VATICAN CITY — Bishop Athanasius Schneider was a “model child” who developed a deep love and reverence for the Eucharist, thanks to deeply devout parents and having been starved of the Blessed Sacrament under Soviet communist rule.
This is the picture obtained from family and friends of the auxiliary bishop of Astana in Kazakhstan who is becoming one of the leading voices of fidelity, continuity and tradition in the Church today.
Most recently, Bishop Schneider took the lead in issuing a “Profession of Immutable Truths About Sacramental Marriage” in a bid to resolve the confusion over interpretations of Pope Francis’ 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), which some bishops have read as opening the door to Holy Communion for some civilly-divorced-and-remarried Catholics. The document, published Dec. 31, states such interpretations are “alien” to the entire faith and weaken the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.
Born in 1961, Bishop Schneider’s earliest years were spent in Kyrgyzstan, a small republic close to the Chinese border that was then part of the Soviet Union. His parents were ethnic Germans living in the German colonies in Odessa and the Black Sea region, whom dictator Josef Stalin sent to gulags (labor camps) in the Ural Mountains after the Second World War.
“They were forced to work there, and it’s a miracle that they survived,” Bishop Schneider said in an interview with the charity Aid to the Church in Need in 2010.
Afterward, the couple moved to Kyrgystan. Along with his parents and three siblings, the Schneiders subsequently transferred in the late 1960s to Estonia, also at the time a part of the Soviet Union, where they lived for four years.
Families of Faith
It was there that devotion to the Eucharist began in the young Anton Schneider, who took the name Athanasius when he joined the religious order Canons Regular of the Holy Cross of Coimbra.
“The Catholic faith could be transmitted only in the families by the parents and grandparents,” Bishop Schneider told the Register Jan. 11, adding that his elders “imbued us children with the crystal-clear, concrete and beautiful Catholic faith of all ages, which they themselves received from their parents and grandparents.” And as the faith faced hostility at that time, Catholic families were also “a kind of a catacomb with a living faith,” he said.
The clandestine worship and the lack of priests to celebrate the sacraments was an “unforgettable experience” for the young Schneider.
“We longed every day for Holy Communion and oftentimes made acts of contrition,” the bishop recalled, and when a priest secretly and unexpectedly arrived to celebrate Mass, “it was a real feast, which gave us much strength and joy.”
He remembers his parents taking him and his siblings to the only Masses allowed, which were 60 miles away. They were for adults only, but his parents wanted to take the children, so they had to take the first train in the morning under the cover of darkness and return with the last train at night. As it was so far, they could only afford to do that once a month.
But the formation and example he received from his parents also affected him and his siblings deeply.
“Mummy had such a strong belief and used to say to us: ‘Children, going to the Eucharist is the greatest pilgrimage there is,’” Claretian Sister Teresa Schneider, the bishop’s older sibling, told the Register. “I’ve never forgotten it,” she said, adding that her mother would also call the Eucharist “the greatest prayer.”
It was a “very simple catechesis,” she continued, “and we as children fully grasped the reality of it.” Sister Teresa recalled that both her mother, who now lives in Germany, and father, who died a few years ago, had very deep faith. “We felt as children that the heart of our parents was there, in the Eucharist.”
In 1973, shortly after making his first Holy Communion in secret, the Estonian government allowed the Schneiders to move to the Baden-Württemberg region of West Germany.
They were imbued with such a reverence for the Eucharist that when they came to Germany, they were appalled to see Holy Communion received in the hand and standing up. As a family, they unilaterally knelt to receive the Eucharist, and other families soon followed suit.
Bishop Schneider told the Register that he sees Communion in the hand, which he says was invented by Calvinist communities, as a “banalization that borders on profanation.” They never imagined that the “Eucharistic Lord, the Holy of Holies, could be treated in such a banal manner.”
Since the age of 12, he said he has “carried this pain in my soul,” and it prompted him to write his 2009 book on the Eucharist, Dominus Est (It Is the Lord).
Anton Schneider made his profession in the Order of the Holy Cross in 1982, at the age of 20. He trained as a seminarian first in Rome and then in Brazil, as his order was founding a seminary there. He was ordained a priest in Brazil March 25, 1990, and spent the early years of his priesthood there.
