From ONE Magazine

Planting Seeds, Nurturing Faith

The black soil of central Ukraine is the stuff of agronomists’ dreams. Forming a massive geological band stretching across Eurasia, chernozem (literally “black earth” in Ukrainian) contains high concentrations of humus and other nutrients, reinforcing the region's reputation as a breadbasket. In these rich lands, among fields of corn, sunflower and barley, even a church can grow.

As with the early Christians before them, Greek Catholics in central Ukraine pray without the benefit of traditional churches or chapels, structures roofed with gilded cupolas and topped with crosses. Parishioners — from as few as five people to two or three dozen — often meet in homes of the faithful or the residence of the pastor. Others utilize facilities ill equipped for community building, such as social gatherings, plays, movie screenings, catechism instruction and Bible study.

Nevertheless, the faith of Ukrainian Greek Catholics, once driven underground, has reemerged in the light of post-Soviet Ukraine. It is putting down roots and showing new growth.

In a converted automobile garage in Bila Tserkva, a city 55 miles south of the nation’s ancient capital of Kiev, a parish gathers to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Some 30 faithful enter the 400-square-foot space, led by Rev. Yevhen Merimerin, 38, a lifelong local, father of four children and a former lawyer and official of the Cabinet of Ministers.

“We’re developing the parish, but slowly,” Father Merimerin says.

“People are not yet accustomed to the church. Seventy years of the U.S.S.R. had a profound effect on people’s spiritual development and that is still felt today, 26 years after independence,” he says.

“Most people have a superficial or superstitious attitude toward traditions,” he says, adding that in some cases, the attitude is superficial in a more literal sense. “They question why I don’t have a beard, yet am a priest. They ask, ‘How can that be?’ ”

Father Merimerin is no stranger to such perceptions of the Christian faith in central Ukraine; unlike the majority of Greek Catholic priests, some 90 percent of whom hail from western Ukraine, Father Merimerin is a native son of the city of 220,000. He answered the call to priesthood at the age of 34 and understands the attitudes and perspectives of local residents well.

Not wanting to discourage his burgeoning flock, Father Merimerin describes his approach to pastoral work: “Go step-by-step and feed people based on what their individual appetites can take.” This often means hour-long discussions with new church visitors, explaining the church’s principles.

To one frequently asked question — “will you bless my car?” — he answers, “sure, but you still have to drive safely.”

Such small matters often serve as the entry point for discussion. Blessing an Easter basket of eggs, cheese, ham and bread but containing a bottle of vodka leads to a talk about moderation. A Memorial Day outing to a cemetery stirs a discussion of reverence and dignity in celebration. A funeral prompts a conversation about the importance of building community beyond a few thoughtful donations and a short ceremony.

“I can’t change their whole lives; I emphasize that nothing is absolute or categorical.”

Still, the lack of familiarity makes for slow going, the priest says.

“They look at the church as functionary, to provide services like baptisms, to bury the dead,” he explains. “Then they leave, as if they’re delegating the task to me.”

To overcome this, he asks his parishioners to come early and stay after liturgy to tidy up, conduct choir practice and socialize while he teaches the catechism to children.

“I emphasize that the church isn’t chiefly to satisfy one’s personal needs — that it’s about developing spiritually, about building a community together,” Father Merimerin says. “Like Origen wrote: ‘Jesus, come even as a slave to me, pour water into your bowl, come and wash my feet.’

“We must practice the faith together.”

Sharing the sentiment of his brother priest in Bila Tserkva, the Rev. Petro Khudyk, 36, ventures beyond his tiny wooden chapel to reach out to the community in the district of Tarashcha. Weekly he speaks on the radio about the church, focusing on basics such as Christian ethics and holidays.

Seven years ago, fresh out of seminary, he thought he would serve as a fixed pillar, to build up a community from within. Instead, he now “comes to you,” he says.

“People call in the studio. It’s really interactive, and I use the feedback for the next show from listeners. I give the address of the church on air and leave my phone number with the radio station.”

When not preaching on the airwaves, Father Khudyk does so in person, through words and actions. He greets parents when he walks his child to kindergarten, and stays around to answer questions about the church and its basic tenets from locals. He invites choir groups from the surrounding region to give local performances free to the public. And on the feast of St. Nicholas in December, with the help of Caritas Ukraine, the priest arranges to provide gifts for children of active servicemen or veterans of the war that has raged since 2014 in the easternmost regions of the country.

“I do what I can within my capabilities. The rest I say in prayer and ask God for more ideas, inspiration and wisdom. I’m ready to stay here and continue building up the parish,” he says.

His prayers have been answered before — such as when CNEWA donated a 3,200-square-foot wooden chapel to his parish of some 15 to 30 faithful, half a year ago. The priest has seen his congregation grow four to five times larger since its construction.

Inside the chapel’s thick spruce walls stands a sanctuary screen (or iconostasis) bearing icons of St. Nicholas, the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus and Christ as Righteous Judge. Above the iconostasis hovers an icon of the Last Supper.

