Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic Bishop Milan Sasik, C.M., looks out the window of his office in Uzhorod. (photo: Oleg Grigoryev)
Bishop Milan Sasik shows off a model of a Rusyn-style church in his office. (photo: Oleg Grigoryev)
Bishop Milan Sasik’s eyes shine as he guides visitors through his residence, discussing the restoration of the 18th-century murals adorning the unfurnished chamber.
Located about a mile from Ukraine’s border with Slovakia, the 62-year-old Vincentian’s residence had been part of a state university library for nearly 60 years, until 2004.
The bishop pauses at a painting of a winged herald sounding a trumpet. “We had artisans come from Lviv to do the painstaking restoration work. They did this for more than a year,” he says.
He points to the Latin words on the banner hanging from the angel’s trumpet, which translate to “Long live Maria Theresa” — a reference to the Holy Roman empress of the Hapsburg dynasty who, in 1771, successfully petitioned Pope Clement XIV to erect the Eparchy of Mukacevo and recognize the faithful in this rugged region as Greek Catholics.
This dedication is an example of the historical pedigree Bishop Milan is trying to restore in Ukraine’s westernmost region of Transcarpathia, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, where some 25 percent of the population — about 320,000 people — are Greek Catholics.
This wooded, mountainous area has a diverse population, which includes ethnic Ukrainians, Slovaks, Hungarians, Jews and Roma. Many identify themselves as Rusyns (often Latinized as “Ruthenians”), an eastern Slavic people who trace their roots to the Kievan Rus’, a kingdom that flourished about a millennium ago.
Their spiritual traditions are founded on the sermons of two Byzantine sibling monks, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, credited with introducing the Cyrillic alphabet in Central Europe in the 9th century.
Isolated by mountains from other eastern Slavs, such as the Ukrainians and Belarusians, Rusyns developed their own unique culture and identity. Although Transcarpathia is their primary homeland, they also inhabit portions of eastern Slovakia and Hungary, as well the southeastern border areas of modern-day Poland.
“We have four Romanian parishes, 40 communities that speak Hungarian, as well as Slovaks,” Bishop Milan says. “We celebrate the liturgy in four languages — Church Slavonic, Ukrainian, Hungarian and Slovak.”
In addition to their Eastern Christian faith and distinct alphabet, the unique wooden churches that dot the area constitute an art form unto themselves. Constructed from carved wooden joints without the use of nails or other tools, these airtight buildings are a distinctive part of the Rusyn heritage.
A detailed model of one such church stands prominently in Bishop Milan’s meeting room — a gift for his 60th birthday.
“I foremost felt the fear of God,” the Slovakia-born bishop says, describing his reaction when Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop of the Eparchy of Mukacevo in January 2003.
“I gradually felt the historical weight on my shoulders, including the weight of the region’s problems. I had spent six years in Kiev from 1992 to 1998, and two years nearby in one parish in Zakarpattia [the official name of the region] since 2000. When I directly faced these problems, it turned out that there was much I didn’t know.”
These complications stem from years of ethnic antagonism. The people of Transcarpathia faced subjugation at the hands the Hapsburgs, and later what became the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which pursued campaigns of forcible assimilation. Many Rusyns emigrated abroad as a result — as far away as the United States, where tight-knit communities formed, and as near as the Balkans, where they populated lands in modern-day Croatia and Serbia.
Rusyns enjoyed brief autonomy in the interwar period, under what was then Czechoslovakia. Unified within a semi-autonomous region, the Greek Catholic Rusyns flourished, building networks of schools, seminaries and churches, and expanding infrastructure throughout the region, such as paved roads and rail transport. Greek Catholic priests would often act as administrators, given their advanced education through the local seminaries. Bishop Milan has also inherited the deeply entrenched legacy of the Soviet Union, which suppressed the Greek Catholic Church nearly to the point of annihilation. From 1946 until perestroika in 1989, the church was driven underground.
According to Bishop Milan, his Soviet-era predecessor, Bishop Theodore Romzha, was assassinated in November 1947. Deprived of the services of his church and kept under de facto house arrest, required to ask for permission to take leave, Bishop Theodore soon fell victim to an orchestrated vehicle accident; a truck struck his horse-drawn carriage in Uzhorod. While the driver of the carriage was killed, the bishop was hospitalized.
