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People: Bishop Milan Sasik

by Mark Raczkiewycz with photographs by Oleg Grigoryev

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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.”

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