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Nuncio to Ukraine Gives Overview of Church’s Most Pressing Needs

Considers Plight of Priests, Religious in Crimea and Throughout Nation

Archbishop Thomas Edward Gullickson, the American-born nuncio to Ukraine says the Church there, both Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic, already faced tremendous difficulties even before the conflict with Russia.

In a presentation on Tuesday to the charity Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Gullickson gave an overview of some of the most pressing issues facing the Church, as well as a look to the future.

Here is the full text of his address:

* * *

Serving the Needs of the Church in Ukraine

I wish to thank you for the invitation today to address this gathering. It comes as a welcome opportunity for me to better clarify in my own mind and express to others a line of thought which has been maturing in me, perhaps since my experience of the Church in distress in the Holy Land now 20 years ago.

Which or what is the Church in need? I become ever more convinced that I must not per force designate and judge/condemn the cause of the Church’s need, but rather clarify the question of need, as to whether we are dealing with the limits of our human condition, with challenges we must simply take on as part of life, or if indeed we are not talking about factors, controllable or not, which work to the detriment of the spread of the Gospel or of the pastoral care we owe to our people, in that, be it persons or climactic conditions like a drought or a tsunami, they have destabilized the life of the Church in a given country or region and call for intervention from those outside able to lend a helping hand.

To say it another way: I guess I cannot see it as ultimately decisive for the commitment of Kirche in Not in Ukraine to determine whether Ukraine is in crisis, however you may wish to define that crisis, or in fact at war with Russia and therefore in dire need. Certain dramatic situations cry out for intervention and support from the greater Church, their suffering and distress in this sense differ from the lot which is commonly ours in this valley of tears. The chronic destabilization, for example, which afflicts Christians in the Middle East is something out of the ordinary, as is the situation in Ukraine today. This is the concept I hope to address briefly, offering you the possibility to enter into my thought processes and help me refine my analysis of the present situation in Ukraine, which now after three years has become for me an adopted homeland.

The undeclared war which the Russian Federation is waging against Ukraine has in effect destabilized a country already sorely tried by the depredation of homegrown and foreign profiteers (not only from Russia), who have torn its economic and social fabric limb from limb especially in the period since independence in 1991. Above and beyond this, Ukraine is just now coming around to playing catch-up in addressing the repair or removal of structures of servitude from its Soviet Communist past, which other countries in Central and Eastern Europe were able to address and at least begin to change almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ukraine’s people are still today to some extent deprived of their history, limited to a propagandistic caricature which has managed to outlive the school texts and history books from the Soviet period. To cite one crucial example: the country is still playing catch-up on recovering words of the spirit, excised from common dictionaries and lost to the folk vocabulary for generations in some parts of the country. As was the case for both Lithuania and Finland, still today there are attempts to deny Ukrainians their language and specific identity as a people, unique and hence different from others around them.

Starting with this last notion of linguistic or cultural deprivation through discrimination and denial by others, I suppose that for different reasons you could say that Ukrainians are no worse off, when it comes to matters spiritual, than the last two generations in the West, who on account of secularization and the dictatorship of relativism have also been deprived of a vocabulary of the spirit to express adequately their baptismal birthright. Obviously, it is more than just a question of dictionary vocabulary; the songs, dances, poetry and special usages which have accompanied the greater and lesser feasts of the Christian calendar, developing over the course of the millennium since Ukraine’s baptism and enriched by contact with Western Catholicism, are an integral part of this vocabulary. There are good reasons to believe that investing in projects promoting these sorts of values might redound to a general restoration of Catholic culture, but allow me to leave that discussion for another place and time.

Permit me, if you will however, to concentrate not on this aspect but rather on the question of destabilization, much of it attributable to the depredation carried out and still continuing at the hands of Ukraine’s own criminal oligarchy, exacerbated by Russian aggression against its territorial integrity and sovereignty. I told Vatican Radio not that long ago that I am very much worried that Russian interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine prolongs and intensifies the destabilization of Ukraine to the detriment of the Catholic Church in both its Greek and Latin expressions. It is here, I believe, that Kirche in Not, in consultation with the local Catholic Churches in Ukraine can find ways to help, to nurture or foster a vital institutional Catholic presence in Ukraine (I say institutional, concrete, visible, because clandestine is not a true ecclesiological presence).

