From ONE Magazine

Recharging Ukraine

“Only after I grow strong spiritually will I really touch people,” asserts a 20-year-old Ukrainian student at the Lviv Theological Academy. Unlike most young adults, Brother Michael has no doubts that this spiritual journey will be long and arduous. Though a student at the academy, he spends most of his days and nights in prayer and contemplation at St. Theodore’s Monastery, a remote hermitage located some three hours from the city of Lviv in western Ukraine.

Brother Michael’s parents, Oleh and Svetlana, take us to the monastery in their Soviet-made Lada, the car packed with picnic treats. From Lviv’s dilapidated Austro-Hungarian center, with its opera house, churches, statues and fountains, we move through the dreary, Soviet-era suburbs, finally reaching a bucolic, pre-Industrial Revolution landscape: wooden villages; well-tended garden plots; geese; onion-domed churches; roadside shrines; peasants in horse-drawn carts; unpaved roads.

It is time to fire up my Russian, so I ask Oleh and Svetlana what they think about their son entering religious life.

Shto zdyelat? What to do?” shrugs Oleh. “We don’t really like it, but he seems to have his heart set on it. And there are so many problems in Ukraine today; perhaps it isn’t such a bad idea. His brother is unemployed – the factory where he worked has closed – and many young people are just getting by, dipping into crime or drugs. Perhaps he’s safer there. Besides, if this is what he really wants, then we support him.”

Brother Michael is a member of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic body adhering to the Byzantine tradition while embracing full communion with the Church of Rome. This communion cost Ukrainian Greek Catholics dearly: In 1946, Soviet authorities rounded up – at gunpoint – 216 priests, who were ordered to sever ties with Rome and accept communion with the Russian Orthodox Church. For more than 45 years, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church existed clandestinely, or in exile. The unraveling of the Soviet Union, however, coupled with the rebirth of Ukrainian nationalism, strengthened the outlawed church, fueling its legalization.

As we enter the monastery chapel, Brother Michael pays homage to Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the saints, bowing, genuflecting, kissing icons and crossing himself. His parents pay homage to the occasional icon, but they seem uncomfortable with the ritual – they were brought up in the U.S.S.R., where God did not count for much.

My eyes adjust to the extreme darkness of the medieval-like scene in the chapel. There are roughly 30 hooded monks, some clutching tiny candles to illuminate their sacred texts. A beautiful, hypnotic chant undulates through the chapel and then ceases as monks read passages in Church Slavonic from the Lectionary.

Thirty-eight-year old Father Gregory is the Superior of St. Theodore’s. Born in Croatia, the Studite priest studied in Rome and New York. He explains that this monastery is a branch of an ancient house originally founded in Italy. There are some 40 young monks, most of them in their 20s, and seven priest-monks, one of whom runs the local parish. Twenty sisters live in the nearby Monastery of the Presentation, where they receive spiritual direction from the priest-monks.

“Before Communism every town had a monastery from which a prayerful energy constantly emanated for the good of the world,” says Father Gregory.

“The monks used prayer to fight sin. They were a channel for God’s grace, which stopped sin, cleansed the sinner and made him holy.”

Much has changed since those days. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has experienced growth and stagnation, persecution and life underground. Attacked, defamed and close to extinction, the church has awakened with renewed energy. No powers of darkness could smother the ancient Christian traditions rooted so firmly in a land located at the crossroads of East and West.

“Many young people are looking for something more than in everyday life,” explains the young superior. “The fall of Communism left a vacuum; many people hear an inner voice leading them to a more spiritual path. In fact, we have to turn down applicants every week; there is simply not enough room to accommodate them all.”

To accommodate this growth, the Studites hope to build two additional monasteries: one near the city of Ivano Frankovsk, the other deep in the Carpathian Mountains. For now, however, times are tough.

Financially, St. Theodore’s manages to squeak by, thanks to the ingenuity of the community and generous donors abroad. The brothers grow much of their own food and take care of their carpentry needs; some write icons or make candles and other religious articles. The sisters sew vestments.

Ukraine, with Europe’s richest supply of natural resources, is presently one of the poorest countries in Europe. More than 50 percent of the population is unemployed; agricultural and natural resources lie underutilized; corruption may be found at the highest level of government. Real poverty – material and spiritual – has taken its toll, driving much of the population into a life of crime, drug addiction, poverty, despair or emigration.

