With God in the Russian Mission: Q&A with Father Anthony Corcoran, S.J.

Father Anthony Corcoran, S.J., is an American Jesuit priest based in Moscow who is the regional superior of all Jesuits currently working in the Russian Republic and surrounding countries. He assumed this post in 2008, when his predecessor and another Jesuit were murdered in Moscow. As a young Jesuit, he first went to Siberia as a missionary shortly after the fall of communism.

Although several Jesuits worked underground during the Soviet era, and many others were victims of the Soviet regime’s anti-religious policy, the Society of Jesus now operates openly there. Today Jesuits of the Russian Region work in five countries of the former Soviet Union: Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

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In Russia the Society directs a small Institute of Theology, a pre-seminary for candidates to the priesthood, a spirituality center, a library and cultural center in Siberia, and an Arts and Cultural Center in Moscow—which is in its third year of existence and strives to bring Catholic, Russian Orthodox, and other photographers and artists together to work on exhibits concerning issues like freedom, the meaning of death, and fatherhood.

In the former Central Asian republics the Jesuits operate mission parishes, a center for youth, camps, retreats, work with handicapped children, and teach foreign languages. In Belarus, where the Society historically played an important role in the formation of education, there are two Jesuits involved in pastoral ministry. In Ukraine, Jesuits run a house where the Spiritual Exercises are offered, as well as two parishes and a home for refugees, who come mostly from the Kavkaz region and from different countries in the Mid-East. 

On July 29, I conducted the following interview with Father Corcoran by email.

Has there been an official resolution to the Moscow police investigation of your predecessor’s murder?

A man was found guilty of the murder of one of the Jesuits and is currently serving a prison sentence for this murder.

The former Soviet Union is primarily an Orthodox Christian population. Who are the people you serve?

In our work in education, people from different nationalities and religions participate; however, the majority of our students and professors are Russian Orthodox.  In Southern Kyrgyzstan, most of the people with physical or mental challenges our Jesuits and lay volunteers assist, as well as the majority of students participating in youth camps or who study foreign languages with us, are Muslims. 

The vast majority of Catholics in Russia have parents or grandparents with Polish, Volga-German, Ukrainian, or Lithuanian roots.  We primarily serve these people in our pastoral ministry. 

What is the goal of our Jesuit ministries in Russia?

We strive to serve with the same goals, or priorities, with which the Society of Jesus everywhere serves.  

Our Jesuits work in the intellectual apostolate, in pastoral and social ministries, and in the apostolate of the Spiritual Exercises. I don’t want to exaggerate the scale of our work here—we are very few in this area and our works are limited. Still, we are committed to be present and do strive to deepen the quality of these works. Really, St. Ignatius’ passion for finding the best method of offering various “ministries of consolation” should be our defining character here. And, of course, there is no limit to the possibilities to serve in these ministries, if we remain focused on what—or Who—is at the heart of this vocation.  

Ecumenical relationships between Russian Orthodoxy and Catholicism have been delicate in the past. How are they right now?

When we speak of our relationship with Russian Orthodox, we begin by reminding ourselves and others that the overwhelming majority of Russians consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians. (I recently read a statistic that places this number at around 70 percent of the overall population.) This means that most of our day-to-day interactions are with Orthodox Christians.  As well, even our Catholic parishioners, students, and lay colleagues are more often than not part of families that are “mixed.” 

The more “global” ecumenical meetings and conferences occur at a “higher” level—between leaders of both churches. Although we are not involved in these more official discussions, we have experienced solid and open interaction with several priests and with members of the Patriarchate’s office for External Affairs.  Furthermore, the quality of interaction with Orthodox academicians at our Institute has been good. In fact, the majority of our students and professors are Russian Orthodox. Additionally, in Novosibirsk and Moscow we sponsor different cultural and academic activities and conferences in which Orthodox and others participate.

On a larger scale, the reality of the relationship between our churches often reflects the dynamic at work in various social and political events occurring in this territory.  We experience moments of progress as well as undergo very difficult periods. As you have read, the recent increase in tensions between Russia and Ukraine has strained dialogue between the churches. 

My own conviction is that we must always remain open and committed to search for ways to improve this relationship at whatever level or in whatever conditions we find ourselves.  The virtue of hope is vital here and, as we all learned when studying catechism as children, hope—like any virtue—with God’s help can develop both when it is easy to practice and even more vigorously when it is challenged.  For me it is also important to remember that hope is not mere optimism.  Of course, pessimism is not a valid option for followers of Christ. If Christ desires (and even insisted upon) unity among His followers, it is obvious that unity can and will come about.  Fuller unity will happen when it is planted in our hearts and grows through concrete, direct relationships. Our task is to endeavor to find ways through which our prayers, lives and apostolic works serve, in some humble manner, as a bridge.

