VATICAN CITY, APR. 27, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Among the faithful to be beatified during John Paul II´s visit to Ukraine will be Emilian Kovtch, a victim of the Nazi persecution who gave his life to save Jewish children.
The decision was made after the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints on Tuesday officially recognized Kovtch´s martyrdom in a concentration camp.
Emilian Kovtch was born Aug. 20, 1884, in the family of a Greek-Catholic priest in a little town in western Ukraine. In the Greek-Catholic Church of Eastern rite, future deacons may choose between marriage and celibacy.
Kovtch studied theology in Lviv, and later in Rome. Ordained a priest in 1911, he began to carry out pastoral work in parishes of Galicia, Ukraine, before being sent to serve Ukrainian immigrants in Yugoslavia. In 1919, he was chaplain to the Ukrainian soldiers fighting the Bolshevik troops.
Father Kovtch was named parish priest in Peremychlyany, a village on the outskirts of Lviv, in 1922. Most of the 5,000 residents were Jewish.
Thanks to Father Kovtch´s work, pastoral life acquired remarkable dynamism. He organized eucharistic congresses, pilgrimages, boy scout clubs and student youth groups. And he welcomed poor and orphaned children into his home, even though he already had six children of his own.
After the Nazi invasion, Jews began to be persecuted and exterminated. In such moments, Father Kovtch baptized Jews en masse to save their lives, though such a move was prohibited during the occupation. He was arrested in December 1942 and imprisoned. Leaders such as Metropolitan Andrew Cheptytsky did everything possible to obtain his release.
Father Kovtch held his ground, as evidenced in this excerpt from his interrogation by a Gestapo officer:
“Did you know that it is prohibited to baptize Jews?”
“I didn´t know anything.”
“Do you now know it?”
“Will you continue to do it?”
In August 1943, Father Kovtch was deported to the Majdanek concentration camp. He continued to celebrate the eucharistic liturgy there, and to hear confessions. In a letter to his children, he wrote: “With the exception of heaven, this is the only place I wish to be. Here we are all the same: Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians. I am the only priest. When I celebrate the liturgy, they pray for all, each one in his own language. Doesn´t God understand all languages?”
According to the camp´s records, he died on March 25, 1944. On the eve of his death, he wrote to his family: “Yesterday, 50 prisoners were executed. If I wasn´t here, who would help them endure a moment like that? What more could I ask the Lord? Don´t worry about me. Rejoice with me.”