Story of faith, of secrecy, of death -- and life


LVIV, Ukraine - When he makes his visit this month to Orthodox Ukraine, Pope John Paul II will beatify 25 martyrs of the Ukrainian Catholic Church who died for their faith during the Soviet era.

Theirs was a church that the KGB was ruthlessly determined to stamp out, and all 25 died in prison camps or from the long-lasting effects of their incarceration.

But in some ways, an even more stirring story about the church is emerging from oral history - not about those who died but about those who lived.

Two generations of believers in Western Ukraine kept an underground church alive, offering Masses, celebrating weddings, conducting funerals and baptisms, and ordaining priests, all out of sight of the police. Moscow had turned its fury on the church - also known as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, because of its allegiance to the pope - thus keeping it outside the state-controlled Orthodox structure. From 1946 to 1989, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, with 4 million followers, was the biggest outlawed church in the world and the largest organized opposition group in the Soviet Union.

And because of that legacy, it is once more a vibrant and flourishing church here.

Priests in those days were especially adept at melting into a crowd. Once, when Soviet police raided an illegal Catholic wedding, the priest threw on a dress and slipped out unnoticed. Another priest, who performed secret baptisms, had a particularly appropriate day job - he was a plumber, which in a country of perpetually leaking pipes gave him an excuse to make the rounds of his parishioners.

A priest might use a ribbon for a stole, a thimble for a chalice. Never would he carry these items himself, but always would have them taken to a service - in an apartment, in a barn, in the woods - by someone else.

Undeniably, the church had some well-placed friends. A colleague once approached Vasil Boyanitsky, an anatomy professor, and told him, "If you happen to know any Catholic priests, you might want to tell them the KGB is planning some revisions." Boyanitsky tipped off all the underground priests he knew. And a few days later the "revisions" took place - top-to-bottom searches of the suspected priests' apartments, which by now were free of incriminating vestments.

But neither was the church completely hidden. From time to time, the KGB had a pretty good idea who some of the priests were - it just made them more careful never to be caught with evidence.

Not once, but repeatedly, a Catholic monk named German Budinsky wrote rebuttals to articles about religion to the Soviet press. The rebuttals, naturally, were never published, and time after time, Budinsky was picked up by the police for questioning. "Of course, I'm afraid," he told an acquaintance. "But it's important to show them I'm going to keep doing this."

Not everyone was so forward. Father Petro Baran, 44, recounted a couple who got married and only after they had started living together did they realize they were both members of the outlaw church.

Oral history project

The center of the oral history project is the Lviv Theological Academy, under the leadership of its American rector, Father Borys Gudziak. The church, for obvious reasons, kept no records in the Soviet era, and Gudziak realized that a chapter in its 500-year history would soon be lost to memory. He and his staff have conducted more than 1,200 interviews with survivors of that time, and they have 30,000 pages of transcripts.

Irina Kolomyets' father was an underground priest. (The church allows married men to be ordained, but marriage is not permitted after ordination.) "He was arrested when I was born," she said in a recent interview. "When he came back, I was at school."

This was in 1956, when she was 7. He again started holding services. They were very early in the day or very late, she remembered. The doors would be closed, the window shades drawn. Only people who were known and trusted, sometimes only three or four at a time, could attend. They would come in and leave one by one. The altar was disguised in such a way that anyone coming into the room would be unlikely to guess what it was.

"The services mainly were readings," she said. "People very rarely sang."

The only job her father could get, she said, was as a night watchman because after his arrest his internal passport identified him as a member of a cult.

'Key was not to betray ...'

Sister Myroslava Jakhimets, 35, said her parents first started taking her to Catholic services when she was 12. "I didn't quite realize everything that was going on," she said. "We'd get up at 2 and walk for many kilometers, then take a bus or a train to whatever village a priest might be having services in."

Sister Julita Pokhudaj, 55, said she went to Poland to study to become a nun, even though the Ukrainian Catholic Church was outlawed there as well. When she came back to the Soviet Union, she took a job in a candy factory.

"The key was not to betray others and not to betray yourself," she said. "Someone might get to know you. 'Why aren't you married?' they might ask. 'Do you like films? Who do you get together with?' One had to speak as little as possible. That's what saved us."

Priests would spend years in training. A group might go into the forest, pretending to be campers, and then hold classes. Often, an older priest would train a younger man.

Oleh Turii, head of the Institute of Church History here, said the church traditionally drew its strength from Ukrainian peasants. Before 1939, Western Ukraine had been part of Poland; the elite belonged to the Polish Roman Catholic Church. But after the Soviet Union absorbed the region, the underground church became more active in the cities, he said, for the simple reason that it's easier to hide in a city than in a village.

The church also began to appeal to the intelligentsia, who longed for a way to define themselves outside a Soviet context.

