Victor Khroul is the director of the Information Center of the Catholic Bishops of Russia, the editor of a Catholic weekly, Svet Evangelia ("The Light of the Gospel") and a journalism professor in Moscow. He recently attended a communications conference at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, where he participated in discussions about the experiences of Church communicators working for diocesan and episcopal conferences. He spoke recently with Our Sunday Visitor about the state of Catholicism in Russia.

Our Sunday Visitor: You grew up in Belarus under communist occupation. What was it like to be Catholic in Belarus?

Victor Khroul: It was very natural in the Western part. The majority are Catholics there, so it was very natural. We were not very active Catholics. We did nothing extra. We went to church on Sunday. We prayed together with our parents. I have a brother and sister.

At that time, it was the time of communism in the Soviet Union. All your Christian life would be concentrated inside your house, inside your apartment or in the church. Nothing else. But it was still much better than it was in Russia because there almost all the churches had been closed. It was before the restoration of the Catholic Church structures, which happened 15 years ago. We had two churches open back then, in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Now we have many churches open.

Being a student, I missed very much this natural Christian life I lived before, so I tried to escape from Moscow for every holiday, for Easter or Christmas. Wedidn't have vacations, but I simply tried to escape. It is something very necessary for people, and it is something that newly baptized adults in Russia have a real hunger for.

This is the main problem for the Church in Russia: how to organically build from a number of persons in a Catholic community. That's why the most attractive Catholic movements in Russia are those that try to build small communities, such as Communion and Liberation and the Neocatechumenal Way.

OSV: Where are these movements usually located?

Khroul: The movements are mostly concentrated in big cities. The map of Russia is empty in Catholic terms. It is a country with Catholic islands in big cities. We have communities and parishes in almost all of the big cities, about 250 parishes. The movements are very different in their encouragement. They have something that unites them. They are focused on small communities. These are very popular, and people very enthusiastically go to these communities.

OSV: How difficult it is to evangelize in Russia?

Khroul: It is the Russian Orthodox Church that is supposed to evangelize in Russia. I won't say we are prohibited to evangelize, but it's not likely, according to the widespread view that every ethnic Russian should be Orthodox. So, our priests and our bishops are expected just to take care of those small groups of non-Orthodox and Catholics who already exist.

Baptisms are not very likely in Russia, especially baptisms of ethnic Russians -- they cause the accusations of so-called proselytism. The problem is that from one side we feel this very evident spiritual hunger of those people who have been suppressed and their brains were washed by atheistic propaganda.

They need to touch transcendental reality. They understand by natural law that there is something. They would like to find out what it is. And we are not giving them such an opportunity because we do not do proper evangelization. The Russian Orthodox Church is doing this, but it doesn't have enough resources and well-educated persons and priests to do this.

OSV: What is the atmosphere between the Orthodox and Catholic churches?

Khroul: There is still tension, but it seems to me we should not dramatize the situation. These relations have to improve more organically than mechanically. We cannot speed up this improvement. There are efforts being made from the Vatican's side, from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. They try to do it fast, but it is a very organic process.

I must say relationships between ordinary common people are very warm. I am sociologist. I like to have objective indicators, and one of these, of the warmth of the relations, is the number of mixed marriages. It is a very classical sociological question: Would you like your daughter to marry someone Catholic or Orthodox?

But now we have many mixed marriages. Now the goal is not to have good relations with the communist regime, but the goal is to have good relations with Russian Orthodox Church. We are for this. We pray for Christian unity. And what we are in need most of all are your prayers and your solidarity. The Catholic Church in Russia, despite all the myths and stereotypes and gossip you may hear about it, it is still an alive Church. I think it will survive, despite all the storms.

Carlos Briceno writes from Florida.