Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan, is taking a leading role in asserting the Church’s moral teaching in the face of various interpretations of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis’ summary document on the Synod on the Family, which some argue is undermining faith and morals.
On Dec. 31, he and two other Kazakh bishops issued a “Profession of Immutable Truths About Sacramental Marriage” stating that some bishops’ interpretations of the chapter, in particular on allowing Holy Communion for remarried divorcees not living in continence, are causing “rampant confusion,” will spread the “plague of divorce,” and are “alien” to the Church’s entire faith and Tradition.
The ordinaries, who have since been joined by five more bishops, reasserted the indissolubility of marriage and argued that such interpretations of Chapter 8 are tantamount to a “kind of introduction of divorce in the life of the Church.”
Bishop Schneider, who grew up under Soviet communism that persecuted the Church, developed a deep devotion to the Eucharist and has become well-known for his fervor in defending the truth of the faith in the face of ever-growing moral relativism.
Born in Soviet Kyrgyzstan in 1961 to ethnic German parents, he discovered he had a vocation to the priesthood at the age of 12 and made his profession in the religious order Canons Regular of the Holy Cross of Coimbra at the age of 20. Ordained in 1990 in Brazil, he obtained a doctorate in patristics and was sent to Kazakhstan to help set up a seminary there. Benedict XVI appointed him auxiliary bishop of the Kazakh Archdiocese of Karaganda in 2006; he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Astana in 2011.
In this exclusive Jan. 11 email interview with the Register, Bishop Schneider expands on his devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist, explains why he’s so opposed to Communion in the hand, and addresses today’s crisis in the Church, which he sees primarily as a “practical denial of the supernatural world” due to placing man rather than God at the center of the Church’s life and liturgy.
Your Excellency, you’ve written much about the Eucharist, particularly your book Dominus Est. Why did you write that book?
I wrote that book because of the sad phenomenon of the praxis of the so-called “Communion in hand,” a praxis which demonstrably and undeniably causes a banalization of the Most Holy Eucharist — a banalization which borders on profanation and which takes place before the eyes of all in the vast majority of Catholic churches around the world, with the exception of a few regions and dioceses. It is proven that such a praxis never existed in the Catholic Church, and it has nothing to do with an analogous praxis in the first centuries. One has to unmask this myth and this falsification. This modern praxis with its concrete gestures was, indeed, invented in Calvinist communities and did not exist even in the Lutheran tradition.
Secondary causes for me writing my book are the following two unforgettable experiences in my life: When in 1973 my family left the Soviet Union — we were living in Estonia — our parish priest, Rev. Father Janis Pavlovskis, of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, a confessor who suffered in the Stalinist gulags, said to us: “When you will come to Germany, please do not enter churches where Holy Communion is given in hand.” My parents and we four children (we were adolescents) looked at each other and were profoundly shocked, and my parents said spontaneously: “How horrible is this!” None of us could imagine that the Eucharistic Lord, the Holy of Holies, could be treated in such a banal manner, and we promised to our holy confessor priest not to enter such churches. When we then arrived in Germany, my parents tried to avoid those churches where Holy Communion was given in hand.
However, in our town in Germany and in its surroundings, Holy Communion was everywhere given in hand. One day when we came home after a Sunday Mass, my mother turned to us and said with tears in her eyes: “Oh, my children, I cannot understand how people can treat Our Lord in such a horrible manner!” Since the age of 12, I carried in my soul this pain, and I could not understand how people can treat Our Lord in such a careless manner. The admonition of a martyr priest, who gave me my first Holy Communion, the tears of my mother and my own experience urged me to write this book in order to raise a voice for the defense of the Eucharistic Lord, who became in our days the most poor, the most fragile and the most defenseless in the consecrated Host.
How much did living under communism affect your faith?
The Catholic faith could be transmitted only in the families by the parents and grandparents. They imbued us children with the crystal-clear, concrete and beautiful Catholic faith of all ages, which they themselves received from their parents and grandparents. In the midst of a hostile world, which persecuted Christian faith and publicly vilified it, the houses of a Catholic family were a kind of a catacomb with a living faith. It was an unforgettable experience for me: the daily family prayers, the Sunday prayers in the absence of a priest — this all was done behind closed doors and curtains.
We had to live several years without having the possibility of Holy Mass and confession, because the priests were imprisoned or exiled. Yet we longed every day for Holy Communion and oftentimes made acts of contrition. We could feel how the Lord visited us with his graces even in the absence of a priest. Then, when unexpectedly a priest secretly arrived, confessed us and celebrated Holy Mass, it was a real feast, which gave us much strength and joy. When I was already a priest and was studying in Rome in the 1990s, one day my mother called me from Germany, and with heartfelt pain and crying she said: “I am tired of assisting irreverent and banal Masses. I prefer to return to the clandestine Church in the communist time, where we had reverent Masses and holy priests.”