I. Crimea

In Crimea, as near as we can tell from Sunday Mass counts of the number of faithful attending, the Roman Catholic Church had and seemingly still has a stronger presence than the Greek-Catholic, albeit always a minority presence on the peninsula. Nearly all the Latin clergy are Polish, with Bishop Jacek Pyl, OMI, Auxiliary of Odessa-Simferopol, at the head. By some estimates there were and perhaps are more practicing Catholics in Crimea than in the diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia. Since Crimea’s annexation by Russia, in violation of international law, life is harder for everyone, but especially for non-Orthodox, and the authorities have continually menaced some if not all of the Catholic priests serving there. It seems that the Dominican Fathers who served in Yalta have had to leave Crimea although an attempt is being made to keep the parish with the help of confreres stationed in St. Petersburg. The priest in Kerch, as well, has left or soon may, because of the harassment. While it seems as though Latin Caritas in Crimea has been recognized by the authorities, it remains to be seen whether it will be possible to register all Church property in the name of Caritas and whether invitations from the president of Caritas Crimea to Bishop Pyl and the priests to come and serve on a three months in and one month out basis will indeed be honored by the authorities. Word has it that Crimean authorities are contrary to the presence of citizens from the EU and the US. (By way of an aside: This 3 month in 1 month out arrangement for a total of 180 days per year does not strictly hold for Catholic priests once admitted to the Russian Federation. Most anywhere else in Russia proper, Roman Catholic priests can receive temporary residence permits generally for one year and then apply for permanent residence of five years renewable. We have no guarantees this will be the case in Crimea.)

Of the five Greek-Catholic priests who served in Crimea up until the Russian takeover, only Fr. Bohdan of Yevpatoriya officially remains; monks have been coming and going unofficially to help out since then. Bishop Bubniy assured me that Fr. Bohdan and 15 of his parishioners who were sequestered on an outing to Yalta at the beginning of Sept. were freed the next day. Bishop Bubniy, Exarch of Odessa, is impeded from exercising his office as Administrator of the tiny Exarchate of Crimea. The separate Exarchate of Crimea, set up on the eve of the annexation, was intended now for years as a way to better address the specific pastoral needs of the Greek-Catholics of the peninsula, most of whom were Ukrainian military personnel stationed there from their homes in Western Ukraine. Lay faithful who came to Crimea in search of work have sometimes been there for two generations. Attempts are being made by the pastor of Yevpatoriya to register that parish and hopefully with financial aid to finish building the parish church begun with the help of Kirche in Not in 2011. With any luck that little church could become the seat of the Exarchate of Crimea, which could incorporate other properties and invite a community of three or four religious men to serve the needs of the remaining Greek-Catholics on the peninsula, three months in and one month out, at least for starters.

II. The Donbas

At present, I have no news of Catholic priests or religious women either Greek or Latin serving in those parts of the warzone of Luhansk and Donetsk still under terrorist or Russian control; even the Exarch of Donetsk, Bishop Stefan Meniok, had to flee the fighting. At the beginning of Sept. Bishop Jan Sobiło, Latin Auxiliary of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia, gave assurances that none of the actual church buildings had been severely damaged, but it was too unsafe to celebrate Mass. The Latin presence in that area was the most important in Eastern Ukraine. It served the international university student community in the various population centers of the region. This apostolate, with the help of financial and personal subsidies from outside and the offerings from the students themselves, rendered possible the maintenance of several of the little Catholic chapels in that area. Insecurity here and elsewhere might effectively put an end to foreign students in Ukraine and further weaken the Roman Catholic Church’s possibilities for service to its own little flock. As of early August, the Ministry of Education had already established provisions for the transfer of international students to Ukrainian universities outside of Luhansk and Donetsk.

In a best case scenario, if the present ceasefire holds and people return, one will have to see how many faithful remain and which Greek-Catholic church buildings can be repaired or rebuilt. If Russia remains in control of the region, it is hard to imagine that Catholic life, whether Greek or Latin, would be allowed to return (the Crimean precedents are not reassuring). With so much of the infrastructure (water, electricity, heat, transportation) of Luhansk and Donetsk destroyed by war and given the depressed nature of Luhansk anyway, I would not hazard a guess as to how many of the almost one million displaced persons might wish to return (250,000 in Ukraine and over 700,000 in Russia). Even with an immediate cessation of violence, it could take years to repair the damage and provide for the basic needs of the population. I cannot help but think that the destruction of the infrastructure is a desperate attempt to force the rebuilding of the region and its economic transformation away from unproductive and outmoded means of mining and steel manufacturing.  

