Father Ruslan Rakhimberlinov was born in 1983 in Karaganda, has been serving as a priest since 2008 and is currently studying Canon Law in Rome. He happened to know don Bernardo Antonini, while he was a seminarian – in 2002, and only within 5-6 months – the last months of Fr. Bernardo, who dedicated his last months to the Higher Theological Seminary in Karaganda, where he arrived in 2002, taking the position of vice-rector. This is how Fr Ruslan recalls his meeting with Don Bernardo and the deep impression that a priest has made on him:
“In 2002, when I arrived after vacation, I soon found out that we had a new priest, vice-rector, assistant to the rector. Then it was strange when we saw that this was not a young priest. We called him don Bernardo then, and at that time we didn’t even know what ‘don’ stood for. ‘Don’ it was like in Italian films for us, like don Corleone. Well, then we realized that he was an Italian priest, that he was “old enough” and came to us from Russia, from the St. Petersburg Seminary. Well, of course, different rumors immediately spread that now it will be even ‘better’ than it was before. And when we met, it was not clear whether he was running or walking, because he moved quickly. This is how we met He asked me who I was, where I came from, from what parish, and then he took out a small chocolate bar from his pocket and gave it to me. At that time, I was like a little boy in front of my dad, I thanked him. The first impression of this acquaintance, I remember not his energy, but the life of his character, as a source that sparkles with the positive. This is how I remember him. And I have never seen him in any other way. Just: positive, joyful, he always remained that way”.
It is known that Fr. Bernardo worked for a long time at the St. Petersburg Theological Seminary. He described this experience in his autobiographical book entitled ‘Why I Love Russia’. “I have read this book,” says Fr. Ruslan, “and it is clear that Fr. Bernardo was a very hardworking man, a ‘plowman’. He was not afraid to give himself in order to create something and form it. He remained the same ‘hard worker for God’s kingdom’ within the walls of our seminary, despite his years, which were already solid by that time’’. But with all this, Fr. Bernardo was not only a man of action, but also a man of prayer.
“So we are not talking about the fact that there was excessive activity in his ministry. Because several times I met him when he was focused, even too much. It was rumored that while praying he was so focused that while reciting the ‘Hail Mary’ he fell asleep while driving, and I saw him in the chapel as well. That is, we are not talking about the fact that he was too active and forgot the spiritual side. It seems to me that everything was interconnected in him. He received strength from Him and this strength embodied in his work”.
Through his boundless trust in God’s Providence, Fr. Bernardo laid the foundation for such large-scale television and radio communication projects as Radio Maria and Telepace.
“Telepace is one of the channels that broadcasts ‘the Good News’, Radio Maria and God’s providence to the whole world. These three things came out of his mouth several times a day, especially God’s providence. God’s providence was very closely connected with his knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Because I remember the lessons he taught us, telling the stories of the great-grandfathers, that is, Abraham, the presence of God in his life, Moses. And he showed all this on the basis of the document Dei Verbum that the providence of God gradually brought them all to Christ. And this is still valid today. And he really was, maybe it will sound lyrical, but he was the one who trusted this Providence every single day”.
Despite his short stay in Karaganda, Fr. Bernardo also managed to start and implement several new projects here. So during his serving, prayers for the unity of believers and interfaith meetings became widespread. “It was clear, – says Fr. Ruslan, – that for don Bernardo interfaith communication was not just an idea, but what burned his heart, he drew his desire for the unity of believers from the Holy Scriptures”.
“What amazes me most about him is that he knew the Holy Scriptures very well. Because he taught us the Holy Scriptures. He was an expert in this, completed his studies in Rome in Biblical theology and exegesis of the Holy Scriptures. Once he told a story that somehow some young people came to him, they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they said: “Do you know the Preacher?” And he replied them discretely: “Go ahead and read more to know more. Take the candy and that’s it’’. That is, knowing the truths of the Holy Scriptures, he calmly presented it. Not with the arrogance that I am more ‘knowledgeable’ than you. He interpreted especially often one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, ‘Dei Verbum’. This document is about the Holy Scripture that continues its role, and is an integral part of our faith. It seems to me that he drew these meetings about the unity of Christians from the Holy Scriptures That they all may be one”. This was seen in him, he wanted us all to pray together at least once a year’’.
On his last journey, Fr. Bernardo saw off a lot of different people who managed to get to know and love him. Among them were the imam, with whom he was friends, and the Orthodox priest, with whom he talked quite closely, and Protestant pastors, and other people – representatives of different religions and views, they walked shoulder to shoulder. Fr. Bernardo united them even posthumously.
“It was an interesting experience for all of us because he was a Human. He was positive for all of us. He had an infectious quality in himself, his character. And then, at once he died. That moment that he was there and passed away, of course, left a note of such sadness in us”.
Fr. Bernardo was a unique, bright person. Creative, courageous, transforming everything around him, serving to the end – to the last breath. He was not afraid of difficulties along the way, he did not care about the scale of the work, he just walked and did in good faith what God put in his heart. Even if the city was small, the Church was few in number, and there were very little time left. “It’s interesting to know, – says Fr. Ruslan, – what would I have told about Fr. Bernardo, if he’d lived a little more, what would he manage to do?”.
“Sometimes it may seem to many that the Catholic Church is exclusively for Western countries: that is, Italy, Poland. And the countries, not for the so-called ‘third world’, where there are few Catholics. For example, Kazakhstan and other countries where there is a very small number of Catholics. Don Bernardo did not care about this at all. He was ready to go even where there was little. That is, he was indifferent to the number, whether there were any Catholic structures or not. He wanted to bring the Catholic Church closer, as it is here in Italy, respecting our traditions. Remember, he had some kind of Kazakh hat. If he had stayed longer in Karaganda, he would have learned Kazakh. This man did not care about the quantity, he went there and did what God advised him. Even from his book, from his will, I read that it was difficult for him to make the decision to go to Kazakhstan. But he accepted this desire and came. I wonder if he could have stayed with us for 5 more years and what we could say about him today, probably more’’.