Before the structure was erected, Father Khudyk says people would express interest in his parish, tempered with confusion or concern over the parish meeting in a summer kitchen near his home, or a music school or even another parishioner’s apartment.

“They would listen, but would ask why we don’t have space and a regular church with a cupola and a cross on top,” he says.

Despite decades of official atheism, Christian symbolism is compellingly strong in central and eastern Ukraine, which is why many are cautious to enter dwellings where Greek Catholics worship: The buildings often lack the proper symbols and icons.

Six miles further south in the 700-strong village of Mala Vilshanka, the Rev. Ihor Hrishchenko faces the same challenge. He is blessed with two enormous rooms inside an abandoned, run-down Soviet-era facility once used to develop new grain seeds.

He celebrates the sacraments regularly with about a dozen parishioners — although as large a group as half the village comes out on Epiphany to bless water in January — yet the small community “wants something of its own,” he says.

“The parish and I want an appropriate religious atmosphere here,” Father Hrishchenko says. “You don’t want to go to a random café; you want something of your own. But we have no money to build one.”

Still, the parish has the luxury of a separate room for social events and gatherings crucial to building a parish community. Father Hrishchenko uses the space for screening films, putting on plays and inviting guest lecturers to speak on such topics as marriage, ethics and holidays.

“Even though there is the internet and people can instantly access information, it’s more useful to have a ‘human library,’ an expert to talk about the Holy Scripture and other topics,” he says.

The 35-year-old priest also leads another parish in neighboring Bila Tserkva, comprised of some 40 faithful who gather inside a dilapidated Soviet-era household goods store — a brick building with a crumbling fa├žade.

For two years, when he had no car, Father Hrishchenko would take the bus to the village parish and then hitchhike back to the district center in every kind of weather.

Such concessions are necessary when resources are tight. The average Ukrainian monthly salary barely reaches $200, and diminishes as one moves farther away from urban centers.

“It would take 20 or 30 years’ worth of donations to build a church on what we get in our donation boxes, which hardly covers expenses for liturgy — bread, charcoal, candles and wine.”

The curia of the major archeparchy in Kiev struggles to satisfy the demand for more parishes against limits of both resources and clergy, which partially explains why most parishes are still in their early developmental stages.

Currently, ten communities await parish priests for service, says the eparchy’s chancellor, the Rev. Vasyl Chudiyovych.

Administratively, the priest says, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church practices the principle handed down by the late Major Archbishop Lubomyr Husar, who said whenever there is one family, a group of three or five people, it needs to be served.

Since the nearest seminary — founded in Kiev in 2010 — has graduated only two classes thus far, the archeparchy still draws upon others for pastoral support to fulfill demand, he says.

“Right now we have 112 priests and deacons, 40 of whom serve in the city of Kiev,” Father Chudiyovych says.

“Experience shows that most parishes start with three to five people who are one family, usually,” he continues. “In about five years, events unfold and that community gains a certain status as a community that opens people to Christ, that cares not only for its parishioners but for everybody in the locale.”

Proactively, the priest says the church, given its limited means, tries to purchase four properties a year for its priests, to transition away from leasing living and pastoral space.

From his office, Father Chudiyovych administers a flock of nearly 6,000 regular churchgoers, or three times as many in the case of major holidays such as Easter. According to a survey conducted in March by the Razumkov Centre, a public policy think tank in Ukraine, likely tens of thousands of Greek Catholics live within the boundaries of the central Ukrainian archeparchy.

“Parishes want to help,” the chancellor says. “The church for Greek Catholic believers has a wider meaning than just to come, pray and leave. They want to build a community around a church — not just to take part in confession and partake in the holy Communion.”

Curia support is also given to priests to generate ideas about parish and community building. Yearly, pastors are sent handbooks on how to build a parish based on their own ideas, collected during annual clergy retreats.

During these gatherings, which happen several times a year, priests exchange ideas and their experiences on what works and what does not in terms of boosting spirituality, biblical knowledge and grasp of Christian ethics and customs.

Through such collaborations, Father Chudiyovych has noticed several trends. For one, by reaching out to children, priests find that this eases outreach to their parents, close relatives and their circle of friends. Additionally, he says, organizing retreats and in-country pilgrimages gives people a wider perspective of the world Christian community in which they reside. Such outings also spread the word of their experiences and attract more parishioners.

“What works is having local communities discover Christian tradition, in particular Christmas and Easter traditions,” Father Chudiyovych says.

“The Soviet Union really destroyed these traditions in society — for example, carols, or when a priest speaks about the Last Supper before Christmas and its significance. When they discover these traditions, people get a deeper feeling for the church.”

Mark Raczkiewycz is the Ukraine correspondent for the New Jersey-based The Ukrainian Weekly. His work has appeared in The Kyiv Post, The Financial Times, The Irish Times and Jane's Intelligence, among other places.