By Traci Osuna
VIENNA, Austria, JUNE 4, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Raised in the communist Soviet Union, Yurko Kolasa knew nothing of the Catholic faith until he was well into his teens. Once the Greek-Catholic Church went from an underground following to being an openly practiced and respected religion in Ukraine, this future priest’s whole world opened up.
Today, Father Kolasa is the prefect of the training program for priests, seminarians and religious, at the International Theological Institute in Vienna. He is also a married priest of the Eastern Rite Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and a father of four.
He also tells of the marriage preparation program he developed, how it has positively impacted the marriage success rate in Ukraine and is quickly becoming the proto-type for marriage preparation programs throughout various dioceses in Eastern Europe.
ZENIT: You have said that you accepted the ideas of Communism until you were 15. What happened that made you turn away from that ideology and turn toward the truths of the Catholic faith?
Father Kolasa: Most of my relatives were very active in communist party. As a boy I did not know anything about the persecution of the Greek-Catholic Church in the Soviet Union. It was only in 1989, when the Greek Church was legalized that I began to learn about thousands and thousands of martyrs of this Church — Greek Catholic bishops, clergy, monastics, and laity.
It was the authenticity of their faith that radically changed my life. I was crushed by the fact that there were so many people who have resisted compromise with the oppressive regime of that time and overcame the greatest moral challenges of the 20th century: the suppression of God-given freedom and human dignity by ideological totalitarianism. They gave the strongest testimony of their faith — their blood.
ZENIT: Despite the government’s effort to stamp out Christianity, the people’s faith prevailed. Can you describe how people continued to practice, or at least hold on to, their faith in such conditions?
Father Kolasa: By the end of 1947, male and female religious, lay faithful and hundreds of priests who refused to “convert” to orthodoxy, often with their wives and children, were arrested and sent to labor camps, where they endured horrific hardships. Parishes where the pastor had been arrested were to become the backbone of the underground. The faithful sang outside closed churches or worshiped at churches not registered with the regime. Priests who had avoided arrest tried to make pastoral visits to these underground communities. Nuns maintained contact between the priests and the laity, arranging secret religious services and catechizing children.
With Stalin’s death in March 1953, many priests who survived the camps were allowed to return home where they often resumed their pastoral activities. Priests celebrated the sacraments in forests or in private apartments, late at night or early in the morning, in addition to their legal jobs. Sometimes they were caught and again sentenced.
Until it emerged from the underground in 1989, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was the world’s largest illegal church. It was also the most extensive network of civil opposition in the Soviet Union. Despite relentless persecution, church life continued through an elaborate system of clandestine seminaries, monasteries, ministries, parishes and youth groups until the church was legalized on Dec. 1, 1989.
ZENIT: You are a Greek-Catholic priest, you are married, and you have four children. For those not familiar with the tradition of married clergy in the Eastern Catholic rites, could you explain how this difference in tradition came about?
Father Kolasa: The tradition of married clergy comes from the apostolic times. In the early years of the Church some married men were even consecrated bishops. The Eastern Church has always allowed the possibility of married men being ordained to the priesthood.
Please note that not a single practicing priest in the Church has ever married; there have only been instances of married men who later became ordained. The Western Church has cherished the discipline of only unmarried men being ordained, except for some Protestants who have entered the Church in recent years.
I always have a great respect and high esteem for unmarried priests and always try to encourage them to treasure and to protect the gift they have received. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:7 said; “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.”
ZENIT: You were ordained in 2001. As you approach your 10th anniversary as a priest, could you share with us some reflections on your vocation, and how your life has changed since your ordination?
Father Kolasa: One of the most powerful experiences of being a priest is to be an eyewitness of the tremendous power of the holy sacraments, and to know that as unworthy as I am, God is using me to be a channel of his infinite divine love.
I will never forget this one moment in my life when, after a long, exhausting day of fulfilling different tasks at the parish, I was called to give the anointing of the sick to a very sick man. When I came, the poor man was in terrible pain. His whole body was caught in convulsion. I tried to communicate with him, but he would not respond. I do not know if he even heard or saw me. I began to pray the prayers of the rite of anointing of the sick. All this time the convulsions would only increase. The moment I finished with the word Amen, his body suddenly rested. His eyes were closed. He was still breathing.
I said to his sister that stood next to me, let us pray together and thank God for his mercy. As we began to recite the Our Father, the man gently opened his eyes; he looked at his sister then at me and then he smiled at me with the most blissful and peaceful smile, then he closed his eyes and breathed his last. At this moment I could not stop thanking God for saving his soul and for the gift of the priesthood.
ZENIT: You have developed a marriage preparation program that has been well received in your native Ukraine. Could you tell us about the program, and what you think has been the key to its success?
Father Kolasa: Our Experience in Ukraine showed that young people of today are very thirsty for the truth. Only when they encounter the truth their lives begin to change. Another important aspect is to develop pastoral care of the young Christian families. Every marriage preparation program must be seen in relation to the pastoral care of young families. One can say that the quality of marriage preparation depends on the continuity.
So, just months after my graduation from the International Theological Institute (2001), His Eminence Cardinal Huzar asked me to take charge of the Archdiocesan Commission of Marriage and Family in Lviv. In three short years, the commission set up 13 marriage-preparation centers, published a marriage-preparation manual and prepared more than 3,000 couples for wedlock.
Each year more than 1,500 couples participate in this program. It was then also used as a model for other dioceses of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It is also interesting to note that the pro-life and marriage issue gave us an opportunity to find a unifying ground with the Orthodox Church. Some orthodox priests also recommended that the Greek-Catholic manual for marriage preparation be used for marriage preparation in their parishes as well.
This work of the Church was also affecting the state statistics — with a remarkable result. In 2000, the divorce rate in the Lviv Region was 54%. From the moment the Church began to implement the marriage preparation program, the situation improved. In Ukraine, young couples are the most likely to get divorced, but for the past four years, the rate of divorce in the Lviv region declined to 40%. In the regions of Eastern and Southern Ukraine where the program was not implemented, the divorce rate was at 80%. Also, from the year 2004 to the present date, the city of Lviv has the highest birthrate.
In 2006, the program was brought to the attention of state officials as a way to overcome the family crisis in Ukraine. In January 2007, a team of lay people started a pilot program for the state in Kiev, the capitol of Ukraine, at one of the state offices for marriage registration. The program developed for the state is different from the program used in the Church, yet it also has the aim to proclaim the truth about the human person, about genuine love, and about God.
In January 2008, after examining the government program for a year and interviewing young couples who took part in the marriage preparation, state officials decided that the program should continue and be implemented in the whole city of Kiev. Now there are seven marriage-preparation centers in the capital of Ukraine that prepare couples who get married outside of the Church. If this goes well, it could be approved for the whole country.
We also set up a network to help the couples both during the first years of their marriage and throughout their whole marital life. We realized that preparation for marriage must always be concomitant with the pastoral care of families. Around 300 couples who went through the program are now also active volunteers, helping other couples prepare for wedlock. This all has considerably improved the situation with families in our dioceses.
The Romanian Greek Catholic Church is now using the course as the foundation for their marriage preparation program, and last year I was asked by the Austrian bishop in charge of marriage and the family, Bishop Klaus Küng, to help set up a similar program for Austria. This program is now spreading through the parishes in Austria.[This article is part of the column God’s Men — a series of reflections on the priesthood that ZENIT is offering its readers during this Year for Priests, which ends June 11.]