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José Luis MumbielaThe face of the Church in Kazakhstan is changing".

The Aragonese José Luis Mumbiela (Monzón, Spain, 1969), has lived in Kazakhstan since 1998, where he arrived from Lleida (Spain), when he was the youngest priest of the diocese (27 years old). In 2011 he was appointed bishop of Almaty, and presides over the Episcopal Conference in a country with a Muslim and Orthodox Christian majority. Almaty has been the epicenter of recent protests. On a possible visit by Pope Francis, he states, "For a father to come to the house, no reason is needed!"

Rafael Miner-January 29, 2022-Reading time: 8 minutes
mumbiela kakajstan

The first thing to say about this interview with Monsignor José Luis Mumbiela, Bishop of Almaty, the most populous city in Kazakhstan, is that it was conducted a couple of weeks ago. The servitude of paper. So take the bishop's analysis with due caution. The second thing is that we have seen a cheerful bishop, with good humor, in spite of the hard episodes that his country, and especially the city of Almaty, has experienced.

And the third thing is that we talked about the serious disturbances, yes, as the Spanish/Kazakh bishop has done with numerous media, but then we got into the flour of evangelization, the Church in Kazakhstan, the martyrs, the blessed, St. John Paul II, "the culprit of my coming to Kazakhstan", and Pope Francis, of whom he says: "Our great dream is that he will come to this land".

How is Kazakhstan now after the serious events of the past few weeks?

-As of today, we are almost in tranquility. Tranquility is being restored. People are living as before, in the sense of being able to work. Tomorrow there will be the opening of the Metro. The only thing that remains until the 19th is the curfew, which is only in the Almaty region and some other regions. By law it is until the 19th. For the time being it has been maintained, life is being rebuilt. What happens is that apart from this, we have the pandemic. We are in what we call here the red zone, which is the number of contagions. There is also green and yellow. We are in the very red zone, which entails limitations in cafeterias, meetings, etc. And also in religious services. People can have personal visits, we are doing what we can. But we continue with optimism. As of today, our life is already normalizing.

Another thing is the consequences of what has been experienced. For many, they have been very tragic, with many deaths, the number of which is still not known for sure, not only at the level of police and security forces, but also of the attackers, who were belligerents. And we do not know the number of civilian deaths either... The police raids are still continuing, and they are on the lookout for and capture with the data they have. Those involved in violent actions, robberies and looting are being arrested. The cases of public accusations are also being opened at the legal level. Among the security forces, among the police, people are dying, it is not known if they commit suicide or die of heart disease?

If you like, we will analyze this issue later [see analysis], and change the subject. It is now thirty years since the establishment of the hierarchy in Kazakhstan.

-Indeed, last year was the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Diocese of Kazakhstan and Central Asia, the first bishop for all this land, in the present time. There were Catholic bishops in Central Asia already in the Middle Ages. It is necessary to remember the history. The creation of the new structures of the Church in Kazakhstan dates back to 1991. Pope John Paul II was the great promoter of the revival of the Church in Central Asia. He loved and cared personally for these lands. He knew, already from his time in Krakow, the history of the faithful of Kazakhstan and Central Asia. He knew it very well, he followed it closely. When he came to Kazakhstan in 2001 (20 years have passed), the words he said were that he had long dreamed of coming here, I know all your history, all your sufferings. They were not diplomatic words, they were the words he had been dreaming of saying in these lands for years. It was like this. John Paul II loved Kazakhstan, undoubtedly, because of the history of the Poles and the deportees. For his compatriots.

We know, for example, from the story of Blessed Wladislaw Bukowinsky, in the 60s and 70s, when Karol Wojtyla was Archbishop of Krakow, I know that when he went to visit the Archbishop, the Archbishop was waiting for him with a great desire to know how things were going here, and if Bukowinsky was ill., the archbishop was going to the hospital to talk to him. He was interested. Also because I knew he was a holy man. And he wanted to hear from the people, from Krakow. He was a priest born in a part of Poland which is now Ukraine, and he was also deported, taken to a concentration camp, and so he was a prisoner in Kazakhstan. He was in three prisons in Kazakhstan, where he lived for quite a few years. And in the 1950s, after Stalin's death, when he saw the possibility of returning to his country, he decided to stay here in Kazaijstan, working as a priest, risking his life, risking his freedom. He worked in turn as a civilian, he had a passport, he was legal, but he had 'extra-labor' activities [he smiles openly].

Are there any other canonized saints, from Kazakhstan? They have now the process of Gertruda Getzel....

There is a priest who is beatified but he is not from Kazakhstan, he died in Kazakhstan. He was a Greek Catholic, and he served the Greek Catholics and those of the Latin rite. His name was Alexei Zarinsky. He is blessed. His body was taken away. He is buried in Ukraine.

Gertruda Getzel is now in process, laywoman. A Catholic bishop who is buried in Karaganda, who is also a heroic man, could also be in the process, but every process takes time. Thank God, there is a waiting list. Since there are so many blessed bishops and saints, we are now putting a lay woman. Some call her Sister Gertruda, but no, she is a laywoman. She is what a good catechist would be, according to the Pope's dispositions of late. She was also in concentration camps. She was born in Russia, she was deported, etc. She helped priests, was in Georgia and other places. She came here to Kazakhstan, and was in Karaganda, helping also. Wherever she was, she always tried to do catechesis, to pray. I know he was in labor camps, forced labor camps. And when she went to live in Karadanga, at first she accompanied this priest, who was Bukowinsky, until the priest said; better for the woman to stay at home, because it was risky. She organized catechesis for young people, for women, everything, prayer meetings. She was like a spiritual director for girls, a motor of parish life.

