|Once at a symposium, I was asked: "Should it ever be decided to
erect a monument in the [sic] Ukraine to the person who has made the
greatest contribution to safeguarding the faith in this land, to whom
would it be justly dedicated?". I pondered awhile before answering.
In a flash, the faces of well-known priests who survived the
concentration camps, Soviet prisons and years of physical and moral
terror passed before my eyes. The witness to faith of these priests
surpasses what we are accustomed to call "heroism". Although
remembering their undeniable merits, I answered: "The monument
would have to be dedicated to an elderly woman with the Rosary in her
This answer may seem surprising. For this reason, in order
to understand it better, in order to perceive the situation of the
Catholic Church in the Ukraine, it is necessary to go to the heart
of its history.
The Catholic Church in Ukraine: a glance at history
When studying the history of the Catholic Church in our land, it is
necessary to be aware of one fact: because of its geographical position,
the Ukraine lies within the sphere of influence of two
civilizations, namely, that of the East and that of the West, Even the
Church has lived in rather unique circumstances. Some historians date
the beginnings of the Catholic Church's witness in the Ukraine to
the 10th century, to the era of the Kievan Rus. The sovereigns of the
Rus would, in fact, maintain relations with the popes and, even after
the painful separation, continued good relations with the Catholic West.
Therefore, contrary to widespread notions, Catholicism in the Ukraine is not a "foreign" phenomenon; rather, it has deep,
Nonetheless, in the 14th century, the Ukrainian Rus
lost its independence. Its lands were divided between different States.
In the western regions, which traditionally used to belong to Catholic
Countries, it was possible for Catholicism to develop normally, while in
the Eastern regions, the situation was rather difficult.
In 1917, the
Bolshevik Revolution, with the occupation of the Ukraine and the
installation of a communist regime, opened up a new "martyrology"
for the Church. Priests were called "Vatican agents";
"mock trials" would be set up against them; churches were
closed. Believers were being prohibited from professing their faith;
they were persecuted and punished. Religion was declared "the opium
of the people".
The Communist State systematically created an
atmosphere of fear. By 1933, more than two-thirds of Catholic churches
were closed to worship; they were blown up, changed into
"clubs", into depots and even into KGB torture chambers. In
1933, the Ukraine was struck by a severe, programmed famine, and,
according to the estimates of historians, it lost up to 11 million
inhabitants. It was a genocide that had as its goal the extermination of
the Ukrainians as a people. In the years 1937-1938 under the leadership
of Stalin, the antireligious politics of the communists reached their
height: in 1938, the last Catholic church of the Soviet Ukraine — the
Cathedral of St Alexander of Kiev — was closed. The priests were
deported, some of them were shot or exiled and others constrained to do
forced labour in Siberia, which was usually equivalent to the death
penalty. It seemed as if religion had been annihilated, the faith
conquered, and that the inhumane regime had triumphed over God himself.
Christians who were considered "untameable" were deported to
the most isolated areas of Siberia, of Kazakhstan and the Far East, tens
of thousands of kilometres from their homes.
At the end of the Second
World War, the prospects for the Catholic Church in the Ukraine,
which had become one of the Republics of the Soviet Union, were scarcely
consoling. The western region of the Ukraine, which had
previously been under Poland and Hungary, experienced suppression by
being united to the Soviet Ukraine. The clergy were exterminated,
the churches closed by force. In 1946, the Greek-Catholic Church was
banned. And, although the Roman Catholic Church was able to exist
legally in Ukrainian territory, the State, which was hypocritically
professing democratic ideals before the whole world, continued to
exterminate in systematic fashion all signs of Catholicism.
In 1945, at
Lutsk, Btehop Adolf Szelazek was arrested as a "spy of the
Vatican". At the age of 80, he was imprisoned, and only by the
pressure of world public opinion was he freed and exiled. In 1946,
Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak was forced to leave Lviv, together with all
students of the theological seminary (among whom was the present
Metropolitan Archbishop of Lviv of the Western Rite, Cardinal Marian
In the same year, the population was forced to emigrate en
masse to Poland, and only small groups of Catholics remained in the
Ukraine. The 1960s marked the beginning of a certain easing of
hostility in the State's attitude to religion. The State did not grant
Catholics the freedom of worship; if anything, it continued its battle
against them. But the tactics of such a fight became more
"humane". A priest, for instance, for having celebrated Holy
Mass in the house of one of the faithful, was suspended from his
functions, or rather, was forced to leave the country. Whoever worked
pastorally with young people was punished with three years imprisonment,
and the practising faithful were discharged from work.
of churches and priests, Catholics still lived in hope, entrusting
themselves to God. They did not give in and, following the example of
the first Christian communities, courageously endured all manner of
hardship. They prayed; and the most important prayer, the most sacred,
the one best known to all Catholics, was the Rosary.
