Sunday, April 20, 2008

Friar John Gibbons: Rushing Back to Russia

Let’s face it. There are some people we’d all like to ship off to Siberia for a long, long time. Conversely, there are a very few people in this world who would think about going there voluntarily. Our brother, John Gibbons, belongs to the latter category. John, 45, a Franciscan priest of our province originally from the Portland, Oregon area, has actually spent more than four and a half years in Siberia already. He volunteered as part of the Russian Federation (St. Francis Foundation) project, a special international effort established by the Franciscans to serve the Roman Catholic community in the former Soviet Union and to implant the order in both Russia and Kazakhstan. Now he’s about to move again.

I met John this week while he was home briefly on a furlough from his assignment at Annunciation Parish in Arceniev, Siberia, about nine time zones east of Moscow. John was home for a few weeks of r&r to see friars, family and friends, renew his visa, and shift gears for his new assignment on the other side of Russia, as formation director in St. Petersburg.

I asked John how it felt to live in Russia so far, how it was to leave his first assignment, and what he looked forward to in his new ministry. “First of all, “ he said, “it took me about three full years to really get grounded in the Russian language and to know my way around things culturally.” John spent two of those years studying Russian intensively, establishing a solid foundation linguistically with the hope of spending his life ministering to the Russian people. Even though he is a seasoned pilgrim and polyglot— previous sojourns include stays in India, Thailand, and Guatemala—John has had to deal with the demands of cultural adaptation: “The culture shock sometimes comes and goes. It just sneaks up and hits you at odd moments at first”—but now he feels much more at home. Establishing contacts and friendships among the friars and in the community have eased the transition. An enthusiasm for winter sports like skiing and ice skating has helped as well. According to John, however, language, food, and climate are a piece of cake compared with the dubious pleasures of dealing with Russian bureaucracy—layer upon layer upon layer of mind-boggling and frustrating complexity— a carryover from centuries of Tsarist tyranny followed by Communist rule.

It is exactly this perplexing bureaucracy that John has been learned to negotiate successfully during his Siberian sojourn. A spanking new church of The Annunciation in Arceniev, where he served as pastor, stands as eloquent testimony to both the tenacity of the friars and the generosity of Russian parishioners and international donors. The parish serves a small, but very special community of Roman Catholics—in the main, descendants of traditionally Catholic ethnic minorities (Poles, Lithuanians, Ukranians, ethnic Germans) packed off to permanent exile during the Stalinist era. For decades, the Church was underground and the faith was passed on by the babushkas/ grandmas in the absence of clergy.

John reflects on the change in assignment with a sense of equanimity tinged with a bit of sadness at leave-taking: “I had to leave Siberia just after the intensity of Holy Week and Easter liturgies. On top of that, you can imagine how it felt to leave people you come to know and like and love so much.” “But”, he grins and shrugs good naturedly, “It’s all for the sake of the Gospel and the good of the Order!”

John’s new assignment is as formation director for the Franciscan community in the Russian Federation. He will be joining six other friars in the St. Petersburg fraternity, three of whom are students. The students, by the way, are all ethnic Russians who have recently completed their novitiate in Italy. Russian is the lingua franca in this international community, whose members also staff the Franciscan parish of the Sacred Heart, and are involved in varying degrees in social work in the St. Petersburg metropolitan area. “I have no idea of what lies ahead,” John says, but he also states that he feels hopeful and optimistic about his new assignment. A ministry of presence and service is the priority of the Franciscan mission, not proselytism: “Our work is to establish a presence and support for the Roman Catholic community which is already here, but was severely persecuted under Communism,” he stresses. The friars, he emphasizes, are not in competition with our Orthodox brethren. Ideally, John would like to work himself out of a job: “Our ultimate goal is to have Russian priests, brothers, sisters, and lay leaders serving the Russian Catholic community.”

The project of the St. Francis Foundation is one of several international endeavors established by the Order. Others include our Africa Project as well as the Custody of the Holy Land. Although many of the more than 100 Franciscan provinces throughout the world sponsor their own mission efforts, these projects are open to friars regardless of their province or country of origin. Another of our confreres, Father David Gaa, is presently in Kazakhstan. In addition, two friars of the Province of St. Barbara are currently serving in the Holy Land. And in the past, we have had representation in the Africa Project as well.
God go with you, John, in your new assignment! And “благодарю!”


Nona said...

People should read this.

Jim said...

Excellent article, thanks for posting it. I was with John in the pre-Novitiate in Portland, OR 21 years ago. It's a real blessing to see where God has led him.

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