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Bridging Old and New Ukraine

Spending Theophany with Ukrainian seminarians in Connecticut, the author learns of the changes in post-Communist Ukraine.

It was a January day not unlike the one I spent in western Ukraine exactly three years earlier. Mounds of sooty snow hugged the curbs. Fog blanketed the city. A raw wind ripped through layers of wool clothing. As my train sped northward from Grand Central Terminal, I restrained myself from reminiscing about that excursion through Ukraine. I had to concentrate on the subject at hand.

The Most Rev. Basil H. Losten, Bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford and a member of CNEWA’s Board of Trustees, had invited me to spend Theophany, the feast of Christ’s Baptism in the river Jordan, with his seminary community at St. Basil College in the southern Connecticut city of Stamford.

Founded by Bishop Constantine Bohachevsky in 1939, St. Basil served as a college seminary for young men discerning a priestly vocation for the Ukrainian Catholic community, a Byzantine Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

Many graduates of St. Basil may be counted among the roster of priests now serving this community. With the general decline of vocations in the United States, however, it appeared that the college seminary had a dismal future. Events in the old country have changed this course of events.

For more than 40 years the Ukrainian Catholic Church operated almost exclusively outside of Ukraine. Historically centered in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, which passed to Poland in 1918, this virulently anticommunist church was dissolved by Stalin after the Soviet occupation of Galicia in 1946. Rather than submit to the Orthodox patriarchate in Moscow, eight bishops were imprisoned, together with 1,400 priests, 800 nuns and thousands of lay people.

Beginning in 1947, more than 85,000 western Ukrainians fled and finally settled in the U.S. There, they joined more than 300,000 Americans of Galician origin. Bolstered by this influx of immigrants, the Ukrainian Catholic Church in exile prospered, while the church in the motherland was driven underground.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) awakened this subjugated community, which before World War II numbered more than four million souls. Thousands jammed the Baroque squares of Lviv, Galicians capital, demanding recognition and legality. More than 200 Orthodox priests and over 300 parishes declared themselves Catholic. Bishops, priests, religious and laity emerged from hiding. Open-air liturgies, which considered nationalist themes as well, attracted thousands of worshippers, as well as the merely curious.

These demonstrations culminated with the official registration of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in December 1989. In just three years, church records counted more than 2,300 churches and communities, 11 bishops, about 1,100 priests, 350 monks, 800 nuns and nearly 1,000 seminarians.

Such rapid and unnaturally accelerated growth – together with the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. and the founding of an independent Ukraine – hampered the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s return to a normal ecclesial life. Catholic-Orthodox relations suffered as conflicts over property restitution arose. Ancient sectarian rivalries and resentment of Russian domination intensified. Strapped for adequate resources, the Ukrainian Church was unable to educate and house adequately the growing number of young men interested in priesthood.

In 1994, Bishop Losten instituted a five-year program for priestly candidates at St. Basil College, assisting the Ukrainian Church to respond to these challenges. An English as a Second Language program inaugurates this course of study and is followed by a traditional four-year liberal arts curriculum with an emphasis on philosophy and pre-theology.

In August of that year, after rigorous enrollment exercises, 20 young men gathered in Lviv to begin their journey to the United States. More than 16 months later, I had the opportunity to speak to five of them, now college freshmen.

We gathered in a conference room lined with books. Though apprehensive at first, these students – all in their early 20s – opened up as soon as we began to speak of the city of Lviv. A source of tremendous pride for most Ukrainians, Lviv is in dire need of restoration. Renowned for its architecture, this splendid city of 800,000 was allowed by the Soviets to decay; punishment for the city’s place in the hearts of Ukrainian patriots.

Most of these young men were born and reared in small farming villages – the nucleus of Slav society.