There was a bishop that nobody knew he was a bishop, Alexander Hira. He had been a priest in Karaganda since the 1950's, and he died in 81. I guess he knew because he was his confessor. The Holy See knew he was there. Sometimes he went to Ukraine 'on vacation', and it was to see priests, and some bishops as well.. Radio Macuto He said that this woman, Gertruda, was "his archbishop"!

How was your coming to Kazakhstan? I mean yours. You were a young priest...

-I arrived in Kazakhstan in 1998, I came as a young priest, and the person responsible for my coming is John Paul II. John Paul II was very fond of Kazakhstan, and he encouraged the presence of priests for evangelization in this country. He was looking for priests, and he commissioned institutions to look for people to come. I know that he was also looking for priests from the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, he wanted Opus Dei, but with the whole team. But the Prelature cannot send diocesan priests, juridically it is impossible. So it was decided to look for volunteer priests who were willing to respond to the Pope's call to come to Kazakhstan. The proposal reached many priests in Spain, and it also reached me. The first step was for the priest to be willing. The second step was for the bishop to send him. In my case there were both circumstances. In others, perhaps not.

Had you thought about going on missions?

-I never thought of going on missions around the world. But a proposal came to me: the Holy Father is looking for diocesan priests to go to Kazakhstan, would you be willing? Well, if the Pope wants it, and the bishop sends me, that's what I was ordained for, right? To serve the universal Church. Not me, but any priest, I think, has to be ready for this. Whether I like it or not I like to go on missions, to go to one parish or another, I go wherever the bishop tells me to go. And so it was.

 What diocese were you in and what did your bishop tell you?

-I always say that it was a very generous and beautiful gesture of this bishop of Lleida, my bishop, Dr. Ramon Malla, Modélico. A bishop who was very criticized for various things, the issue of ecclesiastical property. But this gesture is exemplary. At first he told me no. I was 27 years old. I was the youngest priest in the diocese, the diocese was going from bad to worse. There was an argument: where there are priests, let them look for them there, in Toledo, Madrid..., but here there are none. But he himself told me later: here we are bad, but there they will be worse. It is a service to the universal Church, let him go. God will say. Chapeau.

   When I was appointed bishop in 2011, the news was made public on March 5, 2011. I was called by the then bishop, who had already changed, it was Bishop Joan Piris, who is retired, He called me to congratulate. -I said to him: "Bishop, do you remember something? What is it? Well, today our diocese of Lleida is losing a priest, yes, but I know that tomorrow the Lord will give the diocese of Lleida two priests. You have an ordination of two priests. Yes. -Yes. -Do you realize? Bishop Malla gave one, and God gives us two.

Indeed, on Sunday, March 6, two new priests were ordained. Lleida lost one priest, but gained two. Bishop Malla gave one priest, and God gave him two.

The majority languages in Kazakhstan are Kazakh and Russian. In which language(s) is the language(s) of worship?

-Most of them speak and understand Russian. But the most widespread state language is Kazakh. The Church has always functioned in Russian, but there is a process underway. I often say the face of the Church in Kazakhstan is changing in these years. It is a challenge. We are in a time of transition. In the 1990s, there were Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Balts... Masses were in German, Polish, depending on the place. Then they switched to Russian, although not all of them. In several villages, some grandmothers refuse to pray in Russian, because it is the language of the enemy... Some accept that the priest says the Mass in Russian, but the hymns have to be in Polish. It is a generational change, a very important one.

Now we are gradually incorporating the Kazakh, which is a change of axes, and which requires an authentic Catholic spirit. Perhaps it is difficult psychologically for many. I remember a priest, who is now a bishop, local, local, when we were talking about learning Kazakh, he said that the local priests were skeptical, until one of them said: we have to admit that we have been educated in Russian, and for us Kazakh was the language of the second class, of the uneducated, etc. For them, psychologically, to switch to Kazakh is to lower themselves. It is a change of mentality. And now he is a bishop. I think he has already changed. There are already beginning to be Masses in Kazakh, little by little, songs in Kazakh, there is a devotional book in Kazakh. And the Kazakhs are very happy. More and more Kazakhs are being baptized, thank God.

The local church is growing...

-Yes, local priests are taking more and more positions. This year, the new Rector of the Seminary will be, in principle, a local priest, half Kazakh, half Ukrainian. His name and surname are already Kazakh. As a fellow Bishop, Ordinary, says, we have to trust the locals once and for all, that's enough! And if they are wrong, let them be wrong, as we foreigners are wrong. Deep down, they want this, and this is what we have to do: let the child grow up, let the child grow up! Come on, come on, this Church is yours. Little by little. It is a dream we have. Growing in this sense. It's like grandparents watching their grandchildren grow up [he jokes again with the examples]. So a big challenge [in Kazaijstan] is that new face for the Catholic Church, which is in transition. A Church, like Kazakhstan itself, multiethnic. That is.

How do you see the interfaith meeting scheduled for September?

-From the beginning, it was a great showcase to show the world that Kazakhstan is a country that wants to be a model of peaceful coexistence between different ethnic groups and religions, and whose religious reality is not a problem, but a normal condition of life. That meeting was held with great support from the Vatican. I do not know if after the events of Almaty the meeting will be possible this year or not. Perhaps because of these events, it would be very nice to have this meeting,

Our great dream is that Pope Francis comes to this land. Since there is a desire for renewal in the country, perhaps his presence would be useful for everyone, on the one hand to give great international support; on the other hand, for him to accompany us, with some words of his, written in a book in the summer, which are 'Let us dream together'. May he accompany us and help us to dream together that new Kazakhstan that we want to create, which is not so new, because some things are already there, to dream and continue dreaming of that Kazakhstan that we want to be a model not only for us but for everyone. And a visit of the Pope can be a great reinforcement for this. Whether or not there is a reason for this meeting, there is no need for a father to come to our home!

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