MOSCOW (ChurchMilitant.com) - The Vatican has appointed its first Russian bishop since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, even as new government regulations are complicating the work of the Catholic Church in the country, leading some to wonder if the Faith will grow or shrink.
On Thursday, the Holy See appointed Fr. Nicolai Dubinin auxiliary bishop to the archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow. Born in Novoshakhtinsk, Rostov Oblast, Russia on the Ukrainian border, Dubinin's episcopal ordination will take place on Oct. 4.
The appointment is historic. Though the collapse of communism paved the way for the establishment of regions of apostolic administration — and eventually dioceses —across Russia, before Dubinin, none of the appointed apostolic administrators or bishops had been a Russian national.
Dubinin comes from the first group of seminarians who entered Moscow's Mary Queen of the Apostles major seminary when it opened in 1993. He will assist Italian-born archbishop Paolo Pezzi in overseeing the Moscow archdiocese, the metropolitan archdiocese over the three dioceses covering the whole of Russia.
The appointment comes in the wake of a new Russian bill that forbids foreign-taught religious leaders from activity in religious groups. According to Article 7 of the federal law titled "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations," Russians and "other people who live permanently and legitimately on the territory of Russia" alone may be active in religious groups, defined as a "union of people who profess the same faith, who do not require state registration."
According to AsiaNews.it, an explanatory note states the new law "will make it impossible for priests or religious personnel who have received religious education abroad to spread extremist religious ideologies." The report adds the "ban will create difficulties for Muslim preachers and Protestant pastors, but also for Catholic priests, among whom there are still many foreign missionaries, who are struggling to obtain permanent residence permits."
While Catholics and Russian Orthodox generally share good relations, the law complicates matters for foreign missionaries, especially since long-term and permanent residency is difficult to obtain. The first wave of Russians ordained to the Catholic priesthood occurred in 1999, meaning there are currently not enough local priests to minister to the nearly 140,000 Catholics across the country.
Russia's first Catholic diocese (Smolensk) was established in 1636. The Smolensk diocese covered all of Russia until Catherine II, known as "the Great" in many history books, established the Mohilev archdiocese without papal permission. But Pope Pius VI recognized the Mohilev archdiocese in 1783.
Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, there were two dioceses in Russia, namely, Mohilev situated in St. Petersburg and Tiraspol situated in Saratov.
During the Soviet Union's 69 years of existence, many Catholics were persecuted, imprisoned and killed.
After the fall of the communist State, approximately half a million Catholics remained in Russia. In the past three decades, most have died or emigrated to their ethnic homelands, reducing the current number of Catholics to roughly 140,000 — just 0.1% of the country's population.