Most of us have our fears. I like to think of myself as fairly fearless – I am not troubled by dark streets or rats or the unknown or death. But I am afraid to love, to be generous, to allow someone else’s needs to interrupt my daily agenda, to commit (typical guy), to get personally involved with someone else’s life and problems with no foreseeable convenient escape route. I am afraid to pray with my whole heart, because then, of course, God will take me where I don’t think I want to go. So, you can pray for this for me, since I am typically too weak to do so myself.

It is a cool fall day, a little rain off and on. Leaves are quickly turning and falling. Winter will soon pounce. It looks more like a time for endings than new beginnings. Many of you I have not written for a while. As if, from my end, our friendship is dormant. To invest myself more wholeheartedly here, likely means less letters home and other parts of the world. You my cherished friends are the hardest to write because there is always too much to say.

I will ask the people in Arceniev how I can best serve them. I will pray with more sincerity, asking Jesus how I can best serve Him here. I will risk more – nothing big screen, simply to make myself more selfless – less self, more for others...and to not apologize for my vocation and my faith in Christ.

These are my thoughts today. I see it is more journaling than letter-writing, oh well. Another time I will talk about the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of life here, like home remedies for a sore throat (my favorite was to “drink kerosene – not too much.”) That all makes for entertaining reading, but sometimes I need to remind myself that I’m not a travel writer. I need to get more deeply involved with the people’s lives here so I can tell you about them, and not just what I think about, abstractions.

Construction has started, finally, on the church, the walls are half up. I’ll try to attach a couple photos with this. I’m still raising $$ but I believe I have enough for the structure – thank you for all who have generously helped with this. The parishioners in Arceniev have been wonderful in welcoming me and doing their part to make their church a reality. They have prayed and waited 7 years for a priest and a church – finally their patient prayers are being answered! Please keep us in your prayers. I continue to pray for you and be grateful for the blessings of our friendship.

Love, Fr. John J

Christmas in Russia (part I)

Dear Family and Friends

I know you may find this hard to believe, but I had a white Christmas! Actually they call it "snowy Christmas" here. But it all started Christmas Eve with evening mass at our little church in Ussuriysk, followed by a "spectacle" i.e. Christmas play by the youth--I missed most of it however since I was getting ready to appear as Santa Claus at the end. You know you're getting older when they ask you to be Santa! Followed by dinner with all the parishioners, rather crowded but Russians are used to cramped quarters. To bed late and up late--Russian classes continue through the week since Orthodox Christmas isn't until Jan 7, but as much as I love studying Russian, I took the day off.

Christmas Day we friars had a relaxed brunch in our apartment, and then set off for the evening mass in Arceniev, a couple hours drive. But we stopped in Lubianka, a little village on the way, where a family had invited us for "tea." This turned out to be a banquet of Russian and Ukrainian dishes, all excellent--soup, salads, open-faced sandwiches of various fish, cheeses, meats, fruit, other baked and fried things I don't know the names of, 3 different types of, well, Russian ravioli, and of course torte (cake) with coffee and tea. I was sorry I had eaten breakfast and couldn't stuff down more. The family had put up a Christmas tree which took up about a quarter of the room (this is mostly a comment on the size of the room). We were definitely cozy.

Then to the other family we visit in Lubianka. I notice clothes hanging on the line, and wonder how long it takes to dry out there (especially since it is snowing). They have one room, a wood stove and electricity but no running water. They had a baby 2 weeks ago, Timofy (Russian doesn't have "th"). Last week our new bishop was visiting and he baptized the baby, with a priest (myself) and Sr. Areta as the only available godparents. (So don't be surprised if 60 years from now the Pope is from Lubianka.) We enter the house and greet the parents and 3 kids, but where is my godson? They point out the window. While the family is toasty warm inside, the 2 week old baby is bundled up outside in the sub-zero cold, getting snowed on. A typical Siberian practice I'm told--it's supposed to give the baby a hardy constitution to withstand the extreme cold. What do you think, Mom? Well, their other 3 kids seem to have survived O.K.... Grandma who lives next door wants to go to Arceniev with us, so we all pile in the car and continue on to Arceniev. She tells us a Russian should always carry 3 things for winter travel: matches, a hatchet, and big boots. We have none of these, but off we go.

There is more to tell . . . but I don't want to bore you, so stay tuned for part 2! Hope you all had a Merry Christmas and are enjoying the holidays,
love and prayers,
Fr. John :-)

(December, 2003)

Christmas in Russia (part II)

Dear Family and Friends--

O.K, where was I? Leaving the little village of Lubianka, a light snow, on our way to Christmas evening mass in Arceniev. Arceniev, by the way, was a "closed city" until recently, i.e. closed to foreigners, since there was a military helicopter factory there, now only sporadically operated for parts. Anyway...