The students spoke about their school-masters and teachers, the ideological watchdogs of the Soviet state. One fellow, Ostap Soulima, a bespectacled student with brown hair, remarked that several of his peers were the children of prominent communist bureaucrats:

“My teachers were particularly zealous in monitoring the ‘morality’ of their students,” Ostap remarked with some irony. “Belief in God was considered immoral in Soviet society.”

All of the students acknowledged their grandmothers for instilling the Christian faith and preserving their Ukrainian Catholic heritage. But not everything was passed from one generation to another.

“Our grandparents could not trust everyone,” they stated. This fear even extended to their own children and grandchildren.

“Very few people knew the time and place for the secret liturgies,” they continued. “We didn’t know who was or wasn’t a Greek Catholic priest.”

One man, Kostadin Angelov, or Dino, as he is known to his colleagues, remained quiet throughout the early part of our conversation. Dino is one of two students at St. Basil’s from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The student body also includes a Slovak, a Pole and a young man from the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

Dino’s experiences are quite different from those of his Ukrainian friends.

“There are only about 6,000 Greek Catholics in Macedonia,” Dino conveyed in a soft voice. “Our problems are more political. The Serbs and Greeks deny our Macedonian nationality. The Serbs and Greeks have imposed a blockade; food and medicine may only be imported through Bulgaria. And now the black market is very powerful.”

“I want to serve our community as a village priest, to help educate our people about Jesus and the Gospel,” Dino concluded.

Indeed all of the men I spoke to desired nothing more than to be village priests.

This desire may seem unambitious. However, the role of a village priest carries “tremendous responsibility,” said Roman Vitynskyi, a solidly built young man whose grandfather fought both Nazi and Soviet soldiers as a Ukrainian freedom fighter during World War II.

“Priests are community leaders,” Roman continued. “Well-educated village priests will teach their people to respect one another.”

“A well-educated village priest,” added Ostap, “will teach nationalism in a good sense, not extremism.”

This allusion to the Catholic-Orthodox struggle, often led by village priests, hit a resounding chord with the students.

It is this sense of mutual respect and love, anchored by faith in Jesus Christ, that brought these men to St. Basil College. Yet, they do long for their homeland.

Five members of the Catechists of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a Ukrainian Catholic lay institute founded in Brazil, help the students adjust in a most fundamental way – through their stomachs. In addition to their catechetical work in parishes throughout the eparchy, these Brazilian-Ukrainian women prepare traditional Ukrainian fare daily, a gentle reminder of home. On Theophany, the catechists are charged with preparing the Holy Supper, a meatless feast that will begin after the service of the Blessing of Water.

As evening approached, the seminary community gathered in the chapel, glittering with red and gold mosaics. Bishop Losten concelebrated the liturgy with members of the seminary staff, including the Rev. Edward Young, Rector of the seminary.

The liturgy was a lovely one, combining many symbolic elements. Following the Liturgy of the Word and a litany of intercessory prayers, the Bishop took three lighted candles and, after making the sign of the cross with them over the water, immersed them into the water.

The congregation responded with a lengthy prayer chanted in Ukrainian. The Bishop then prayed:

“Therefore, O king and lover of mankind, you yourself be present now as then through the descent of your Holy Spirit, and sanctify this water,” after which he blew on the water in the form of a cross. Then he blessed the water with the sign of the cross.

The liturgy concluded with the signing of the waters with a sacred cross, which the Bishop then plunged into the water as he sang a hymn in honor of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. He sprinkled the people, who then lined up to drink the blessed water.

Our celebration of Theophany concluded with a feast, a meatless meal that began with the ritual distribution of bread, a round pita-like bread made from honey, eggs, brown sugar and flour.

Spiritually and physically nourished, the St. Basil college community – led by its shepherd, Bishop Losten – closed the evening with a round of Ukrainian carols, toasts and prayers. While enjoying my new friends at table, I could not help but remember with great affection the ones I left behind in Ukraine three years ago.

Michael La Civita is the Editor of Catholic Near East magazine.

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