A priest distributes Communion during a clandestine Mass reportedly celebrated in a forest in Ukraine in 1987 under severe communist persecution of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

CNS FILE PHOTO

A priest distributes Communion during a clandestine Mass reportedly celebrated in a forest in Ukraine in 1987 under severe communist persecution of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

April 28, 2014
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

The Ukrainian Catholic Church is marking the 25th anniversary of its legalization in the former Soviet Union.

Christianity came to Ukraine in 988. Christianity, mainly Eastern Orthodox, has been the dominant religion in the country since its acceptance by Volodymyr the Great, who made it the state religion.

"Prince Volodymyr was looking for a way to unify his people, the various tribes, and he did so ingeniously through faith," explained Bishop David Motiuk of the Ukrainian Eparchy of Edmonton.

However, following the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War, when the Bolsheviks seized power in the Russian Empire and transformed it into the Soviet Union, religion was assigned little value in the new socialist society.

The Church had 2,772 parishes, almost as many priests, eight bishops and more than four million followers when Stalin forced its breakup. He forcibly disbanded the Ukrainian Catholic Church in 1947 in a strike at Ukrainian nationalism.

PROPAGANDA CAMPAIGN

The Soviet media carried out a strong anti-Catholic propaganda campaign. Stalin ordered the arrest and killing of priests, nuns and laypeople. He closed their prayer houses.

"It could have meant closure of churches, it could have meant prison, or it could have even meant death. It really was a catacomb church," said Father Stephen Wojcichowsky, chancellor and vicar general of the Edmonton Eparchy.

The last century was marked with the mass closing and destruction of churches, and executions of clergy and followers. Clergy were sent to Gulag labour camps in Siberia. Followers risked losing their livelihoods, their possessions and their freedoms.

"The Church underwent extreme persecution by the communist regime, which tried to outlaw God and to deny the existence of God in all aspects of civil society," said Motiuk.

Unable to hold public worship, the Ukrainian Catholic Church went underground. Priests were trained in secret seminaries and never wore their clerical collars in public.

"They had to worship in secret and underground. This doesn't mean that they didn't gather in private homes or under the cover of nightfall, in forests, in secret meeting places," said Motiuk.

If others caught a whiff of a practising Catholic, they might be encouraged to tell authorities, which could result in a reward of some kind, perhaps food or monetary payment.

Fast forward to 1989, and the Soviet Union was collapsing. President Mikhail Gorbachev met in Rome with Pope John Paul II. The Ukrainian Catholic Church officially registered with the government, and it was again legal for Ukrainian Catholics to practise their faith publicly.

"The legalization has meant everything for the Church in Ukraine," said Wojcichowsky.

Ukrainian Archbishop Volodymyr Sterniuk (centre left) and Auxiliary Bishop Julian Voronovsky stand in the centre of a traditional Easter dance in 1990 in Ukraine, the first year Ukrainian Catholics were able to celebrate Holy Week publicly since the Second World War.

CNS FILE PHOTO

Ukrainian Archbishop Volodymyr Sterniuk (centre left) and Auxiliary Bishop Julian Voronovsky stand in the centre of a traditional Easter dance in 1990 in Ukraine, the first year Ukrainian Catholics were able to celebrate Holy Week publicly since the Second World War.

"You have to appreciate that when you're a catacomb church, the simple act of communication is almost impossible. People are in little clusters. They're trying the best they can to communicate with one another, but it's very difficult."

With the legalization, he said communication was opened, the synod could function efficiently, and the people were tremendously affirmed in their faith.

PATRIARCHS SOUGHT PEACE

He spoke of Patriarchs Myroslav

Lubachivsky and Lubomyr Husar, who took steps towards a peaceful resolution. Lubachivsky was born in Ukraine, but led the Church from Rome because the Ukrainian Catholic Church was outlawed. When the Church was legalized, he returned to Ukraine in March 1991.

Motiuk admitted that the 25th anniversary will have a bittersweet taste with the current conflict in Ukraine.

"In Crimea, some Ukrainian Catholic priests received death threats. Signs were posted on their places of worship, and at their homes. Most of them are married, and they evacuated their families," said Motiuk.

Again, the Catholic faithful must take a hush-hush approach to worship.

"For decades the Church went underground, and finally it was able to be free, and legally register itself with the government 25 years ago. Now again its freedom, way of life and very existence are threatened," said Motiuk.

STRONGER PUBLIC CHARACTER

Wojcichowsky said the legalization has strengthened the Church's public character, and allowed it to be present amidst the current conflict.

"The Church is able to be with its people in a public way, and that is vital," said Wojcichowsky.

In Edmonton, a concert is set for April 29 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Josaphat Cathedral to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the legalization of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ukraine.

Wojcichowsky said the Church is aiming all of its fundraising efforts towards supporting the relief efforts in Ukraine.

A couple of choirs will perform under the direction of Dr. Melanie Turgeon. She teaches music at The King's College and is choir director at the cathedral. She is also the niece of Bishop Demetrius Martin Greschuk, the second bishop of the Edmonton Eparchy.