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Serving Church and Family

Ministry and married life fill the busy days of a Ukrainian priest

Perhaps for Halia Havrylenko, a young woman from western Ukraine, it was destiny.

“A former schoolteacher of mine recently told me she pictured me having this kind of husband,” says Mrs. Havrylenko. Her husband, Father Volodymyr Havrylenko, is a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, just like her brother, Father Vasyl Stetskyi.

The area that is now Ukraine has known the Eastern Christian tradition of ordaining both celibate and married men since Kievan Rus, the medieval predecessor of both modern Ukraine and Russia, embraced Christianity in 988.

The practice was confirmed when several bishops of the Church of Kiev reaffirmed their communion with the Church of Rome in 1596.

Despite this millennium-old tradition, Father Havrylenko was not always certain he would become a priest, much less one having to balance both pastoral and familial responsibilities.

“When I was a child,” he recalls, “going to church was a bore. I was very fidgety.” The army and seminary, however, have changed him, he says. Prayer and service now fill his days.

Since October 2001, Father Havrylenko has been associate pastor at St. George Church in Yavoriv, a town eight miles from the Polish border. He also serves as the administrator of a chapel in Koty, a neighboring village, and helps out at the parish of his brother-in-law, who is recovering from a leg injury.

Born in 1972, Volodymyr Havrylenko was reared during the last years of the underground era of the Greek Catholic Church, which was outlawed by the Soviet government. As a child, he says, he was not aware of the trials facing the church, which has since started to reassert itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine in 1991.

“My parents were Greek Catholics,” Father Havrylenko says, “but we attended an Orthodox church.” He and his siblings, however, were all baptized by underground Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests. An uncle, Father Marian Ferens, was an underground Redemptorist, though the future priest was not aware of his relative’s pastoral duties at the time.

Receiving instruction in the faith from his mother, young Volodymyr prayed daily, but had no further religious aspirations – that is, until he served in the army from 1990 to 1992. The army sent him to eastern Ukraine, which had been part of the Soviet Union since its birth after the disintegration of the tsarist Russian Empire at the end of World War I.

In eastern Ukraine, “I saw a spiritual desert: good people, but with a spiritual emptiness,” says Father Havrylenko. “In western Ukraine, we have all kinds, but there’s always been some spiritual inclination.” Western Ukraine was annexed to its eastern counterpart by the Soviets at the end of World War II.

It was during his military service, Father Havrylenko says, that he began to feel a calling. He dates his interest in preaching to that time.

“Father Havrylenko’s sermons have wonderful content,” says Ivan Dolynskyi, the sacristan at Father Stetskyi’s parish. “I’ve noticed that during the week I can recall the theme of the Sunday Gospel.”

After leaving the army, Volodymyr worked as a parish sacristan in his native Lviv. In 1993, he entered the Theological-Pedagogical Institute in Ivano-Frankivsk, 70 miles south of his hometown.

The Basilian Fathers, who run the institute, encourage a celibate priesthood. Father Havrylenko says he considered it.

In 1995, he transferred to Holy Spirit Seminary in Rudno, a suburb of Lviv. Vasyl Stetskyi, a friend from the institute, had also moved there.

One day Vasyl was supposed to meet Volodymyr, but sent his sister Halia instead. Volodymyr and his future wife soon started dating.

At the time, however, Volodymyr was still uncertain about marriage. “I thank Halia,” he says, “for approaching the question with understanding. We let time decide the issue.”

Even before meeting Volodymyr, Halia imagined herself as a priest’s wife. She grew up in Yavoriv, a center of the underground church. She had a regular underground confessor; underground nuns taught her catechism.

“When my brother decided to become a priest, he shared his concerns with me,” Mrs. Havrylenko says. “When I was younger I was afraid to become a priest’s wife. I knew this would be a great responsibility and my husband would have to sacrifice a lot for the church and his people.”

They married in 1997, the same year Volodymyr was ordained a deacon. A year later he was ordained a priest. His first assignment was at the Church of the Most Holy Eucharist in Lviv, a pastoral center for students. Mrs. Havrylenko took a job at a bank and had little time to help her husband.

When their first child, Sofika, was born, however, Mrs. Havrylenko says she “took her everywhere – to church, to youth meetings at the parish. I had more time than before.” They were living in a two-room apartment with Father Havrylenko’s parents, a common living arrangement in Ukraine. The grandparents helped take care of the baby and “things were fine,” Mrs. Havrylenko says.