'An opportunity for freedom'

"It was an opportunity for freedom," as Kolomyets put it. "No one could deprive you of that. There was that uncontrolled center within each person. Keeping the church helped to maintain self-respect and identity."

Myroslav Marynovych, an assistant rector at Lviv, spent 10 years in Soviet camps and internal exile, beginning in 1977. In those days, he said, being a democrat, and a nationalist, and a Ukrainian Catholic were all mixed up together - all, by definition, anti-Soviet.

"I was young," he said. "I wanted to respect myself."

The church's identification with Ukrainian nationalism in the 20th century has been central to what Marynovych called "its glory and its shame."

On the one hand, Ukrainian nationalists stood up to the overwhelming might of the Soviet Union, fervently and memorably. On the other hand, most nationalists greeted the invading Nazi armies as liberators in 1941, and some took part enthusiastically in the extermination of Western Ukraine's Jewish population.

"If we had had no nationalists at that time, we would have had no velvet revolution in Ukraine in the 1990s," Marynovych said. "But on the other hand, I hate it when I talk to nationalists today who say, 'Russians are no good, Poles are no good, Jews are no good.' This is dangerous - for Ukraine."

'Problem of anti-Semitism'

Nationalism covers a broad range, said Gudziak. "There has been and is a problem of anti-Semitism in Ukrainian cultural legacy. I think modern Ukraine has been treating this well."

He pointed out that half a million Poles were deported by the Soviets to Poland after the war. Ten percent of the population of Western Ukraine was sent to prison camps in Siberia.

"Most Ukrainians," he said, "want to hear their story told. They want their deaths mourned."

That's precisely what the pope will do when he gets here this month. Although his visit is part of a campaign to build bridges to the Orthodox world - which in Ukraine is itself divided into three squabbling branches - he is also intent on using the trip to recognize those in the Ukrainian Catholic Church who gave their lives.

His visit has sparked denunciations from Moscow and kindled memories here of Rome's not-always-supportive stance toward the Ukrainian Catholic Church during the darkest years.

In 1945, the KGB began arresting bishops and priests after it realized that the church was not going to submit to the police apparatus. On April 11 of that year, the KGB assembled 216 priests at gunpoint in St. George's Cathedral and told them they must vote to join the Russian Orthodox Church. The motion passed; those who voted against it were sent to Siberia.

These are the people who will be recognized by the pope when he visits June 27 and 28..

'A cut-and-dried case'

The list was drawn up, in a matter of weeks, by the diocese here, which went into high gear when the call came in December of last year from the Vatican. As Gudziak put it: "The pope basically said, 'I want to beatify some people in Ukraine. I know it normally takes time. But this is a cut-and-dried case. Do it."'

A group of church workers fanned out to gather evidence. In many cases, they used KGB records to provide documentation of martyrdom for a church that put nothing down in writing. But they also heard testimony - from people such as Father Petro Josefat Geriliuk-Kupchinsky, now 79, who spent nine years in Soviet camps and another 13 in exile in Kazakhstan before returning to Ukraine.

In 1947, Geriliuk-Kupchinsky had been arrested trying to smuggle out of the Soviet Union a letter from the leaders of the church to Pope Pius XII. He was sent to a KGB prison, where his interrogator, a man named Dubok, boasted that he had beaten 79-year-old Bishop Grigory Khomyshyn to death several days earlier. Dubok said he had accused Khomyshyn of disseminating anti-Soviet literature, to which the bishop replied, "I did, and I will."

Geriliuk-Kupchinsky had served with Khomyshyn from 1943 to 1945.

"He was a saint, and he was fearless," he said. The Gestapo had called him in for questioning when he spoke out against the murder of the Jews. Two years later, when the Soviets had swept through and were beginning mass deportations to Siberia, Khomyshyn came upon a convoy of prisoners being taken to a train. "He called out to them and blessed them," Geriliuk-Kupchinsky said. "He told them to remember Mary and be happy."

Khomyshyn died Jan. 17, 1947. No one knows where he was buried. He is among those to be beatified as a martyr - thanks to the testimony of Geriliuk-Kupchinsky.

'Faded like a dream'

Trained as a doctor, Geriliuk-Kupchinsky was ordained while in prison. He went through bouts of tuberculosis and meningitis and was allowed to return to Ukraine in 1968.

"Always, underground, I was worshipping," he said. "Every day I got up at 4. I'd pray until 6. Somehow, in the depths of the soul, there was always hope there would be change."

But no one thought it would come so soon.

"The underground period has already faded like a dream," said Pokhudaj.

"And I miss that, too," agreed Father Bogdan Smuk, 65. "One could feel the real faith of the people then. Now, no one's forbidding it. It just doesn't seem so heroic anymore."

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