Thanks to the division of the Donetsk-Kharkiv Exarchate prior to these events, the development of the Exarchate of Kharkiv, under the leadership of Bishop Vasyl, for now at least can continue apace. Not much had been invested previously there on behalf of the Greek-Catholics. The Greek-Catholic Church’s Permanent Synod visited and studied the needs of that region nearly two years ago and I am confident that once the Bishop has a church building in Kharkiv as a worthy focal point for activities in the northeast it will be possible to identify other groups of faithful and begin to serve them as well.

III. The Country as a Whole

Continued Russian aggression could also put an end to the presence of foreign university students elsewhere in Ukraine and bring the closing of Latin parishes not only in the Donbas but also, perhaps, even of the national center for this foreign student apostolate, the parish of St. Vincent de Paul in Kharkiv, presently served by Vincentian Fathers from Slovakia, Nigeria and India, and serving the needs of the very international Catholic community in that city.

Destabilization! For the Latin Church, which is basically made up of middle aged and older people, further discouragement could lead young parents unable to emigrate themselves to Poland, Slovakia or Hungary to urge their children to seek their fortune elsewhere. Most of the over 60 Latin congregations of religious women presently operating in Ukraine are not ministering to Catholics but looking after social orphans (Orthodox or unbaptized) or running kindergarten and daycare setups that serve Orthodox and unbaptized, prohibiting the sisters from sharing so much as a little prayer with the children entrusted to their care. Without “home-grown” Catholics and given its strong ethnic ties to Poland and Hungary, it is hard to say how the Latin Church will survive in Ukraine. The Armenian Catholic presence had already disappeared during communist times.

Up until the recent death of Metropolitan Volodymyr, the position of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate concerning the presence of Greek-Catholic structures in Eastern and Southern Ukraine was clear. The Orthodox recognized the right of the Church to care for its own faithful there, many of them forced to settle there in Communist times on their return from exile farther east, as they were prohibited by the soviet regime from returning home to Western Ukraine. Others have since come from Western Ukraine for work in the industrial complex of the nation, both prior to and at the time of independence or even more recently. Years prior, Greek-Catholics were settled in the rural parts of the Odessa region for farming.

Propaganda from Moscow notwithstanding, these tiny minority communities outside of Galicia are menaced with extinction. The danger of repression of the Greek-Catholic Church exists in whatever part of Ukraine Russia might establish its predominance or continue through acts of terrorism to push forward with its aggression. Any number of statements emanating from the Kremlin of late leave little doubt of Russian Orthodox hostility and intolerance toward Ukrainian Greek-Catholics, often slandered as a sort of Roman Catholic “Trojan horse” under the pejorative label “uniates”. The lessons of ISIS and the so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria would seem to deflate any possibility of protesting that such a tragedy is not possible in our day and age. There is no reason for excluding the possibility of another wholesale repression of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church as came about in 1946 with the complicity of the Orthodox brethren and the blessing of Moscow.

IV. The Special Case of Transcarpathia

The southwestern-most oblast of Ukraine, Transcarpathia, still maintains somewhat of its unique ethnic mix. The Germans are practically gone and very few Romanians there are Catholic. The Hungarians are still present, mostly protestant, but in small numbers also Catholic and belonging both to the Byzantine (Ruthenian tradition) and Roman Rites, as do the Ukrainians and Slovaks living there. Transcarpathia has perhaps the highest density of gypsies of any oblast in Ukraine.

The situation of the Roman Catholic Church in Transcarpathia (Diocese of Mukachevo) is perhaps the most endangered of anywhere in Ukraine today. An average rural parish, usually celebrating Sunday Mass in the Greek-Catholic church of its village, may have twenty elderly parishioners come on a Sunday. As Mass times are determined by the priest who generally covers three such communities each week, some of these elderly parishioners pass for convenience to the Greek-Catholic Liturgy later in the morning. Bishop Majnek has had two of his young Hungarian priests move to Hungary, where since seminary days their families have resettled and where all their companions exercise ministry. His total presbyterate does not amount to 40 priests.

The Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Mukachevo is directly subject to the Holy See, as its history sets it apart from the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. Bishop Shashik, the Eparch of Mukachevo, has worked wonders there with very little support from the local authorities. The city of Uzhhorod, in particular, is very proud of the restoration on Bishop’s House, Cathedral and environs, that which has already been accomplished and that still in the planning stages. The politicians are very quick to compliment him on his success at church building throughout the oblast, but will not help economically or support Catholic property claims against the Orthodox who are unwilling to return or at least share church property, especially in cases of multiple churches in the same village or where the larger community in a village today might be Catholic, with clear historical claims to both church yard and church. I cannot see an alternative to constructing new churches, as the Greek-Catholic community is destined to continuing growth and the Orthodox are not apt to cede properties of their own volition. Greek-Catholics simply do a better job of evangelizing than do most Orthodox.

* * *

At the ROACO meeting in Rome at the end of June, I told those gathered that the Church in Ukraine is capable of setting its own priorities. I firmly believe that.

If Russian aggression ended tomorrow, apart from rebuilding the east, Ukraine would still have enormous challenges to meet in order to root out corruption and establish a just society. As parts of the European Union find themselves in dire financial straits these days, so figure out the kinds of challenges facing Ukraine, where the criminal oligarchy which picked up the country on the rebound from the Soviets has left little to salvage of the country’s industrial patrimony, carrying off for foreign investment billions in currency and valuables, leaving the country’s coffers empty, piling up both internal and external debts, and all of this before the Russian invasion.

Many of the Catholic aid agencies around the world, at least prior to the present crisis, had called for self-sufficiency from the Church in Ukraine. The overall downward spiral of Ukraine’s economy through mismanagement and thievery made that expectation unreasonable. The Archeparchy of Ivano-Frankivsk has made great strides but the schemes applied there are not universally applicable nor do they suffice for all aspects of church life.

Personally, the plight of religious women of the apostolic life, both Greek and Latin, concerns me. They are not paid enough by parishes where they help out to be able to cover the costs of educating younger sisters or of caring for their own elderly sisters. The maintenance of their convents and other buildings is exceedingly haphazard also because most aid agencies require a bishop’s signature for projects from the sisters. The bishops are slow to put the sisters’ projects ahead of diocesan, eparchial or even parish projects. Whether that is just the way things are in our world or if we are not looking at an aspect of the Church in distress is perhaps for you to answer and seek to help.

The priesthood, priestly ministry and vocations form a very important part of this story. Salaries for priests are still a novelty in big parts of our world, except perhaps in Germany. In Poland you are considered an unfortunate priest if you haven’t landed a job teaching religion in the public school system. In Ukraine priests generally live from the Mass stipends in hard currency which come to them from abroad. For this reason, Bishop Shyrokoradiuk, now Ordinary of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia, was noted in the past for working hard to find the money to buy the newly ordained a car, something unthinkable for a young man today with just Mass stipends to live on. For this reason, many of the Fidei Donum priests from Poland who work in Ukraine pass a lot of time back in Poland begging. From the Diocese of Lutsk, I know cases of priests who lived at home in Poland, taught school there and came over for Sunday Masses in the Ukrainian parishes to which they were assigned. With an average parish size of 50 people, it is not hard to understand how a system like this could come about. In the world of medicine, as far as the life of a parish goes, I think you would call this palliative care.

Since 1989, the number of Greek-Catholic priests in Ukraine has climbed from around 300 to over 3,000, mostly married with wife and children. A family cannot live on a Mass stipend of $5 or $10 dollars a day. Many of the wives work outside the home and many of the priests have a sideline to help support their family. With the need for a family home, close to the wife’s place of work and to the couple’s choice of schools for their children, it is not uncommon for priests to have homes in Lviv and an hour commute to their parishes or curial jobs in another eparchy. Vice versa, you might find a family from the Archeparchy of Lviv that can live more economically in the country and dad must commute into the city to his priestly job each day.

I suppose we should talk about priests’ retirement and healthcare, but as I say, my confidence lies with the bishops themselves in examining issues with you. I thank you for the invitation and hope that I have been of help in casting light upon the situation of need in which the Church in Ukraine finds itself. I stand ready for your questions or comments.

Archbishop Thomas Edward Gullickson, is an American prelate who serves as the Roman Catholic nuncio to Ukraine. Born 14 August 1950, he is an American prelateof theRoman Catholic Church. He has served as theNuncio to Ukrainesince 21 May 2011, having been appointed byPope Benedict XVI.

Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)

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