In Lviv, the Studite community who run St. Michael’s Church try to meet some of these needs, despite significant material limitations. Three priests serve this dynamic urban parish of 3,000 strong, celebrating weekly liturgies, which begin at 5.45 A.M., holding prayer and study sessions and a host of support groups.

The Studites of St. Michael’s, however, are not alone in their apostolic activities. The parish community aids an orphanage in Univ; publishes Seedling, a children’s magazine that teaches spiritual and moral values; exhibits the work of local artists in a cloister reserved especially for the arts; sponsors a secular choir, known as God’s Good News; and runs a pharmacy from which, twice a week, medicines are dispensed to the poor.

This morning, camera flashes brighten the baroque interior of the church as 40 angelic-looking youngsters, fussed over by nuns and doting parents, prepare to receive the Eucharist for the first time since Baptism. Three priests in gold vestments emerge from the iconostasis to administer the sacrament to the wide-eyed youths. Images of innocence and sanctity contrast sharply with that of tortured ghosts: Soon after the liquidation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the KGB closed St. Michael’, converting this sacred space into an interrogation and torture facility. Hundreds of people were eventually murdered in a structure consecrated for the celebration of the Eucharist. Such surreal transformations were not unusual in the Soviet Union.

While the Soviet state may have failed to establish a worker’s paradise, it has succeeded in instilling mutual distrust among its citizens, dividing families, communities and churches. The enforced union of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church with the Russian Orthodox Church in 1946 has devastated the church – relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, particularly in the former Soviet Union, are often icy at best.

Leaving Lviv behind, I travel to the village of Verchobuj, in the province of Zolochov, where the Greek Catholic and Orthodox communities have sought to heal the wounds, working together and sharing resources.

Verchobuj’s ancient cruciform church is made from massive timbers, its steep, pointed roof covered with galvanized steel. It is Pentecost Sunday and, according to custom, the church is decorated with flowers and foliage.

Father Yevgen Kolosok, a youthful Greek Catholic priest, celebrates the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in Ukrainian, while from the balcony a small choir fervently responds. Statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph are held aloft, lending a Latin touch to the Byzantine rite. Men in dark suits, babushki (grandmothers) in floral dresses and headscarves, well-scrubbed children and teenagers line up to receive the Eucharist, kiss the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary and cross themselves. After liturgy, they file out into the sunshine to enjoy a day of rest and feasting.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox congregation gathers for the second shift: the villagers of Verchobuj, though members of two ecclesial jurisdictions, share the village church. Father Ihor Stetsyshyn arrives and greets Father Yevgen as he removes his vestments. They greet each other heartily, embracing one another by touching the head three times to the other’s alternate shoulder. They chat for a few minutes, treading spiritual paths that seem so close if you ignore issues of property, politics and power.

“At least we get on together and have peace in this village,” explains Father Ihor, alluding to the violent outbursts that have sometimes occurred between the two religious communities, usually over property matters.

The province of Zolochov is blessed with a healthy understanding between its church leaders. Two figures appear responsible for this enlightened attitude: Father Vladimir Palchinsky, the former Superior of a Greek Catholic monastery operated by the Basilian Fathers in Zolochov, and his successor, Father Mathew, who now resides in Rome.

Pioneers of ecumenism, they saw how the sectarian divide was hurting society and brought together different religious communities in common prayer meetings and celebrations. In Zolochov, ecumenical services are held at Easter, Christmas, Epiphany and on local feast days. Priests and hundreds of parishioners from various congregations get involved in these common prayer meetings.

“It is significant that people see priests from various confessions praying together,” explains Father Yevgen. “Thus, we do not witness conflict between our churches.”

An advocate of ecumenical efforts in the former Soviet Union, Pope John Paul II will lend his support to the achievements of priests such as Father Stetsyshyn and Father Yevgen when he visits Ukraine in June. Ukrainian Greek Catholics welcome his visit, as do many Orthodox Christians.

Meanwhile, as they pursue their lives of prayer and study, Brother Michael and his confreres prepare to meet the challenges faced by their church in a country where poverty abounds, where traditional values have eroded, where a nominally Christian population, cut off from its roots for seven decades, is finding its way.

Sean Sprague is a frequent traveler through “our world.”