He then spent 10 years in Rome studying for a doctorate in patristics and serving as general councilor for the order. Archbishop Jan Paul Lenga of Karaganda, Kazakhstan, chose Father Schneider to help build the Mary, Mother of the Church Seminary there because he spoke Russian. Starting in 1999, Father Schneider taught patristics, which is his expertise, at the seminary.
He made many trips between Kazakhstan and Rome during the period following the 1990 collapse of Soviet communism, an event which prompted an expansion of religious freedom and Christianity in Russia and the former Soviet states.
Pope Benedict XVI appointed him auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Karaganda in 2006, and five years later, he was transferred to Astana as an auxiliary. He is currently the general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of Kazakhstan.
The predominantly Muslim country has around 250,000 Catholics out of a population of 15 million. The majority of Catholics are ethnic Poles, Germans and Lithuanians.
Family and Friends’ Perspectives
That Bishop Schneider chose to become a priest came as little surprise to those who knew him. The youngest in the family, Anton knew he had a vocation to the priesthood from the age of 12, said Sister Teresa. “We prayed a lot together, went to Mass and adoration together,” she said.
“He was very clever as a child, studied well, played the piano, and started to learn the violin,” she said. “He’s very musical, always has been, and he plays the piano very well. And from childhood he had a deep religious sense. My mother would say he was a ‘model child,’ always good, from when he was little up to today.”
Others who have known him attest to his strength of character, integrity and virtue, as well as to his unswerving commitment to proclaiming the truth of the Catholic faith.
Father Rahimberlinov Ruslan, one of the bishop’s former students from the Diocese of Karaganda, said he was “always attentive and ready to listen.” He is a man of “humility and faithfulness” who “knows and accepts the truth about himself.” He is faithful to the faith and to the Church “in spite of all the winds of change,” Father Ruslan told the Register.
Sister Teresa said people come up to her and say: “Thank God there’s Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who has the courage to speak out, and not say ‘this is bad,’ but rather ‘this is the faith,’ always with love and respect.” She said people marvel at the fact that he is someone so devout and so human. For him, “Truth is always the best way,” she said, “not half the truth, but the authentic truth.”
“He has always said that truth is not relative,” she said. “It’s all or nothing; half-truth is heresy.” But she added that doesn’t mean not being compassionate and merciful, because “to be compassionate and merciful is to say the truth” — something he explained himself at a talk in Rome in 2015 around the time of the second Synod on the Family.
Father Ruslan said Bishop Schneider had an intellectual zeal that would allow his students to “comprehend the truth, not superficially, but gradually in all its depths.” But he also had a pastoral zeal, and his “deep reverence” for the Eucharist was shown by his determination to bring it to the remotest places in Kazakhstan and in the harshest of weather.
Kazakh Alexey Gotovsky, who has known the bishop for 17 years and was his altar server, liked how the bishop “communicated with people; he treated everyone as equal.” In his parish, he remembered, the bishop “never pushed people away, but rather tried to invite [them] to the Church and help. He used to organize parish groups in which he himself participated.”
He also recalled how, after accompanying the bishop on a visit to the sick, people were especially grateful that he should bring them Jesus in the Eucharist, “thanking him for graces that they had received after he was praying for them.”
Knowing one of the bishop’s skills is in liturgical music, Gotovsky once discussed with him the use of guitars at Mass. “He replied to me that the instrument like a guitar is not bad in itself, but it is not the right place to use it. The Mass is not a party.”
As the bishop has long stressed, the Most Holy Sacrament must be treated with the utmost reverence, especially in the liturgy, and he sees this lost sense of the Real Presence as the cause of a “conformation to the world” stemming from an “anthropocentrism” that poses “the greatest spiritual danger.”
“The remedy,” he told the Register, “is to break with the complex of inferiority toward the world, to put Christ really in the center of every detail in the liturgy of the Mass, to proclaim Christ truly incarnated, Christ crucified, Christ living and reigning in his hidden Divine Majesty in the Eucharist, Christ the King of every man and of every human society.”