I should mention that Fr. Dominic somehow lost his driver's license, so Sr. Areta is driving. Let's just say that she must have a whole fleet of guardian angels, all with big sandbags under their eyes from working so much overtime. A good time to pray the rosary, so I do, and we arrive safely in Arceniev. We have no church there, so Christmas mass is in an apartment, a cramped, drab room with an assortment of sofas, benches and chairs. But they have set up a manger scene, and paper decorations on the wall and a few Christmas lights, and while usually the place is inadequately heated, tonight it is bursting with warm hearts--typical for this "parish." Since I'm not up to celebrating mass in Russian yet, I help with music, playing Christmas carols on the keyboard. The volume on the keyboard fluctuates wildly without warning (a particular liability on "Silent Night"), but no one giggles or grimaces, they are grateful to have music with mass. After mass the youth, as in Ussuriysk, also put on a "spectacle"--I was not clear how the bunny fit in with the shepherds and wise men, well, perhaps if you have perfectly good bunny ears on hand you should use them. The kids do a fine job and afterwards, tea and torte and, I might add, very tasty pears.

It is a little after 9pm when we set out for home. We drop Grandma off in Lubianka, and a not far down the road we discover we have--a flat! Now we remember Grandma's warning about bringing matches (to start a fire), a hatchet (to chop wood), and big boots (to tramp through the snow). We don't even have a flashlight! But the snow has let up, there is no wind, and with the car lights on and the road bright with fresh snow, there is just enough ambient light to see what we're doing, change the tire, and thanks be to God we are back on the road in 20 minutes. I see a red fox dart across the road. Fr. Dominic recounts stories of snow camping as a young man in Korea. As we pull into Ussuriysk, he notes that there are few dogs in the streets--not because of the cold, but because the Chinese (and Korean) merchants moved in and, well, all that free food running around, what do you expect?

It is after midnight when we arrive back at the church--we had left Ussuriysk around 1pm, so it has taken us 11 hours to do Christmas mass in Arceniev. Our watch dog Linda (German shepherd puppy) greets us enthusiastically, and in the office I find 7 Christmas cards for me (mail was delivered today since this is not Orthodox Christmas). So Mel J, Floyd L, George & Josephine, Aunt Mike, David B, Gene & Karla, and Br. Tony -- perfect timing! And I've received several other cards before and since, thank you all! Fr. Dominic and I walk back to the apartment, have a snack, say our night prayers and thank God for the adventures and blessings of the day, and a safe return.

I think, some places it is not always clear that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. Here I experience not only adventures on the snowy road, but most of all sharing the joyful, uncluttered faith of the people whose lives are quickly being interwoven with mine. You may notice I did not dwell on Christmas mass--to be honest, I would rate it as rather tedious, since none of us Franciscans are fluent in Russian and our spoken parts are more akin to elementary reading lab than to quality liturgy. But it seems that the people know it is about Jesus, not us, so they patiently endure. We are grateful for each other, and for our Prince of Peace who unites us. God bless you all this holy season, and have a safe new year.

Love, Fr. John :-)

(December 2003)

Russian Washing Machine

Dear Family and Friends,

When it comes to laundry, I am spoiled. At the dorm the water is just this side of freezing, though of course I could boil water for washing things by hand. But at the friary, an apartment a couple blocks from the church, we have a washing machine. However I do not know how it works. I spent half an hour looking up the various words that appear on the buttons and dials, many of which are apparently specialized laundering terms that are not in my dictionary, so I asked the other Franciscan brothers, but they don't know how it works either. A wash cycle seems to take a minimum of a few hours, if it doesn't spontaneously stop at some point with flashing lights, then, one must start all over. I HAVE discovered that I can outsmart the machine on one point, when it tries to spin the clothes, the clothes are invariably not evenly distributed and the machine shudders and bucks and soon, it clunks to a stop with the familiar flashing lights. But if I sit on top of the machine, it cannot buck (only shudder), and so the cycle ends successfully. So one must be vigiliant, and be nearby ready to leap on top the machine between the shuddering and bucking stage.

One would think that in a country of sub-zero temperatures that dryers would be even more coveted than washers, but I have yet to see one. Perhaps they draw too much juice and trip the breakers. Hang drying out of doors is not so common this time of year, it sort of takes a while for ice-stiff clothes to evaporate dry--plus all that coal dust in the air, it's not really what you want coating your underwear. But with people's cramped apartments, hanging clothes indoors presents a real obstacle course. Then again, hang drying indoors has the advantage of adding a little moisture to the air, which can dry out with the constant radiator heat. So there is an advantage to everything. Life is grand.

If I don't write again before, Merry Christmas!
And a safe New Year.

Love and prayers, Fr. John J:-)

(December, 2003)


We were visiting a family in a small farming village one afternoon, and [one of the Fathers] got into a heated discussion with "Sonya" (in Russian, so he explained it to me afterwards). She moved here recently from another part of Russia, but things are not working out and she wants to return. But, no money, either to travel, or to get accommodations or, she hopes, to start a little business to support herself.

