Interview with Fr. Jozef Toth: Happy dedicated life of a mission founder in Yakutia
Aldan, Sakha Republic (Yakutia), Russian Federation, 5 October 2017 -- Fr. Jozef Toth (65 years of age, Slovakian-Hungarian family origin, since 1992 in Yakutia, the only one remaining members of the founding community (3 SDB: with Fr. Jozef Pravda, Fr. Marian Kysel)
Why a Salesian missionary?
From early childhood I felt compassion and close relationshiop with Indian population. Already in the SDB initial formation thanks to Fr. Sutka (Slovakian missionary in Ecuador) I felt a strong attraction to the Gospel proclamation to other nations. In this call I was strengthen through the missionary movies and Letters from Africa (by Fr. Pravda). It was a growing desire to share the faith with others culture people.
Why Siberia, Yakutia?
Instead of Shuar tribe in the Amazon (Ecuador) when in 1991 Fr. Pravda made a first prospection trip to Siberia – Yakutia, I was enthusiastic and my provincial Fr. Kaiser asked me to accompany him on his September - November prospection trip to Russia. During our stop-over in Novosibirsk with the Catholic bishop we get know that in Aldan (Yakutia) there is a need for teaching of religion in the public schools and villages. At that time not even the orthodox missionaries arrived. Aldan is a small town (16.000), but everybody was open to us. And after our report to the superiors, at the end of 1991 the Rector Major, Fr. Viganó gave his green light. Then followed the preparation of 3 SDB for the July 1992 missionary expedition, and I was the youngest with 40 years. We left from Slovakia, Bratislava on July 11 and arrived to Aldan on July 18th through Samara, Novosibirsk and Chulma.
Your most joyful moments in Yakutia?
After the Mass we have a friendly talk with our parishioners, free talk about our mission work effect. In the 1990th the effect was amazing. And two Catholic ladies shared: ‘Without faith and Catholic faith our life would be different. We got a life meaning, different life vision, family-like relationship with our neighbors. Your ‘being together with us’ in the same harsh life and weather conditions of Siberia is a powerful sign. They appreciated the meaning of our missionary life. The same mission work gives hope. I’m very grateful for my missionary vocation. And sometimes I’m wondering why not all SDB are missionaries!
For us – the missionaries in the periphery or frontline mission – simple visit attention from the Slovakia provincial missionary animation delegate or visits from the General Councilors are always a great encouragement. Indeed God’s touch is our great strength!
Most difficult moments?
We faced many sorrowful moments, like in the summer of 1998, when one 13 years old girl in the Oratory died. She was from a difficult family, but also a very good parish animator, good model for our parish youth, but due to the late medical intervention she went fast to heaven.
In our daily life I don’t’ feel really big difficulty, since I’m accepting the environment as it is. But also comparison between the missionary pastoral in the first 10 years (1992-2001) where everything we were forming lively and growing community struck a great difference with the period after 2002, when the numbers went down to a certain stagnation and remained only 2 SDB missionaries. It was a painful period, although since 2011 our situation is improving and we are on the right track now.
What is most important for the evangelization of Yakutia?
To get know people, their character, their culture and religion and also build deeper inter-personal relationship. More professional missionary preparation would be needed also from my side. When I’m approaching as a friend, people are open to share their pain and heart issues. Personal contact with Jesus is my deepest desire. We received a lot of encouragement from our lay leaders and elders in the village evangelization visit. Trying to get closer to the young people of today!
Impact of 25 SDB and 120 volunteers who served in Yakutia since 1992?
Our volunteers are appreciated for their practical commitment, house care (girls with the kitchen, house maintenance) and especially as the Oratory animators. They spend a lot of time with local children and youth and are very effective in our mission (music, assistance, group work or catechesis in Russian). And also the local parish grew stronger with their help (confession preparation and other faith life journey moments). After one week in the Khatystyr or other villages near Aldan or in Yakutsk they were really an indispensable part of our larger educative – pastoral community. It was not easy for them to stay alone as the only volunteer, not easy to live in the apartment, challenged by home sickness, harsh climate or difficult language. For them was better to stay at least in two. There were also many local Yakut volunteers with us who played an important role in our mission.
Why the Yakutia people join the Catholic Church?
For the Yakut people their God is located ‘too high’, they have no chance to communicate with Him, only through the spirits through the intermediary work of the shamans. There are various spirits of sun, nature.. the roots of their religion are shamanistic. When I was teaching daily in the Evenko-Yakut village public school (1700 of inhabitants), I get know the parents of our students. And they asked me: Why do you believe in God of Jesus? Who is Jesus? And I have been trying to reply and share my faith with them. Their children also participated in the summer Don Bosco camps and their desire for grace and faith was slowly growing. In the school not even one spoke about Jesus Christ. After 5 years in the village were the baptism of the first family and the catechesis went ahead.
How to get a friend with the Orthodox clergy and faithful?
In the beginning they were very cautious about us: "Why did you came here? This is our territory..." and the proselytizing became the issue, and our bishop asked as to be careful. But during our first meetings at the human level we made many personal relationship, friendship visiting the families. Now we are good friends with the present (three) orthodox parish priests in Aldan. When do we meet in some events, or in the town we greet cordially each other with respect and we enjoy also spiritual encounter as consecrated people. Next step would be some concrete joint action. Our friend say now: ‘We needed 15 years to understand. Before we felt you as a competition, but we recognize that go your way and there is enough work and space for all with a mutual respect.’ Bishops and Patriarchs are meeting, Pope Francis and Patriarch of Moscow are meeting each other and these are good models also for us here in the periphery.
What does meant for your 3 years of Mongolia (2001-2004) missionary experience?
Mongolia was my first missionary love, desire, since it was my old dream to live in Mongolia, already 10 before my arrival to Ulanbaatar in 2001. I felt there at home with nature, people and culture. It was a new experience of international community, more and more amalgamated. After return to Yakutia I was sad, but this first mission here in 2004 was in crisis and I the accepted the invitation of Slovakia provincial and we were only in two SDB here.
Yes, I still remember and greet them Mongolian missionaries and people: from Mongolia Bishop Wens Padilla, CICM and many other missionaries, our past pupils and other friends. I will be happy to return to Mongolia for a short visit. It was a great enriching experience of the international growing community.
What kind of help for Yakutia mission do you need?
We are happy and grateful with the younger generation missionaries, with first two local vocations and especially with incoming non - Slovakian younger missionaries. There is a space for youth and oratory to revive, fraternal community is more consistent than in the past. We need at least 3-4 confreres in each place. And now we are growing and trying to accompany the new incoming missionaries. Also the frequent visits to Yakutia are helpful for our enthusiasm, direction search.
What is the meaningful of Yakutia mission for SLK provincial community?
A sing of wider opening of our mother province, life giving movement, blessing to our local Slovakian communities in prayer, wishing all the best to the volunteers and benefactors who have now experienced the universal church – within the situation of large distances between the Catholic communities: 530 km distance between Yakutsk and Aldan and 2500 km to Magadan parish or 1600 – 3000 km to other parishes in Siberia.
Greetings to the Australasia readers
God’s blessing for all readers, to be on fire with missions, thanks to the RM, Slovakia provincial for the support of this periphery mission and revival of communion – thanks to all those who are praying for us, helping us (benefactor) .. May God give them good health, presence….
Fr. Jozef pointing at the Salesian house in Aldan City
Fr. Jozef with the Mayor of Aldan City, Alexander