A seminarian prays before the morning liturgy in Uzhorod, Ukraine. (photo: Oleg Grigoryev)
The bells of Holy Cross Cathedral call together Uzhorod’s Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic community. (photo: Oleg Grigoryev)
After the morning liturgy, a seminarian shares a biblical story with an aspiring scholar. (photo: Oleg Grigoryev)
Seminarians share duties in tending the greenhouse at the academy in Uzhorod. (photo: Oleg Grigoryev)
Mykhailo Dzhidzhina describes his least favorite part of the day: waking up at 6:15 a.m.
“The after-lunch lesson is also tough,” the 21-year-old student adds — not because the course material is too difficult, but because it’s hard to stay awake after a heavy meal.
Though he sounds like a typical university student, there is one difference: Mr. Dzhidzhina is preparing for the priesthood with some 80 others at the Uzhorod Greek Catholic Theological Academy of the Blessed Theodore Romzha, about three miles from Ukraine’s southwestern border with Slovakia.
The education Mr. Dzhidzhina receives in the seven-year program includes philosophy, communications, music, intensive language studies in Latin and Ukrainian, and eparchial history. And what a history it is — one that has endured repeated turmoil over four centuries. Yet today, the faith and the seminary nurturing its future priests are not only surviving, but thriving. Just a few years ago, that would have been unthinkable.
The seminary was first established in Uzhorod in 1740 within a 13th-century castle. There in 1646, a number of Orthodox priests and monks entered into full communion with the Catholic Church even as they preserved their Byzantine rites and unique Rusyn traditions of the Carpathian Mountains. In 1771, to gather together this unique church of shepherds and peasants, Pope Clement XIV erected the Eparchy of Mukacevo, which today is the mother church for three ecclesiastic jurisdictions that comprise the diffuse Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic churches. Though scattered across Central Europe and even North America, Rusyn Greek Catholics — also called Ruthenians — share the same origins, traditions and culture.
Uzhorod’s seminary thrived until after World War II. In 1946, the Soviets occupied what had been eastern Czechoslovakia, annexed the Transcarpathian region to Ukraine, banned the Greek Catholic Church — forcing Rusyn Greek Catholics to choose between public worship in an Orthodox church of the Moscow Patriarchate or underground — and closed the doors of the seminary. The Soviets shuttered convents and monasteries, imprisoning 128 priests, 20 of whom would never return alive. The Soviets ordered the bishop, Theodore Romzha, to join the Moscow Patriarchate, which at the time was controlled by the Kremlin.
Under Nikita Khrushchev’s order, Bishop Theodore was assassinated in Uzhorod in 1947 — poisoned by an agent of the N.K.V.D., the predecessor agency of the K.G.B., and given a pauper’s funeral. The new theological academy, completed in 2004, bears Bishop Theodore’s name as a tribute to his perseverance and faith, but also a reminder of the region’s painful past.
The Rev. Petro Beresh, 37, the seminary’s rector, remembers how his mother cried in 1993 when he told her he wanted to enter the priesthood. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Ukraine, she worried repression could return at any moment: The situation was, and remains, fragile.
“We used to joke that the biggest building in Uzhorod was the K.G.B. building, because you could end up in Siberia,” he says.
But two decades later, those fears have largely vanished in a land where faith is flourishing. The atmosphere in the seminary is one rich with history and hope. Around campus, the air carries the faint hum of the unique liturgical plainchant, or prostopinije, of the Rusyn Greek Catholic community in Transcarpathia. Indeed, in the chapel a short walk away, one can hear the same chant in all its glory, as a standing-room congregation of some 200 worshipers celebrates the Divine Liturgy.
In much the same way, throughout the region, the faith Greek Catholics once handed down in whispers now booms from a growing chorus of aspiring priests.
Naturally isolated from Ukraine proper by the Carpathian Mountains, the Eparchy of Mukacevo encompasses the province of Zakarpattia, where about a quarter of the 1.25 million residents are Greek Catholic. The region’s cultural features include Eastern Christian traditions and the Cyrillic alphabet introduced by the disciples of ninth-century sibling monks Cyril and Methodius. Over time, these attributes, along with the local eastern Slavic tongue and the unique wooden churches that dot the region, contributed to a distinctive Rusyn identity. It is an identity that survived decades of oppressive rule by Hungarian, Austrian or Polish masters — and, as a result, a variety of shifting nationalities.
“One could have lived in four or five countries without ever leaving one’s home,” Father Beresh says.
According to Slovak-native Bishop Milan Sasik, who has shepherded the Eparchy of Mukacevo since his appointment in 2002, the Rusyn cultural identity, though highly dominant in previous centuries, “took on less significance in the 20th century.”
But while cultural identity faded, religious identity persisted — often in secret.
Nearly everyone attending the liturgy at the seminary chapel prays and sings without the aid of books — a testament to their underground roots. The faithful surreptitiously learned prayers by rote for more than 40 years.
“I often attended ‘grandmother’s birthday,’ &dquo; the Father Beresh says wryly of the code he used to denote attendance at an underground religious service.
During perestroika, when certain restrictions were loosened in the late 1980’s, about 60 Rusyn Greek Catholic priests re-emerged in Zakarpattia, men who were known to many of their neighbors and friends as simple bus depot managers, mechanics, lumberjacks or taxi drivers. But they helped plant seeds of renewal, the beginning of what became a remarkable renaissance of Greek Catholicism — a renaissance Bishop Milan has worked tirelessly to cultivate.
To maintain continuity and institutional memory, Bishop Milan made the construction of the seminary a high priority. Today, young priests (their average age is 35) are beginning to staff the eparchy’s 430 parish churches — but the demands continue to grow: Some 35 churches are under construction; another 20 churches and chapels remain to be built; and there are not enough rectories to house parish priests and their families. At least 80 need to be acquired.
