An afternoon with Bishop Athanasius Schneider proved to be an extraordinary adventure into his childhood.
I happened to be visiting a friend in Dundee yesterday, and attended a lecture and Solemn Pontifical Mass said by Bishop Athanasius Schneider, one of the leaders in the Church defending the true faith.
The first part of his talk was on the importance of the family and how vocations usually come out of large, devout Catholic families. However, this information he has shared in other talks. I would like to share the interesting elements of his own life of which he spoke so eloquently to the group of about fifty people. I enclose photos of the Mass for your enjoyment.
Bishop Schneider related the importance of family life surrounded by the rosary and constant prayer in a remarkable manner. His own experience reveals an intense suffering, yet faithful family life under the Communists. He was born in Tokmok, Kirghiz, in 1961, at a time when the Soviet Union demanded that no Catholic public worship could be held, no new religious buildings could be built, and that all priests were banned from the area. In other words, the Schneider family, one of many German families living in Kirghiz, who were mainly Catholic, who had come from the Ukraine, specifically, Odessa, were living under persecution. HIs own ancestry can be traced back to Alsace-Lorraine. These families, including that of the Schneiders, could not get to Mass or receive the sacraments for a year to two years, until a visiting priest, such as Jesuit one who came underground from Lithuania, could come to the mountainous area.
The Bishop emphasised that is was the “domestic Church” which taught him his Faith and encouraged him to keep it. This experience also gave him an insight into the future persecutions, as Bishop Schneider is insistent on preaching the need for solid, Catholic families.
Bishop Schneider spoke of the need for parents to know well their catechism. He grew up with the 19th century German catechism, which I have seen, as my grandmother was also raised with this catechism. Bishop Schneider’s mother had to baptise baby Anton, and as she was not sure whether she did it correctly out of an old book, she asked her husband if she had done it correctly. He answered that he wasn’t sure, so she repeated it. Later, Bishop Schneider said he was again baptised by the Jesuit priest who visited the underground Catholic families, and re- baptised all those children who were baptised by their parents. The Bishop laughed that he was baptised three times.
However, it was stories of his grandmother which inspired many of us listening to his stories. He told us that the greatest gift of his life, even much greater than his gift of the priesthood or the episcopacy, was the gift of the Catholic Faith, passed down, like his mother’s milk, as he noted.
Catholics in the generation before young Anton Schneider had been openly killed. His own grandfather had been taken at night and killed with many men in the area. That man was only 27 at the time of his martyrdom in 1937, martyred indeed, as the only reason why these men were killed was that they were Catholics. His grandmother, 25 at the time of this murder, had to take over the raising of the family in a Catholic home culture. One example of her bravery was facing the Soviet police who were going house to house and demanding the removal of all religious items, such as Sacred Heart pictures and statues. This was the law. Grandmother stood up to the policeman who stood in her house and who was about to rip down one of her pious pictures. She said to him, “You did not put that picture up and you have not right to take it down. The policeman backed down.
The Bishop reiterated that the goal of the Soviets was to destroy the Catholic Faith. Grandmother Schneider had supernatural courage, the Bishop told us, and related another amazing story where his grandmother was protected by God. All Catholics had to work on Sunday in the fields. Again, this was an attempt to destroy the piety of keeping holy the Sabbath Day. Grandmother refused, and when the police ordered her to do so, she replied, “You can kill me. I will not work on Sunday.”
She was granted a miracle of protection, Bishop Schneider said, as those policemen also backed down and let her abstain from work on Sunday.
The Bishop’s own parents continued with pious devotions in order to pass on the Faith to their children. His mother taught them the catechism diligently. The family continued to pray every Sunday and have worship in the house, in the domestic Church. They said the rosary, made the Act of Contrition, said litanies, and made Spiritual Communions, as they could not get to Mass. They were taught never to commit a mortal sin, especially as they were denied regular access to Confession. Imagine only having Mass once every three months or longer and having no ability to get to Confession! “We received many graces,” the Bishop stated.
In fact, it was also forbidden to celebrate Christmas when Bishop Schneider was a boy. He remembered that his parents invited all the German Catholics to their house on Christmas Eve for prayers. Christmas Day was a day of work and going to school by law. The chief of police actually lived right across the streets from them. Little Anton Schneider’s father went and explained to the chief of police that they would have prayer in their home for Christmas. The police chief told him that no policemen would come and interrupt the home service. Again, God was protecting the family. The police chief protected them as well. The house was crowded with German worshippers every Christmas Eve.
Finally, the German Catholics could emigrate to Estonia in order to be repatriated in Germany. First, the family went to Tartu, Estonia. When they first moved there, the family was delighted to have a Mass so close to them, a mere 70 miles away. They would take the train on this a long journey every Sunday, and there, little Anton Schneider made his First Holy Communion. Because the wait for the train back to Tartu was four hours, the priest, weekly, invited the Schneider family to his room where they talked of the Faith. This impressed the boy, as this priest, from Latvia, was very holy. “He radiated holiness,” the Bishop stated. During this time, Anton asked his mother what one had to do to become a priest. Anton was curious. Bishop Schneider recalled his mother saying, “In order to become a priest, it is necessary that God calls.” The young lad looked up to heaven to hear a call. But, there was no voice. “I never asked my mother or anyone else on how to become a priest,” Bishop Schneider noted. But, eventually he heard that call.
The family made their escape and settled in Rottweil in West Germany. Anton Schneider and his family came to Germany on the Feast of Our Lady, October 13, 1973. There, he could be an altar boy. He was twelve and a half. While serving Mass, he began to get “a feeling in my soul that I had to become a priest,” he said.
One must remember that Bishop Schneider was educated in the atheistic school system. He even remembers having to learn propaganda songs, such as “I have not met Stain, but I love him” as a little child. The atheism had to be combated by the Faith of the family, The Bishop stated, “We did not let ourselves be contaminated.”
His house was a centre of the clandestine Church, and the children learned great reverence for the Eucharist, even though they could not receive often while in Kirghiz. The children learned the truths of the Catholic Church through the mother’s instruction.
I think that these memories should encourage us today to be more responsible about sharing the Faith with children and teens. The flourishing, dynamic underground Church sadly ended when the Germans left to go back to Germany. A small group stayed and now the Church is growing in the Bishop’s area. He told us that there are some Muslim converts, who share how happy they are to have found Jesus Christ. “He is our Saviour,” they tell the Bishop.
The miracles of Bishop Schneider’s boyhood, the heroic holiness of his grandmother, the watchful education of his parents, especially his mother, and the holy priests he met during these times of persecution, formed him into the spiritual warrior which he is today. Bishop Schneider is the General Secretary of the Bishop’s Conference in Kazakhstan and an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Astana.
By Jamie Hunter