Generally speaking, what are your greatest concerns about the Church today, especially in the West? Some Catholics are questioning the Second Vatican Council, or, rather, the interpretation of it. Is this a cause of the crisis, in your view?
My greatest concern about the Church today is the fact that on a large scale there is a process — already started with the Second Vatican Council — of a “conformation to the world,” against which the apostles and the Fathers of the Church have already warned: “Do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). There is, since the Second Vatican Council, a clearly articulated tendency to please the world. When clergy start to please the world, they are in danger of becoming false prophets, of which St. John the Apostle spoke: “They belong to the world; accordingly, their teaching belongs to the world, and the world listens to them.” (1 John 4:5). The desire to speak as the world likes, or to speak in order to win the world’s sympathy, or not to be marginalized or persecuted by the world, reveals itself indeed as an inferiority complex.
The greatest spiritual danger of the Church today manifests itself in anthropocentrism, and anthropocentrism is the decisive step to idolatry. The anthropocentrism in the life of the Church expresses itself mainly, and in a very visual manner, in the renewed liturgy after the Council (even though the shape of the reformed liturgy is against the very intentions of the Council Fathers and does not conform with the text of Sacrosanctum Concilium itself). The spirit of the world and anthropocentrism express naturalism. It is almost always a theoretical and always a practical denial of the supernatural. The weakening or practical denial of the supernatural world, the world of faith and of divine grace, creates necessarily the primacy of man-fabricated activism, the heresy of activism, a kind of Neo-Pelagianism and man-fabricated doctrines, and this is Gnosticism. The life of the Church today is deeply wounded by naturalism, i.e., by Neo-Pelagianism and by Neo-Gnosticism.
How would you, in general terms, like to see the Church reformed?
The remedy is to break with the complex of inferiority toward the world, to put Christ really in the center of every detail in the liturgy of the Mass, to proclaim Christ truly incarnated, Christ crucified, Christ living and reigning in his hidden Divine Majesty in the Eucharist, Christ the King of every man and of every human society. The clergy, and especially bishops and priests, have to take up again the method of the apostles: the primacy of prayer (and the prayer par excellence is the liturgy of the Holy Mass) and the ministry of the Word, i.e., the fearless proclamation of the uniqueness of Christ as the only Savior of mankind, mindful of the words of the apostles: “We, however, will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). Very concrete and efficacious means to implement the reform in life are the fostering of large Catholic families and the formation of zealous, virtuous and pious priests with the spirit of the apostles.
On the “Profession” regarding sacramental marriage, why did you sign it? Is it meant as a kind of correction of Pope Francis, and what do you say to those who think such an act is divisive?
The spread of pastoral norms, which provide that in individual cases persons may receive Holy Communion while continuing to live habitually and intentionally more uxorio [engaging in sexual relations] with a person who is not their legitimate spouse, has caused a considerable and ever-increasing confusion among the faithful and the clergy. It is a confusion that touches the central manifestations of the life of the Church, such as sacramental marriage and the Most Holy Eucharist. Since such norms were approved even by Pope Francis, we were aware of our grave responsibility and our duty before the faithful, who await from us a public and unequivocal profession of the truth and the immutable discipline of the Church regarding the indissolubility of marriage.
When there is a common spiritual danger in the life of the Church, the bishops have the duty to raise their voice; otherwise, they would be guilty of conniving with the error. The office of the Pope is not that of a dictator, toward whom nobody dares to express, either privately or publicly, a well-founded concern. The bishops are brothers and colleagues of the Pope. Christ warned especially Peter, his vicar on earth, to avoid a behavior toward the other brothers in the apostolic ministry which is characteristic of the powerful of this world: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you” (Matthew 20:26-26). Our public act of “profession of truths” is meant to be a true help for the Pope, so that he himself and the entire Church, with all the bishops and the faithful, may seriously reflect again on the danger of the mentioned pastoral norms, which undeniably weaken the uncompromised witness of the Church about the indissolubility of marriage, and to reflect also about the duty of the Church to avoid the least shadow of doubt as to a practical collaboration with the spread of the “plague of divorce.”
We are sincerely convinced that history will prove us right and that the Pope himself will be grateful to us when he will appear before the judgment of Christ. Those in the Church who promote a sacramental practice which ultimately approves — even indirectly and in individual cases — divorce create division and separate themselves from the word of Christ and from the bi-millennial practice of the Church. The Church, for 2,000 years, always and everywhere unambiguously forbade people to receive Holy Communion while they lived more uxorio with a person who was not their legitimate spouse and who, at the same time, publicly formalized such a nonmarital union and had no firm intention to stop such sexual relations. Since this universal practice of the Church touched an essential point of the sacraments, it has to be considered as irreformable.