Msgr. John Kozar visits the Rev. Ihor Hrishchenko and his parishioners in Mala Vilshanka. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk heads the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
Seminarians perform in a choir during the Divine Liturgy. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
Youth present gifts to Archbishop Sviatoslav during a ceremony at the Three Saints Theological Seminary in Kiev. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
A church-run workshop teaches crafts to people with special needs. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
In Lviv, Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate care for a bedridden sister who once served the underground church. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
Our Holy Father recently invited us to join him in prayer for the Ukrainian people who have suffered much and have systematically been persecuted and even martyred over the past century. Their persecution included the tragic death of millions from famine, deportation to Siberia, and summary execution at the hands of Communist authorities. Although the suffering and persecution included both Catholic and Orthodox faithful, I want to share with you a few observations about the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in particular and how this community of faith is today.
Having visited Ukraine only a few months ago, joined by Carl Hétu, who directs the CNEWA office in Canada, I felt blessed to spend some quality time with hierarchs, religious men and women, lay catechists and ecclesial social service workers – and with the faithful themselves.
Despite its tumultuous and long-suffering history, the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine is a very dynamic and mission-minded church today. It does not live in its past, it does not seek sympathy, it does not put forth excuses. Rather, it represents the church described by Pope Francis — a vibrant community in love with Christ, a community of people who want to share his love with all. It is a church on fire with the call to evangelization.
This church is led by a very dynamic and courageous father figure, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who shepherds his flocks with humility, honesty and keen pastoral insight. He has undertaken a church-wide campaign of renewal, commitment and ministry that extends to every aspect of church life.
Vocations to the priesthood are thriving, as many young men accept the call to serve the church as priests, in traditional and newly emerging roles as spiritual counselors and military chaplains, working in areas afflicted by war. This is also the case with women religious, as some step forward to work beyond the “buffer zone” with faithful who have been left behind in war-torn areas because of age or infirmity.
There is also a very strong determination to reach out to the human needs of the faithful, in the context of living out their faith commitment — needs all the more poignant given the impact of war in eastern Ukraine and the number of displaced faithful living far from their home region. Caritas Ukraine is a model for the international Catholic Charities movement, which proudly professes, “Caritas is the church.” Their service extends to all the dioceses and to all the parishes in inviting every member of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to respond to the human needs of the entire “family.”
We visited some rural parishes where the patient endurance and determination of some heroic clergy and their families is truly remarkable. Let me explain.
Imagine that as a young married priest — which is the norm in this Catholic and Eastern church — you and your wife and perhaps a young child or two begin a new parish in an unchurched rural village. Your church is a rented garage and you make an altar from a few crates and some planks and for the first year nobody comes — only you and your wife. Then, after a year or two, two or three people come by and without any fanfare join the priest for Divine Liturgy. And maybe a few years on, 10 or 15 people come for the Christmas liturgy, and so on.
The priest never gives up. His enduring patience and willingness to serve don’t go unnoticed. And just maybe, after five or ten years, the little community buys some property and erects a “Lego” church — a small wooden pre-cut structure assembled from a church building “kit” from western Ukraine.
We encountered several such parish scenarios in a number of villages in Ukraine and each was unique, yet each one highlighted the determination, patience and service of the respective pastor.
There were other highlights of my pastoral visit that included activities at the Ukrainian Catholic University; meals with special needs communities; consecration of the seminary chapel in Kiev, funded by the generous gift of a CNEWA Canadian donor; visits with religious women — three of whom lived “underground” for much of their religious life; conversations with military chaplains; and discussions with many of the bishops who assembled in Ukraine for their synod.
Despite serious economic, political and religious challenges, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is strong and mission centered. In this sense, it offers us an example of how we can be a better church here at home. CNEWA is honored to offer support to this church and all of the CNEWA family is enriched by the prayer and ministry of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine.
Please keep our Ukrainian family in your prayers. May Jesus, the Prince of Peace, reign in the hearts of all.