THE CHURCH OF THE MARTYRS
A Report by Cardinal Josyf Slipyj on the Ukrainian
Catholic Church After 35 Years of Persecution
An old legend tells that St. Andrew the Apostle blessed the
hills of Kiev and foretold the victory of Christianity in the Ukraine. It is
known with certainty that St. Clement, the third successor of St. Peter, was
exiled by the Emperor Trajan to the Krimea, died there as a martyr and left an
indelible influence on the Church in the Ukraine. Five hundred years later
another exiled pope, Martin I, died a martyr's death on the Ukrainian coast for
the unity of the Church.
Martyrdom for the unity of Christians has remained the glorious
mark of the Ukrainian Church. After the eastern schism she was the first Church
to renew her union with Rome at Brest-Litovsk, and she has again and again
sealed her loyalty to the Apostolic See with rivers of blood and mountains of
This martyrdom reached its climax after the Second World War
when, through the activity of Stalin and the Patriarch of Moscow, Ukrainians
who were faithful to Rome were forcibly incorporated with the Orthodox Church.
Countless laity, hundreds of priests and nearly all the bishops perished as a
result of this unecumenical use of force, which those in authority in the
Patriarchate of Moscow still look upon as a glorious page in the history of
Cardinal Josyf Slipyi survived the terror. Even when offered the
Patriarchal See of Moscow on condition that he renounced union with Rome and
denied the papal primacy, he remained faithful and continued his Way of the
Cross, which lasted 18 years.
At the beginning of the Vatican Council his seat was vacant,
while the delegates of Patriarch Alexis, a man who shares responsibility for
the persecution, were present. A storm of protest arose. Pope John XXIII
intervened personally. On February 9, 1963 the unshakable confessor was
released. From Rome, where he has since lived, he continues to guide his
Church, which still lives on in the catacombs and in emigrant communities. In
this account he himself reports on the Catacomb Church, persecuted in his home
country for more than 35 years.
St. George's Cathedral in Lviv has been the focal point and the
symbol of Catholicism in the Ukraine ever since the 17th century. In 1946 it
was requisitioned by the communists and given to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Cardinal Josyf Slipyj had only been the metropolitan archbishop of this
Cathedral and head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church for a few months when the
most terrible persecution in the history of the Ukrainian Church began on April
11, 1945. The Cardinal is the most competent eye-witness of this persecution
and at the same time the man with the best knowledge of the Church of the
Catacombs in his native land today.
The Liquidation of the Ukrainian Church
My saintly predecessor, the Servant of God Metropolitan Andrej
Szeptyckyj, died on November, 1, 1944. God gave me the difficult, but great
task of being his successor at the moment when our Ukrainian Catholic Church
was faced with liquidation at the hands of the Soviets with the help of the
On April 11, 1945 I was arrested together with all the other
bishops. Within a year more than 800 priests followed us into imprisonment.
From March 8 to 10, 1946 the illegal Synod of Lviv was convened and under
atheistic pressure announced the "reunion" of the Ukrainian Catholic Church
with the Soviet-controlled Orthodox Church.
Ten Bishops Murdered or Otherwise Dead
This "reunion", and with it the outward liquidation of our
Church, was put through with brutal force. The bishops were deported to all
parts of the Soviet Union and almost all without exception died or were killed
in prison. Each of us had to go his own Way of the Cross. Now that I am 88
years old, memories of Jeniseisk, Mordovia, Polaria, Inta and Siberia have
grown pale, but at that time it was a hard reality. I thank God that He gave me
the strength to bear this cross for nearly 18 years, and I bow my head in
reverence to my ten brothers in the episcopate, the more than 1,400 priests,
800 sisters and tens of thousands of the Faithful, who by their imprisonment
sealed their loyalty to the Pope, the Apostolic See and the universal Church
with the sacrifice of their lives.
Choice Between Apostasy and Deportation
Our priests were given the choice of either joining the "Church
of the Regime" and thereby renouncing Catholic unity, or bearing for at least
ten years the harsh fate of deportation and all the penalties connected with
it. The overwhelming majority of priests chose the way of the Soviet Union's
prisons and concentration camps.