News reports sometime depict Russian Orthodox protesters at Catholic services, suggesting an ongoing fear of Catholic proselytism. Have you had many converts from Russian Orthodoxy to Catholicism?

I have not heard of recent protests at Catholic services, but I do know that they occurred in 2002 in various places.

Our aim is not to convert “the converted,” especially from Orthodox Christianity.   We live in a country where most people consider themselves to be Russian Orthodox. 

What are some signs of hope in our Jesuit ministries in the Russian region?

We continue to serve concrete people. 

Even if we are few and our strength and capacity to serve limited, God works.

What strikes me is the continued interest by some in genuine dialogue on the intellectual and cultural level, the request for the pastoral “approach” that the Society can provide, and an obvious desire for the Spiritual ministries of the Society—the Spiritual Exercises, Sacramental ministry, preaching, spiritual direction. 

What are some challenges for our Jesuit ministries right now?

Besides the challenges confronted by Jesuits and our colleagues everywhere… we live and serve in an area that continues to experience dramatic shifts in the religious, economic, social, political landscape.  It seems that all of the major social tensions erupting from ideologies of the 20th and 21st centuries have played out with a special intensity in this territory.

Several decades of state-imposed policies of aggressive atheism resulted in a truly wounded society. Likewise, here—as elsewhere—the two most recent decades of exposure to a highly globalized and often uncontrolled free-market economic system, with little sense of social responsibility, continues to inflict damage. The observation of many is that these systems have bred a cynicism and skepticism in modern human society and in the hearts of many individuals.  Of course, reflection on this dynamic is clearly developed and articulated in the church’s social teaching.

Ministering in such an environment is especially challenging.

The current prayer intentions of the Russian Region Jesuits include peace between the peoples of Ukraine and Russia. How has the recent tension between those two countries affected our Jesuit works and the lives of the people we serve?

It is not possible to remain unaffected by these events. War always tears through the hearts and souls and lives of concrete people and their families. The well-known, recent events that have transpired in the territory of Ukraine between Russia and Ukraine have strongly affected not only relations between these countries, but have given rise to severe struggles, temptations, anger, hatred and sometimes despair. Our works are not immediately impacted; however, the societies in which we serve experience great pain and upheaval. There is no way for the Church not to be affected by this.

What thoughts do you have on being an American in Russia at this particular time in history?

It is hard not to mention the tension between my home country and some of the nations in this part of the world. People often ask me how it feels to be an American living and serving in Russia, at this particularly complex episode in the relationship between these countries.  

In fact, it is a challenging and, yet, remarkable time to live here.

Of course, there is much that I still do not know or understand about the societies in the countries where we serve.  However, I have come to appreciate the strength of these people.  It is obvious to me that we have much more in common with each other than we realize.  There is much about these people and societies that has not been sufficiently valued elsewhere.  This has resulted in a growing sense of frustration and suspicion here about the intentions behind and value of western “ideals."  This dynamic threatens to leave these people especially vulnerable to manipulation and willing to adopt ideologies inspired, at least in part, by anti-western sentiment. 

The result of the policies that emerge out of one-sided relations cannot prove very authentic or effective.  (I am not speaking here of foreign policy concerning the current conflict in Ukraine.)  For example, I am not sure that we, as Americans, have ever really expended the effort to listen to what Russians might offer or desire.  In my own observation, we, like most, often presume that we are correct and embody some mark of objectivity.  This is too costly of a mistake for such a powerful nation to make in such a globally intricate world.  Of course, there is so much that is enviable about the remarkable history and society of the United States.  However, only a  much deeper reflection through seeking to understand the needs and desires of this and other societies (a more humble/realistic approach?) will help resolve the current tensions, make what American society can offer legitimate and attractive in the eyes of these people, and serve to empower the best elements in their societies.

Working as a missionary in another country is typically a strain on our men, requiring continual adaptation to differences of language and culture, as well as tremendous energy in being present to people in this context. What helps you cope with all that?

I love the people here. This is nothing that I could have managed to achieve by my own efforts—it has emerged from living and traveling throughout this area over the past seventeen years—since the year after my ordination. This makes everything more than worthwhile.  Even though I am no idealist about these—or any—people, I sometimes reflect upon what they have survived.  Many of them are living proof of the ultimate victory of the human heart—of grace.  There is a resilience of the human heart that is hard to describe.