A Sign of Hope and
Communion sustaining people in their trials
At the beginning of the
1980s there were only eight priests in the 13 parishes of Western
Ukraine. Often, in order to serve a parish, these priests would travel
hundreds of kilometres. Night and day, they would hear the confessions
of the faithful, taking a "break" only for the Holy Liturgy.
Various sanctions and a constant surveillance by the State units made
their work even more difficult and dangerous.
Father Ratal Kiernicki of
Lviv, for example, officially working as a street-sweeper, would hear
the confessions of the faithful while he was cleaning up the park,
because he was forbidden to do so openly. In central Ukraine, the
situation was a bit better. The perseverance and tenacity of the
faithful, in greater part rural people on collective farms who had
nothing to lose seeing the conditions in which they lived, made possible
the rebirth of nearly 40 parishes in the 1960s and 70s.
And because they
did not have priests in the churches, people would participate in the
Liturgy without priests. There are testimonies that are well remembered:
they would light candles on the altar and the faithful would place a
Latin missal there along with a chasuble, a sign of the presence of the
one who was absent, the one without whom the Offering could not be made
— that is, the priest. And together they would pray the Rosary.
Soviet Union, where every sign of religiosity was persecuted, it was
impossible to find religious texts and, above all, the Sacred
Scriptures. It was forbidden to teach children and young people, to
gather together to celebrate the Holy Mass, to sing hymns. For this
reason, the Rosary was the only way for Catholics to satisfy their
spiritual thirst. At a time when every form of worship was banned, the
rite the authorities considered the least "inoffensive" was
the funeral, and, therefore, it was at funerals that the faithful would
recite the Rosary.
Elderly persons would teach their own children this
blessed prayer, which they had learned by heart. The Rosary became
"everything" for the faithful. There were very few priests and
because of this, the regime would fiercely persecute any form of
religiosity among the faithful that might encourage a Catholic
awareness. The regime considered the biggest danger the so-called
The State, which had virtually wiped out the
ecclesiastical hierarchy, continued to fight believers. Nonetheless,
fidelity to the Church and to prayer inspired people and encouraged them
to heroic action. Here are a few examples from the recent past.
Pszonak of the Mostyska Parish was sentenced to two years of forced
labour in the 1950s for teaching catechism and prayers to children.
Today, her tenacity and faithfulness to Christ are an example to all.
1961, in the parish of Chargorod, the authorities decided to close a
church. For three days and three nights, the faithful stood around the
church to block a handing over of the key, and together they recited the
Rosary. In the end, the church was surrounded by the militia. An old man
with white hair, a war veteran, Peter Yaynetskyj, came out of the crowd.
He had a Rosary in his hand. He turned to the military officer and said:
"My son, I went through the whole war and I survived. So, if you
want, go ahead and shoot!". The soldier left, the others with him.
Similar events are numerous; witnesses remember them. Nevertheless,
there are many other acts of heroism of Ukrainian Catholics that are
While writing these lines, I have suddenly realized a
truth: I cannot imagine my mother without the Rosary in her hands; I
cannot imagine the faithful of that very difficult period of the 20th
century without the Rosary. Those faithful used to travel hundreds of
kilometres in order to attend at least for an hour the Holy Liturgy.
cannot imagine them without the Rosary. To put it better, I cannot
imagine the rebirth of our Church in the Ukraine without the
We, the sons of the 20th century, a century of human progress, a
century of the cruelest crimes, a century of brilliant discoveries, a
century of the ubiquity of falsehood, a century of the development of
democracy's ideals and a century of the totalitarian regimes' violence,
we have become partakers in the surprising changes that are taking place
in our country.
The Lord, in his extraordinary love, has given us the
opportunity to see the miraculous rebirth of the Church. We in the
Ukraine greeted the Holy Father John Paul II in June 2001!
profoundly, brimming with the greatest respect, before our fathers, our
predecessors who, like Abraham, believed against all hope and, like
Abraham, have become the fathers of many peoples. We bow profoundly
before their heroic faith in the Lord our God and in the Holy Church;
and we understand that one of the most solid cornerstones in the
foundation of their faith was a simple and unpretentious prayer to God
Almighty, a prayer to the Most Holy Virgin: the Rosary.