From 1945 to 1955 one of our best priests suffered in the camps
of Potma, Sarovo, Javas, Uljanovo and Polivanovo. He wrote to his parishioners:
"I accept this imprisonment as a penance and offer it up for you, that you may
be spared this cross. I bless you and pray for you. Five times a day I pray for
all my parishioners. On Sundays I celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Every day I
pray a moleben (devotional prayer)... They wanted to force me to apostasy, but
I refused... God's cause must be victorious. Keep the Faith of your fathers!"
For those priests who survived their ten years of imprisonment,
the end of their persecution was by no means in sight. I was sent news about a
monk in the Carpathians: "In 1968 he was again sentenced to three years
imprisonment for giving religious instruction to children. He served this
sentence to the last day. In 1973 he was given another eighteen months
imprisonment for having prayed at a woman's sick-bed... The Soviet government
holds the view that the Ukrainian Catholic Church is forbidden and therefore
considers even praying in a private house as a crime against the state."
The Faithful Without Priests
Nevertheless, the Faithful remain true to their Faith. In remote
villages, where the Church has been closed and the priest deported, they
sometimes secretly open up the Church, sing vespers, molebens and even those
parts of the Divine Liturgy intended for the people. I quote here from a report
that recently reached me: "Every Sunday the Faithful come to the Church and
together with the cantor they sing Matins and the Divine Liturgy, that is, of
course, only the responses, because we have no priest. A chalice is placed on
the altar and candles are lit."
The Faithful are so attached to divine worship that, if they
trust the orthodox priest, they take part in his services also.
The Atheistic System Has Missed Its Goal
In spite of the persecution that has now been going on for 35
years, we can gratefully declare that our Church, condemned to perish, is not
only alive but is growing, both in the Western and the Eastern Ukraine and
everywhere in the Soviet Union where our deportees are living, especially in
Our Church numbers at least four million Faithful in the Soviet
Union who have remained true to Rome. Their Faith is so strong that it bears
rich fruit: we have priests, monks, sisters, numerous vocations and a
clandestine hierarchy. The atheistic system has not succeeded in destroying the
Faith. Parents, who have grown up in a godless state, are bringing up their
children in a Christian spirit. Dissidents who were educated in atheistic
schools talk about God and defend the Church. A 35 year old woman proudly
admits before a court of law that she had her four children baptized and
teaches them prayers and the catechism. In answer to a tourist's question
whether he prays, a fourteen year old schoolboy replies seriously and without
hesitation: "Of course I pray."
Perpetual Adoration in the Ukraine
The letters I receive from our Faithful are encouraging. The
Mother Superior of our sisters sent me her Easter greetings this year. She
wrote: "We observe adoration of the Blessed Sacrament day and night... Some of
our daughters have married." That means that some of the young sisters have
taken their perpetual vows.
Clandestine sisters, working as nurses, bear wonderful witness
to Christ, to whom they lead many seekers. Their life of self-sacrifice
inspires other young girls to follow their example. Even atheistic doctors, who
know that they are sisters, appreciate their dedication so much that they want
to keep them in their hospitals at all costs.
No Shortage of Vocations
A young doctor from beyond the Carpathians is studying theology
with the help of borrowed books in order to become a priest. Young doctors,
engineers, lawyers, etc., are dedicating themselves to God as priests or monks.
A clandestine bishop wrote to me in a letter of January 8, 1980: "We shall soon
be ordaining the new priests, who have studied theology by correspondence
courses. Our sisters bring the written questions to the candidates and collect
their answers. The oral exams are held in spring or summer out of doors in the
country. The ordinations then follow."
In a letter of February 11, 1980 an experienced priest assured
me: "There are some excellent men among the newly ordained priests." That is
high praise, but how much faith is needed to accept the grace of the priesthood
in the Church of the Catacombs? And how much sacrifice is needed to persevere
in this vocation? To bring this home, I will tell you the story of one of our
The Story of Father Mykola
We will call him Mykola. As the son of deeply religious parents
he felt the desire to become a priest when still very young. Catacomb priests
taught him theology. He was ordained in 1975.