I remember hearing somewhere that the people of God “pull the priesthood out” of one called to this life. It is a striking image for me. I am conscious of the amazing privilege of serving almost my entire priesthood with these people. There is no way that being formed by them does not help in making this transition between cultures possible.

As Fr. General has stressed, depth in our vocations can only come about if we sustain an ongoing commitment to three essential aspects of our lives: a constant endeavor to keep an active relationship with Christ in prayer, diligence in work, and rest/renewal. Striving to keep this balance—even if not always successfully—is helpful.

As well, living with people of faith who also have a good sense of humor has proven vital for navigating the many complex moments of these years.

As an American Jesuit overseeing Catholic works in the former Soviet Union, you are often on the go, traveling to remote areas. How do you pray?

As you say, I spend much of my time on the road.  At best, life feels like sort of a pilgrimage. However, it is always a struggle to keep the necessary balance between flexibility and retaining a commitment to holding on to structure in daily life.  When I am “home,” in Moscow, prayer-life can be structured more consistently: the place, the time, the approach.  Often, travel here happens overnight—in planes or by train—or throughout varied terrain by car.  It is common for me to change time zones several times in the space of a month. However, the longer I travel the more I feel the need to discover a way to spend more, not less, time and focus in prayer. I often think of St. Teresa’s advice that fundamental to a fruitful prayer life is the commitment to “keep at it.” Fortunately, God “keeps at it” in trying to find us; I find this consoling to remember. 

I also find it helpful, when on the road, to grasp at any reminder God sends to pray. For example, in many of the towns I visit in Central Asia, Muslim prayers are loudly broadcast throughout the area by loudspeakers five times each day from the local Mosques. I try and unite my prayers with theirs at these times.

Of course, for those trained by Saint Ignatius, the spirituality of the daily examen, of searching—often, on the move—until we find God in all things, shapes prayer and entails a willingness to let it be shaped by the real events in which we find ourselves…including, probably, even jet lag, different physical conditions, and long travel.  Obviously, this is a challenge which is ongoing and which I have not yet managed to perfect.

Has your relationship with God changed since you first went to Russia several years ago?

I hope that I have deepened in trust in God’s remarkable faithfulness…really, in Providence, that everything is infused with God’s great desire to bring more life, salvation. This is not to say that there aren’t times when it is really difficult for me to sense this presence or to understand God’s design. Despite this weakness on my part, it would be terribly ungrateful and self-centered—even blind—of me not to become more aware of this Presence when I have been able to experience so much confirmation of God’s active concern during these past years here.

Who are the people, living or dead, who sustain your faith as you work in Russia?

I draw strength from many people: my Jesuit brothers, my family and friends, parishioners and others whom I have met along the way. 

It is remarkable that we who serve in the Russian Region come from scores of different countries, out of different models of formation and cultures; nevertheless, we serve together. These are generous men and this realization always humbles me.

Examples of Jesuits who serve and have served so faithfully encourage and inspire me.  It is not possible for me not to mention Fr. Walter Ciszek, St. Peter Favre—as well as the many lesser known Jesuits who lived their lives with a generosity that flowed from a passion for Christ and the people He loves.

The remarkable faith of those Christians—laity, clergy and religious—who kept their faith during the persecution here as elsewhere—humbles and inspires me.  Really, I think that it is impossible not to be inspired when you meet someone who has a vigorous love for Christ and who can’t help but need to share this love. 

Do you have any hopes for the future of our work in Russia?

Of course, only God knows what the future holds. However, I think our task is to deepen the quality and focus of our service here.  We need to continue to offer “neutral,” creative, and attractive spaces for dialogue, for learning, for praying.  I often think about how, just as those heroes of faith who lived in these lands gave what they had with an endurance, resilience and faithfulness that make our work today possible, our task is to continue to serve faithfully for the sake of not only this, but the next, generation.   

Fortunately, it is not our task (or within our power) to save…Christ is doing that.  It isn’t even our burden to create a need or desire for Him; as Christians we believe that this is intrinsic to each human soul and heart—no matter how much this desire can seem silenced by other concerns, wounds, or desires. The fruitfulness of our works here depends both on the depth of this conviction in the power of grace and in our own sweat, labor and concern. I think that it is all of our hope that the future of our work testifies to a solid foundation—set through the work and prayers of the Jesuits and our colleagues who serve in this territory today.

Any last thoughts?

Only to thank those who pray for us and who support us. This means very much to us and to the people we serve, and we are truly grateful. We ask for your continued prayers and support, that we can remain faithful to our call to serve here—at this fascinating and challenging time in this amazing territory.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.

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