She is handicapped, an added difficulty. Her solution? She wants to sell one of her kidneys. She has heard that through the internet you can arrange this, and receive up to $50,000.00 dollars for a kidney, an enormous sum here. And [Father] is left trying to tell her that this is not the right thing to do, to auction off part of your body. It is both illegal and morally unacceptable, to cut out and sell off a part of the body God gave you, not out of sacrifice and love for another person but for manna. I agree with him. And I also sympathize with her.

Hers is a manifestation of the desperation of poverty. She has nothing, and is afraid for her future. She is willing to risk an illegal operation and the possible complications, and even consider compromising her faith, for a chance at a better earthly life, probably her only chance, realistically, to significantly change her situation, her fate.

I encountered this dilemma in India when I worked with the Missionaries of Charity among the desperately poor. I encountered it in Thailand, where parents would sell a daughter into prostitution, sometimes to slake their own addictions, but often to try to dig the rest of the family out of living meal to meal.

What to do? It is unconscionable, this sacrificing of the part to provide financial opportunity to the whole, but is it too easy for me to condemn this choice, me who will never be poor? I may say their faith is weak. Do I condemn someone for weak faith? If my faith is strong, can I take credit for that? What am I willing or able to do to give Sonya a different choice? There are many Sonyas. How will I help them? Who shall I help, and who shall I turn away? Ah, the missionary life. Ah, the life of each of us, if we look around the corner, perhaps not so far away to our neighbors on the street. As in the Tenderloin of San Francisco, where I worked for a year among the homeless. Amidst great wealth and power, both political and financial, are desperate poverty, desperate choices. What to do?

Fr. John,
First Sunday of Advent
Ussuriysk, Primordye Kray, Russia

(November 2003)

Driving in Russia

Dear Family and Friends

I have not activated my international driver's license yet, but here are a couple things I have to look forward to. One Russian traffic innovation is that not only do the traffic lights change from green to yellow to red, but also from red to yellow to green. I initially thought this was recipe for disaster, but my practical observation is, it is a great deterrent for people running red lights. When the green light turns yellow, the waiting cars start revving their engines and creeping forward, ready to charge at the first hint of green. This sufficiently intimidates the cars barreling through on green to stop on the first hint of yellow (thought, as everywhere, there is a grace period for big trucks). I walk the streets about an hour a day, and have only seen one vehicle run a light, a SUV with horn blaring, clearly on a higher mission.

Roads are not in great repair, particularly in the city, so cars are constantly swerving around potholes and larger washouts, open manholes, and various other obstacles. I think it must be difficult to distinguish the drunk drivers from those simply trying to preserve their shock absorbers. When a road is under construction, warning signs are minimal or non-existent, so drivers beware if the pavement suddenly ends.

Most of the vehicles are imported used from Japan, where one drives on the left, and so the steering wheel is on the right. However, Russians drive on the right, which means that the steering wheel is on the wrong side--a particular liability for passing. So it is handy to have someone riding shotgun (me, for instance) to peek around the truck ahead for a safe opportunity to pass. Russians are bold when it comes to passing. Fortunately most 2 lane roads have enough shoulder to accommodate the frequent miscalculations of fearlessly passing cars, and rarely does a horn blare, this is simply how it's done.

I haven't seen police on patrol; usually they are camped out at designated places on city outskirts, sometimes on a main boulevard or at a speed trap on a country road. Fr. Dominic was caught in one of these a couple weeks ago; we were on our way to mass in Arceniev. He was wearing his Franciscan habit, and the cop let him off with a warning. So it seems that while respect for priests has waned recently in the U.S, it is alive and well in Russia, at least among the highway patrol, who would guess?

I have been here about 6 weeks now, cramming my brain with new Russian words. I miss ministering as a priest (I'm basically a full time student), but it's something to look forward to again in the future once I can carry on a conversation. You are all in my thoughts and prayers,

Love, Fr. John :-)

(November, 2003)

I'm Going to Russia

Dear Family and Fellow Franciscans and Amigos--

Tomorrow night I go to Russia!

I got my visa last Friday, my ticket arrived on Monday and Wed night I'll be at the gate to fly to Seoul and on to Vladivostok, where I'll catch a ride to Ussuriysk.

No puedo creer que al fin mi sueno de ser misionero esta realizandose, hace dias recibi la visa rusa y el boleto para volar hasta Vladivostok, Siberia--manana a medianoche saldre de Los Angeles con otro fraile.

My visa is only for 3 months but I'm told I can renew it there. I'll be doing intensive Russian studies for the first several months and gradually see how I can make myself useful to the Franciscans there.

Voy a empezar estudiando el idioma ruso y despues ayudar como puedo con las obras franciscanas. Estoy muy emocionado como puedan imaginar.

I'll let you know how things are when I get there, mas noticias despues de llegar, que Dios te bendiga y pido humildemente tus oracions para esta nueva aventura, God bless and keep you and please keep me in your prayers.

Love, con mucho carino, Fr. John :-)

(September 2003)