Ordination in a Cellar
The ordination took place in a cellar in the presence of
trustworthy persons. There were eleven other ordinands besides Mykola. The
Catacomb Bishop was assisted by a few elderly priests. It was a moving
ceremony. No one wore liturgical vestments as greatest caution is called for in
pastoral work in the catacombs. As his priestly equipment Mykola was given
vestments and liturgical objects all packed into a little shaving case. The
contents? A little cup, a little spoon, a strip of colored silk to serve as an
epitrachelion or stole, and two little bottles with water and wine. He put the
bread in his pocket, wrapped in a serviette. The twelve newly ordained priests
celebrated their first Divine Liturgy together with their bishop in the cellar.
With his blessing they went out into the new catacombs to begin their work
there in the service of Christ and their persecuted brothers.
On a Journey With a Clandestine Priest
How do Father Mykola and his eleven friends work? The young
priests purposely look for a poorly paid job that leaves them some margin of
freedom for movement. They celebrate the Liturgy as circumstances permit.
Wherever he goes Father Mykola looks for trustworthy persons. Early on a Sunday
morning he goes into a village and mingles with the people standing outside the
"Will the Liturgy be celebrated?" he asks.
"The people are praying alone because the priest has been
deported," is the answer he is given.
Father Mykola goes into the sacristy and asks the old sacristan
whether he may celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The sacristan at first looks at
him suspiciously but is finally convinced and helps him to vest. Father Mykola
goes up to the altar and begins to sing. Those present answer with tears in
their eyes. It is so long since they last saw a priest and heard the word of
God. When the priest leaves the church he is again a simple Soviet laborer. The
sacristan takes him home to lunch and invites a few other reliable persons.
They ask Father Mykola to stay a few days as there are so many unbaptized
children, also sick persons who want to confess and many graves to be blessed.
He stays in the village and carries out his pastoral duties...
The Mother of God Protects Him
Father Mykola is mostly lodged in a house in which he can also
hide in case of necessity. On a few occasions he was betrayed, but the Faithful
were always able to prevent his arrest. When he performs his priestly functions
some persons always keep a lookout. If it is impossible to celebrate the
Liturgy in the church he does so in the home of a trustworthy believer.
Sometimes he secretly baptizes even the children of party officials by night.
In this way he and his friends travel through the Ukraine. He visits not only
the Catholic Faithful but also the orthodox. The whole Ukraine believes that
the Holy Mother of God protects him and that Mary sends Her priests to comfort
the poor people.
The story of Father Mykola, which I have taken from a report
written in October 1979, bears witness to a heroic faith that grows in
oppression and is capable of moving mountains. But at what price is it won? An
orthodox dissident, Oles' Berdnyk, experienced this when in December 1979 he
was once more arrested after writing to the Pope: "I was born and brought up in
a country in which atheism is the official teaching. By struggle and in
suffering I have found Christ and learned the reality of His life..."
A Way of the Cross Strewn with Corpses
The same was experienced by one of our catacomb bishops, who was
recently discovered while performing his duties. In vain the KGB used threats
and torture to persuade him to cooperate. They also promised him a certain
measure of freedom in an attempt to split the unity of the Church from within,
but this too failed, because the bishop knows that there is no other way for
the Church than the Way of the Cross. This Way of the Cross of the Ukrainian
Church is still strewn with corpses today.
In March 1980 the body of one of our priests, Anatol Gorgula,
was found at Tomashivka, a village in the district of Rohatyn. He had been
bound, poured over with petrol and burned. His Faithful reported to me that his
only guilt had been that of loyalty to the Church and celebrating the Divine
In May 1980 at Zymna Voda, near Lviv, a 60-year-old priest, Ivan
Kotyk, was found murdered in the factory where he worked. His face was blue,
his nose full of coagulated blood, all his teeth had been knocked out and bread
forced into his mouth. His Faithful buried him to the singing of hymns and
there were so many mourners that the funeral procession was 600 meters long.
