Pope Francis on Aug. 29 appointed Fr. Anthony James Corcoran, SJ, to the office of apostolic administrator of the Church in Kyrgyzstan. Father Corcoran, a member of the Jesuits U.S. Central and Southern Province, has served since 2008 as canonical superior of the Russian Region of the Society of Jesus.
Born in 1963, Fr. Corcoran entered the Society of Jesus in Grand Coteau, La., in 1985 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1996. He has served as a missionary in Russia since 1997, shortly after the end of communism there.
Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia, was once part of the Soviet Union. It has a population of about 6 million, of whom only about 500 are Roman Catholic. Jesuits have served at this Catholic mission since it was established 20 years ago.
Kyrgyzstan is predominantly Muslim, with a sizable Russian Orthodox minority. Its constitution guarantees religious freedom.
Father Corcoran was interviewed for America Magazine in August 2014. Excerpts of that interview with Fr. Sean Salai, SJ, appear below.
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.
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.
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 being 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.
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.
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.
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.
What are some signs of hope in our Jesuit ministries in the Russian region?
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.
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.
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 (former) Fr. General (Nicolás) 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.
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.