But when they brought their second daughter, Oksanka, home from the hospital, “we started to notice how close our quarters were,” Mrs. Havrylenko says. In addition, the government turned off the heat in their state-run building during a cold February.

The couple decided Mrs. Havrylenko should take the children to live with her parents in Yavoriv, where there was more room and regular heat. While Lviv is only an hour’s drive from Yavoriv, the young priest, husband and father of two, did not have a car. He did not see his wife and children for two months. “We made a video of Sofika,” Mrs. Havrylenko recalls, “so that he could see her.”

A year later, Father Havrylenko had an opportunity to serve in Yavoriv, so he changed parishes “to be with the family,” he says. But his wife went back to Lviv to work, visiting the family every weekend. A parent working away from his or her family is, unfortunately, common in Ukraine, where job opportunities are few.

In 2002, Mrs. Havrylenko had a son, Romchyk, and is now on three-year maternity leave. For now, the family is together in her parents’ house in Yavoriv.

“It’s better for me in Yavoriv than in Lviv,” Mrs. Havrylenko says. “The kind of work I did in Lviv was just not appropriate for a priest’s wife. I like to be more involved with the parish and be able to help my husband. If I was working, coming home at 9 p.m. to my three kids and my husband, that would be stressful.”

The life of a small-town priest is busy. Father Havrylenko gets up at 6 a.m. and celebrates the Divine Liturgy in Yavoriv at 8 a.m. He then hears confessions, which takes much of his time throughout the year, especially before Easter. Three days a week he teaches a course on Christian ethics at a local public school and a few times a week he leads evening devotions. He also teaches special catechism classes throughout the year.

Three priests serve St. George’s, so every third week Father Havrylenko takes his turn “on duty.” In addition to other tasks, he conducts funerals, makes sick calls and presides at baptisms and weddings.

Sundays are particularly full for Father Havrylenko. He celebrates one liturgy each in Yavoriv and Koty before driving to Nemyriv to lead the liturgy at Father Stetskyi’s parish. Sometimes he has an afternoon baptism, followed by evening prayer, often conducted in two parishes. “I get home and have breakfast at 7:30 p.m.,” he laughs.

Father Havrylenko’s work in isolated Koty has been a blessing for most residents of the village. “We’re very happy with Father Havrylenko, because he is a very intelligent priest,” says Tatiana Fedorivna, a parishioner in Koty. “He catechized our children and taught us how to sing vespers. He also gives great sermons.”

Ivan Yupyn, a newer resident of Koty, recalls how Father Havrylenko visited his house “to hear the confession of my sick mother. To this day we remember the time he spent in our home.”

Although most in Koty are delighted with Father Havrylenko, the assignment has not been without difficulties. Half of the Greek Catholics there reject the use of modern Ukrainian in the liturgy; they insist that the liturgy be celebrated in Church Slavonic and devotions usually associated with the Latin Church be retained. The community went through three priests in 2001 alone before Father Havrylenko arrived.

Father Havrylenko tried alternating between the two languages, celebrating the Divine Liturgy in Ukrainian one week and Church Slavonic the next. “He wanted to unite us,” Ms. Fedorivna explains.

The traditionalist group, however, was not satisfied. “We need a priest of the Basilian order who knows all the holy hours, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and Stations of the Cross. This young priest doesn’t know these devotions,” says Paraskevia Biletska, a traditionalist in Koty. The group now attends services celebrated by a priest in another town.

The problems in Koty aggravate Father Havrylenko, but he says he is convinced that “a well-regulated priestly rule for daily life” preserves his strength. Praying the chasoslov (the Liturgy of the Hours) and celebrating the Divine Liturgy daily, as well as morning and evening prayer services, provide him with stability.

In Yavoriv, Mrs. Havrylenko’s main task is caring for the children, who play with the neighbors like anybody else’s, she says. The children are a little impulsive in church and “maybe sometimes people don’t react positively,” she admits. “They think: ‘These are the priest’s children, they should be an example.’ ”

Despite the challenges of balancing his vocation with the needs of his family, Father Havrylenko expresses no regrets. “A celibate priest can devote his life more to the church, but marriage has helped me change and improve myself.”

Matthew Matuszak directs the Religious Information Service of Ukraine.

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