A Monument to Heroism in Ukraine

Author: Markijam Trofimiak, Bishop of Lutsk


Markijam Trofimiak
Bishop of Lutsk

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 hands". 

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, indigenous roots. 

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 Jaworski). 

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. 

Although deprived 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. 

In the 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 "Living Rosary". 

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. 

Genowefa 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. 

In 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 still unknown. 

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. 

I cannot imagine them without the Rosary. To put it better, I cannot imagine the rebirth of our Church in the Ukraine without the Rosary. 

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! 

We bow 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.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 July 2003, page 8

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