Soon thereafter, a female intelligence agent posing as a nurse administered a lethal injection.
Bishop Theodore was laid to rest in a crypt housing generations of bishops, priests and prominent church community members. So bare was his interment, no looter disturbed his remains in the chaotic years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
As Ukraine still struggled with nascent nation building, Bishop Milan encountered a community in a state of “spiritual hunger.”
Its shepherds, 128 priests, had been placed in Soviet prisons and sent to exile in Siberia, and 20 would never return alive. Some 40 churches had been destroyed by the Communist government, and 273 more were transferred to the Orthodox Church of Russia — the only church the Soviets had authorized, which operated under the strict control of the Kremlin.
In 1991, when Ukraine gained independence, the eparchy initially regained only 117 churches and four monasteries from Moscow. Of the more than 500 eparchial institutional buildings that were nationalized, the eparchy was left with 60.
As a result, Bishop Milan initially had nowhere to live.
“I joked that I would live in the cathedral tower, or in the crypt or even in the sacristy.”
Parishes were forced to celebrate the Divine Liturgy outdoors, or share space with Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. Parish priests had nowhere to live so they stayed with relatives, rented dormitory rooms, or sought shelter in ways less conducive to serving their flocks. Moreover, as of 2003, about a third of communities were not regularly served by a priest.
The priority was clear: The bishop initiated numerous brick-and-mortar projects — most importantly, a seminary to meet the demand of the newly resurgent faithful.
“I saw that I had to respond to that spiritual hunger, that priests were needed. As a pastor, I understood this was beyond my strength; I couldn’t create the vocation in them, since it is God who donates the vocation,” he says.
Bishop Milan sought funds from various donor organizations abroad and locally, and began construction. He consecrated eight new houses of worship in 2003. The following year he erected another 20 churches, and has since averaged about 15 yearly.
“Some churches get built in four years, others, more big ones get built in more — we don’t know about the future,” the bishop says.
“The year 2014 was the weakest; because of the war, only six churches were completed and blessed,” he says. “I’ve already blessed seven completed churches this current year.”
The bishop notes parish donations have dwindled because people are donating more for the war effort. The violence in the eastern half of the country has killed more than 6,000 people, according to the U.N., and displaced more than 2.2 million people — including 1.4 million internally displaced.
“We buried more than 50 men because of the war,” he says.
“Still, we must ensure that churches get built. If we have 265 priests and only 125 rectories, that means we have up to 150 priests who don’t have a roof over their heads — they either rent living space or live with their relatives. This is a huge problem.”
Today, the eparchy’s clergy has roughly doubled. “There were 135 priests, now we have 265 serving priests,” Bishop Milan says. And more are yet coming — another 80 seminary students have nearly completed their studies.
The eparchy’s priests average 35 years in age. Younger members use Facebook and other media to engage with parishioners. Some organize bike rides, hold soccer matches and strive to make youth catechism more fun, according to the bishop.
The eparch notes that each priest may have a different way to immerse himself within the community, though all face similar difficulties — especially resource limitations during this difficult time.
“If you want to become rich in this world, please enroll in a business school,” Bishop Milan warns his priests and seminarians. “If you are truly called by God, then get ready to be poor in this world and to face difficulties. This is the first condition that you must take into consideration.”
Yet there are other challenges, as well — especially in the more secluded, rural areas where the Orthodox Church holds sway, where some report sectarian tensions. Bishop Milan speaks harshly of acts “promoting religious hatred,” adding that such parochialism “denigrates the work of priests.”
For his guidance through countless difficulties, Bishop Milan has earned a reputation among lay people and priests alike for legendary, seemingly boundless energy and passion — perhaps the universal character trait required for any vocation.
Despite his achievements, however, the bishop remains modest.
“My role is that of being a middleman. I see no merit here. The almighty God showed his love toward this eparchy,” he says.
“I see God’s blessing and grace toward our church. Many people have lost their lives for this church, for the survival of this church and its resurrection.”