Ukraine’s upheavals have been tremendous. In the spring edition of ONE, Bishop Borys Gudziak gave a vivid eyewitness account of last winter’s demonstrations in Kiev. We wondered how the crisis there has affected the next generation of priests and impacted the faith of the people — especially those Greek Catholics who, during the Soviet regime, were forced to practice their faith in secret. Antin Sloboda from CNEWA’s office in Canada reached out to one seminarian in Kiev, who answered several questions via email and, in the process, give us a rare glimpse at the life of a man who hopes one day to serve as a priest in Ukraine.
ONE: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Oleksandr Bohomaz: I was born in 1988 in the little town of Nyzhni Sirohozy in Ukraine’s southern region of Kherson. As a child, I was baptized in the Orthodox Church, the only church in our district. My family did not go to church regularly, since the church was quite far away. In my social environment and among my classmates, churchgoers and believers were laughed at. I was ashamed to speak publicly about God and I did not have courage to do so.
After the completion of the secondary school I went to study at Melitopol Pedagogical University, where I received a degree in history. I worked for two years as a teacher and as a part-time lecturer at the same university where I had studied.
ONE: How did you discover your vocation to priesthood?
OB: In the final years of college, I met a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest — Father Petro Krinitski. Initially, I had a very negative attitude toward Catholic priests because of ingrained prejudices and stereotypes. However, when I got to know Father Krinitski better and I saw how he treated other people, I started to attend daily liturgies at the small chapel where he ministered.
As I grew in my discovery of God and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, I realized I wanted not only to become a Greek Catholic, but to dedicate my entire life to minister as a priest in this church. In 2011, I applied to the seminary of the Three Hierarchs in Kiev.
ONE: What inspired you to want to become a priest?
OB: I aspire to bring people closer to God. Our people are very poor, materially and spiritually. Soviet rule wounded spiritual life in Ukraine, and now it is strongly needed. Many people struggle with addiction — families are broken.
My family has been also touched by the problem of alcoholism. I believe only Jesus can help us to overcome these challenges and that he calls me to dedicate my life to proclaiming his love to all people.
ONE: What is seminary life like?
OB: It is totally different from how I am used to living. We have a well-structured schedule, which has time for prayer, studies and recreation. It’s a real pleasure to observe how all of us at the seminary mature and grow spiritually and in our humanity. We are like a real family.The seminary puts special focus on how to live with God and our neighbor.
ONE: How would you describe the faith of the people of Ukraine, especially now? Have you noticed a change since last winter?
OB: The religious situation in Ukraine is very complex. We are very thirsty for a living faith. Even though most people are baptized in Orthodox churches they are not practicing Christians. In a parish where the priest is truly a man of God and lives his life virtuously, parishioners around him become true Christians. This is how my family became Christian. Because of the local priest we attended church services and started to receive the sacraments.
The Lord has used the recent events in Ukraine to strengthen the faith of our people. First of all, Ukrainians, who for centuries were dominated by others, finally have realized they are one nation. Since November 2013, our priests have actively supported the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to fight for their dignity and justice. More people now trust the church, even those who previously identified themselves as atheists.
On the Maidan Square in Kiev, I had a chance to pray with people who have never prayed before. People asked me to teach them how to pray and how to live a life of a Christian. This is indeed wonderful! Being able to speak with such people is an incredible experience of God’s love in action. The recent events in the country have strengthened my faith and the faith of my neighbors.
ONE: What are your hopes for the future?
OB: I hope I will successfully complete the seminary and that I will become a faithful and humble priest. I want to be a witness of God’s greatness, and I want to proclaim his Gospel. I already see how God gives us a chance to become authentic Christians.
I hope we will become the people who provide care for the marginalized and the weak. I wish all Ukrainians could be like the Good Samaritan. … What else? I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.
ONE: CNEWA supports seminarians around the world. What does this support mean to you and your brother seminarians?
OB: First of all, I ask for your prayers. When I realize someone on the other side of the planet is praying for me, it is very encouraging and a source of support. It’s wonderful to realize that through the prayer we are united, regardless of where we live.
Our seminary is only four years old — it is a child learning how to live in this world. We are immersed in construction because there are no facilities for those seminarians coming next year. Our seminary leadership is constantly looking for funds. Most of us come from poor families and we cannot pay for our room and board. For example, there is a family in the Czech Republic who supports me financially. We cannot say enough about people’s generosity and solidarity.
I also would like to invite you to Kiev to our seminary — please visit us and see with your own eyes. There are many young people who want to know God, but are afraid to leave their usual corners of life. If you would come, it would also give me a chance to improve my English!