Story of faith, of secrecy, of death -- and life

Pope to beatify 25 who died for church in Soviet Ukraine

June 18, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LVIV, Ukraine - When he makes his visit this month to Orthodox Ukraine, Pope John Paul II will beatify 25 martyrs of the Ukrainian Catholic Church who died for their faith during the Soviet era.

Theirs was a church that the KGB was ruthlessly determined to stamp out, and all 25 died in prison camps or from the long-lasting effects of their incarceration.

But in some ways, an even more stirring story about the church is emerging from oral history - not about those who died but about those who lived.

Two generations of believers in Western Ukraine kept an underground church alive, offering Masses, celebrating weddings, conducting funerals and baptisms, and ordaining priests, all out of sight of the police. Moscow had turned its fury on the church - also known as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, because of its allegiance to the pope - thus keeping it outside the state-controlled Orthodox structure. From 1946 to 1989, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, with 4 million followers, was the biggest outlawed church in the world and the largest organized opposition group in the Soviet Union.

And because of that legacy, it is once more a vibrant and flourishing church here.

Priests in those days were especially adept at melting into a crowd. Once, when Soviet police raided an illegal Catholic wedding, the priest threw on a dress and slipped out unnoticed. Another priest, who performed secret baptisms, had a particularly appropriate day job - he was a plumber, which in a country of perpetually leaking pipes gave him an excuse to make the rounds of his parishioners.

A priest might use a ribbon for a stole, a thimble for a chalice. Never would he carry these items himself, but always would have them taken to a service - in an apartment, in a barn, in the woods - by someone else.

Undeniably, the church had some well-placed friends. A colleague once approached Vasil Boyanitsky, an anatomy professor, and told him, "If you happen to know any Catholic priests, you might want to tell them the KGB is planning some revisions." Boyanitsky tipped off all the underground priests he knew. And a few days later the "revisions" took place - top-to-bottom searches of the suspected priests' apartments, which by now were free of incriminating vestments.

But neither was the church completely hidden. From time to time, the KGB had a pretty good idea who some of the priests were - it just made them more careful never to be caught with evidence.

Not once, but repeatedly, a Catholic monk named German Budinsky wrote rebuttals to articles about religion to the Soviet press. The rebuttals, naturally, were never published, and time after time, Budinsky was picked up by the police for questioning. "Of course, I'm afraid," he told an acquaintance. "But it's important to show them I'm going to keep doing this."

Not everyone was so forward. Father Petro Baran, 44, recounted a couple who got married and only after they had started living together did they realize they were both members of the outlaw church.

Oral history project

The center of the oral history project is the Lviv Theological Academy, under the leadership of its American rector, Father Borys Gudziak. The church, for obvious reasons, kept no records in the Soviet era, and Gudziak realized that a chapter in its 500-year history would soon be lost to memory. He and his staff have conducted more than 1,200 interviews with survivors of that time, and they have 30,000 pages of transcripts.

Irina Kolomyets' father was an underground priest. (The church allows married men to be ordained, but marriage is not permitted after ordination.) "He was arrested when I was born," she said in a recent interview. "When he came back, I was at school."

This was in 1956, when she was 7. He again started holding services. They were very early in the day or very late, she remembered. The doors would be closed, the window shades drawn. Only people who were known and trusted, sometimes only three or four at a time, could attend. They would come in and leave one by one. The altar was disguised in such a way that anyone coming into the room would be unlikely to guess what it was.

"The services mainly were readings," she said. "People very rarely sang."

The only job her father could get, she said, was as a night watchman because after his arrest his internal passport identified him as a member of a cult.

`Key was not to betray ...'

Sister Myroslava Jakhimets, 35, said her parents first started taking her to Catholic services when she was 12. "I didn't quite realize everything that was going on," she said. "We'd get up at 2 and walk for many kilometers, then take a bus or a train to whatever village a priest might be having services in."

Sister Julita Pokhudaj, 55, said she went to Poland to study to become a nun, even though the Ukrainian Catholic Church was outlawed there as well. When she came back to the Soviet Union, she took a job in a candy factory.

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