A Ukrainian Bishop Who Kept His Work Secret

Sofrom Dmyterko, 84, Spends Time in Prison

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ZOLOCHIV, Ukraine, JUNE 28, 2001 (ZENIT.orgAVVENIRE).- At age 84, Bishop Sofrom Dmyterko suffers from the effects of years of harsh imprisonment at the hands of the Communists. He celebrates the Byzantine liturgy seated.

When he rose after a recent Mass in the Basilian Monastery of Zolochiv, near Lviv, he was helped by two priests.

His story is much like that of many of Ukraine´s living martyrs. He struggled hard in an era when the Greek-Catholics were declared illegal. «Agents at the service of the Vatican» was the simple label that Communists used to justify every possible abuse against Catholics.

«Sofrom, bishop emeritus of Ivan Frankivsk, is the real moral authority of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church; he is a personal friend of the Pope,» said the superior of another Basilian monastery, that of St. Onofrio, in Lviv. The superior goes by the name Father Vitali.

Bishop Dmyterko spoke with difficulty as he told his story.

«I was ordained bishop in secrecy on Nov. 30, 1968, by Ivan Sleziuk, the servant of God who was beatified on Wednesday by the Pope at the end of his trip to Ukraine, and who was in the regime´s prisons for 15 years,» the bishop recalled. «He was released in November of 1968, but kept under strict surveillance by the KGB.»

«Following an interview with a secret agent and a search, he was able to ordain me bishop in a private home,» Bishop Dmyterko recalled. «He died five years later. It was the year 1973 and, in exact coincidence with his death, they arrested me. I was judged in a closed-door trial, accused of being a traitor of the homeland and an enemy of the Soviet state.»

The bishop continued: «The KGB agents knew I was a clandestine priest, but did not know I had been secretly ordained a bishop. During the search, they found my homilies, which were immediately confiscated — more than sufficient matter to condemn me to two years of harsh imprisonment.»

The bishop was sent to Luhansk, a house for common delinquents. «They searched me constantly, looking for alcohol and drugs,» he said. «In these conditions, it was impossible to celebrate or exercise [the ministry] of bishop. I received Communion after a year of detention. I was brought the Eucharist by one of the faithful, incognito, who was able to meet with me in the prison.»

There were 1,300 people detained in Luhansk, in deplorable sanitary and overcrowded conditions. The guards treated prisoners brutally. Spies were everywhere, even among the prisoners.

«I never revealed my real identity to anyone; had they known I was a clandestine bishop, it would have been the end,» Bishop Dmyterko said.

After two years, he was released. «The KGB agents did not succeed in proving that I was a bishop; they suspected it, but had no evidence,» he recalled. «Before coming out of the gulag, two secret agents handed me a document, which stated: ´I, Sofrom, priest, go over to the Orthodox faith.´ Logically, I didn´t sign.

«I was prepared to suffer every kind of abuse out of fidelity for the Pope. I did not want to be ´saved´ from the KGB. I went to live with my mother. During the day I worked as a laborer in a fruit juice factory; at night I carried out my pastoral work in secret.»

Some Catholic priests, in order to defend their lives or their families — some were married and had children — went over to the Russian Orthodox Church. The bishop said that in 1991, at the end of the Communist regime, «in western Ukraine, many of them returned to the Catholic Church and were welcomed. Others remained as Orthodox.»

On Wednesday, Lviv´s Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, at the beginning of the beatification Mass of Greek-Catholic martyrs, asked for forgiveness for the violent acts committed by Greek-Catholic Christians in the past century.

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