Most of the parish communities are located in the rural, mountainous region, where the people and priests are intimately connected. Standards at the seminary, therefore, are high.
“We ask: ‘Do they want to be beneficial or take advantage of society?” Father Beresh says of the vetting process for seminarians overseen by a commission appointed by the bishop. “Do they want to be with those who suffer, with those who are in need?’ ”
Out of 30 candidates, fewer than half are accepted each year. This ensures a high graduation rate — up to 95 percent, according to Father Beresh. Some candidates are accepted after applying two or three times.
Third-year seminarian Vyacheslav Holysh was not selected on his first try. He says he took his own bad behaviors — including foul language and alcohol abuse — too lightly.
“I questioned God when I wasn’t accepted, but I realized God wanted better from me — a lesson I had to learn before I was ready to enter,” says the 21-year-old native of the rural farming village of Ivanivtsi.
He worked to alter his behavior. “This helped me consciously change myself. I rejected this part of me until I was ready to join,” he says. “Now I’m thankful, because this group of students is a great bunch.”
Some prospective clergymen also face misunderstanding due to stereotypes held over from the Soviet era.
“My parents approved of my choice, but others thought I was crazy,” says 20-year-old Pavlo Sosnytsky. “They thought I would be locked up, have my cell phone confiscated, and be given no internet access; that I wouldn’t be able to play soccer or get married; and that I’d grow a beard. They didn’t know that I would just lead a normal Christian life.”
The white chapel’s circular architecture draws the eye to the traditional iconostasis — a wall of icons that separates the sanctuary from the nave in a Catholic or Orthodox church of the Byzantine tradition. “It sums up the whole theology,” Father Beresh says.
“The wall wants to unite us.”
But unity doesn’t mean uniformity. Steeped in tradition, the Divine Liturgy is usually celebrated in Old Church Slavonic, but also periodically in Ukrainian, Romanian and Hungarian to serve the rich ethnic diversity of the region.
“There is unity in difference; this unites our souls,” Father Beresh says, pointing out that since the seminarians follow both the Gregorian and Julian calendars, Christmas and Easter vacations are long enough to accommodate both traditions.
“A normal Rusyn must celebrate two Christmases and two Easters,” he jokes.
When asked to elaborate on the identity of Rusyns in the region he says: “It is part of being a person of this land, our region.
“To speak of being a local patriot,” he adds, “you will invariably insult somebody. I want to remain a Christian.”
Traditions are a large part of why so many worshipers flock to the seminary. After attending the Divine Liturgy, Oleh Kolchar, 29, his wife and little daughter walk together to the gate.
“My grandmother taught me to go to church. From her I felt the presence of God and through prayer,” he says. “It’s the same traditions that other Greek Catholics follow in other western regions of Ukraine. It is a tight community, and the priests are always the first people to be here.”
To the outsider accustomed to the Latin-rite Mass of the Roman Catholic Church, the Divine Liturgy in Transcarpathia might seem “chaotic,” Father Beresh says.
“There is constant movement during the liturgy. People light candles to the left and right, there is singing, doors opening at the iconostasis, the sound of chains clinking on the censer,” he says. “The Eastern rite envelops the person, all of the senses: scent from the incense, flesh through the icons, speech in prayer and chanting.”
That spirit extends beyond the church building. The seminary’s design provides an abundance of open space that encourages both contemplation and conversation. Solar panels attached to the roof power the boiler, while the thick walls provide plenty of insulation to keep temperatures cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Natural light pours through the skylight of the building that houses the classrooms, dormitories, rectory and kitchen. Even the kitchen helps to proclaim the Gospel; a painting of Jesus at the Sea of Galilee adorns the wall.
Between time for study and prayer, the seminarians are also given time to relax. Many tend to the vegetable garden and greenhouses that grow onions, bell peppers, cabbages and varieties of tomatoes. The manicured lawns on the small estate are also home to juniper, walnut, cherry, beech and almond trees, along with tall rose bushes.
In true European fashion, there is also a soccer field — a reminder, perhaps, that in this far corner of Ukraine, many feel the nation should strengthen its identity as a part of Europe. The issue of Ukraine’s identity, however, lies at the very heart of the current conflict embroiling the country.
By any measure, the effects of the war have been devastating. According to the United Nations, from April 2014 to July 2015, nearly 7,000 people died in the war zone. At least 2.2 million people have been uprooted from their homes — the worst displacement of Europeans since World War II. Industrial production has fallen by about 20 percent and the hryvnia, Ukraine’s currency, has depreciated by 61 percent since the start of 2014. This weighs heavily upon a depressed region, such as Zakarpattia, where the average monthly salary is around $100.
Against this, the seminary’s peaceful grounds have become a center for spiritual guidance to parishes that have suffered from the upheaval and economic collapse.
“War isn’t normal, it is abnormal,” Father Beresh says. “Yesterday’s brother is today’s enemy. We’ve felt the war; we have buried people who died. It is a catastrophe. We have our own share of refugees.”
Father Beresh says that the cadre of new priests must “turn our face toward the people.” And the young priests they train are prepared to minister selflessly in this time of great hardship.
Seminarian Sosnytsky says he has been ready to face the world since he was 14 years old, when he became an altar server and began learning about the priesthood. He is considering continuing his studies in Rome once he graduates.
“But,” he says, “I will go where I am needed.”
Mark Raczkiewycz is editor at large for the Kyiv Post in Ukraine. His work has appeared in the The Financial Times, The Irish Times and Jane’s Intelligence, among other places.