According to Pope Francis, a priestly vocation is like a “diamond in the rough”, which needs to be “carefully polished with respect for the conscience of the candidates and with patience, so that they may shine among the People of God”. In the seminary of Mary, Queen of Apostles in Saint Petersburg, Russia there are six of these “rough diamonds”. One of them has come almost from the ends of the earth – from the Kamchatka Peninsula in the far east of Siberia, some 11 hours away by plane. Kamchatka belongs to the diocese of Irkutsk. Yevgeni studied tourism, and it was as a tour guide that he met a Catholic priest who became “an example for my life”. Later, in the army, he saw how many soldiers had lost all inner peace and were deprived of spiritual nourishment. He prayed with them, as he had learnt from his priest friend: the Our Father, the Rosary, the Creed. He felt God was calling him. “I could have done every possible thing in the Church”, he says, “but there is one thing that only the priest can do, namely forgive sins in the name of Christ and make Christ truly present in Holy Mass.” This is what he felt called to do. “By the grace of God, I am now the only seminarian from the largest diocese in the world”, he says. Gregor also felt the call. He was an electrical engineer and loved to party.
One morning, after a night’s heavy drinking, he was sitting on the bus, bleary-eyed and late for work – and worried that he would be fired for being late. Then he remembered his Bible, opened it and read: “… from now on you will be catching men…, they left everything and followed him” (Lk 5:10-11). But Gregor still hesitated, wanting to see a sign. A mishap atwork meant that his late arrival went unnoticed in the chaos. He took this as a sign and soon afterwards, Gregor was on his way to Saint Petersburg. Each of the six seminarians has his own story to tell, as have the six men who are preparing for the permanent diaconate. They all represent the latest chapter in a greater story, that of the seminary itself. Founded in 1879, and confiscated by the Bolsheviks in 1918, for decades it was used by Communists as an administrative building, then finally it was returned in a dilapidated state to the Catholic Church after the end of the Soviet Union by a decree signed by the then vice mayor, Vladimir Putin. It is more than a seminary, it is a place of profound symbolic importance, a historical treasure.
700 priests have passed through its doors, many died as martyrs, two have been proclaimed saints. Since it reopened in 1993, 64 priests have been ordained. A seminary is the heart of the diocese, as then Apostolic Adminstrator of Moscow, Bishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz once said, “This seminary is the heart of the Catholic Church in Russia.” In short, it is a treasure in need of renovation. We are contributing towards the cost, which will run into millions. We have also assumed the running costs of €79,000 per year for the entire complex. But they will decrease once the pilgrim house they are setting up opens its doors. “Mariya Tsaritsa Apostolov” – Mary, Queen of Apostles – is a symbol of religious freedom and the eternal youth of the Church. As Pope John Paul II said, it symbolises “the Springtime that blossoms from the hand of Providence”.