What our young confessor Josyp Terelya wrote on a scrap of cloth
to Pope Paul Vl on March 6, 1977 is still true today: "Bitter times have come
for the Greek-Catholic Church in the Ukraine. We, the faithful of this Church,
are compelled to have our children baptized in secret, to marry, to confess and
to be buried in secret. Our priests groan in labor camps and psychiatric wards:
they are being psychically destroyed... I live in a country in which it is a
crime to be a Christian. Never before have the Faithful of the Church of Christ
been exposed to such persecutions as today. The Ukrainian Catholics have been
deprived of everything: ordinary family life, freedom of speech, the
celebration of our Church's liturgy. We are in the catacombs! For the word of
God, the living spirit is crucified. Of the 34 years of my life I have spent 14
in prisons, concentration camps and psychiatric wards... Unless there is a
counteraction by all the forces of Christianity, no end can be expected to the
crimes of the godless world... We implore our Catholic brothers to defend the
tormented Greek-Catholic Ukrainian Church."
The Living Church of the Martyrs
Although in the Communist empire the Mother of God has been humiliated and banished from her sanctuary to the refuse heap, she continues to protect and bless her Ukrainian children.
Our Church is not dead, as many in the free world believe or
perhaps even wish, because she stands in the way of their all too human plans.
Our Ukrainian Church is alive. The best proof of this is her martyrdom. She
suffers because she believes, and she believes because she suffers. And she
rejoices to be allowed to suffer for God, as I read in a letter of May 1980:
"We are the chosen of the Lord; it is a grace to be allowed to suffer for God
and His Church."
For our Faithful the fact that our Church still exists after 35
years of the bloodiest persecution is a miracle of divine grace that compels
them time and again to reflect. This miracle makes their Faith unshakable.
The communist regime also knows that the battle for men's souls
which it began with such self-confidence and such boasting 60 years ago, has
not brought the success they expected. The frequent appeals made in the press
to young people, including those in communist youth organizations, not to take
part in religious services, and the continued mockery of holy places and
believers clearly prove that the majority of the people still adhere to their
Faith. This Faith is so strong that it even has the power to draw young people
away from the influence of their communist leaders and bring them to God. Only
those who have actually lived in the atheist hell can understand what task the
Church is fulfilling in my homeland as a teacher of Faith and morals.
Valentyn Moroz, a Ukrainian historian then still a dissident in
the Soviet Union, could justly write in 1973: "The Church is so deeply rooted
in our cultural life that it is impossible to interfere with her without at the
same time breaking up the whole spiritual structure of the nation."
That is true, but the Church has also an even more profound
significance for our people: together with other religious bodies that reject
political collaboration with the communist dictatorship she is the pillar and
bulwark of truth and morals for all who want to commit themselves to living the
The Importance for the Diaspora and the Universal Church
The existence and spiritual strength of the Church in my
homeland are of the utmost importance for the faithfulness of those Ukrainians
who have been scattered all over the world as refugees or emigrants and have
remained true to their Church. But for the existence of the Mother Church there
could be no question of a Diaspora Church! Just as the Jewish people in
captivity in Babylon inevitably adapted to heathen customs as soon as they
forgot Jerusalem, so too the Ukrainian Diaspora would lose its identity but for
its inner links with the Mother Church. This fatal assimilation sets off a
process not only in the ethnic but also in the religious field that would end
for our people with the loss of its inward nature and its Catholic Faith.
As in the divine communion of life, which in the words of Saint
Paul we call the "Mystical Body of Christ", the existence of a Church exerts
its influence on all other particular Churches, no one may remain indifferent
to the Ukrainian Church. Robbed of all institutional, organizational and
material means, like the defenseless Christ she is a source of inward strength
and true renewal for all her sister Churches. Here she is making her own
valuable contribution to the spiritual treasures of the universal Church.
The Importance for œcumenism
When considering the place and significance of the Ukrainian
Catholic Church in the framework of the universal Church, we must speak about
the reunion of all Christians. Unity in Christ must be restored and the deep
wound of separation in the Mystical Body be healed. The Second Vatican Council
gave us this task. In Eastern Europe people have been working for centuries at
Although today the so-called œcumenical dialogue is being
carried on with the greatest zeal, it is unfortunately limited to the small
circle of the higher clergy and the experts. The people are brought into it
very little in the West and not at all in the Soviet Union. But in the Soviet
Union the cross of persecution borne together has given rise to a true
œcumenism which, purified by uncompromising confession of the faith and the
blood of the martyrs, reaches down to the most fundamental principle of the
gospel: to seek what is of God and not what is of men. For Catholics and
Orthodox, Baptists and other denominations suffer in the same way for Christ's
sake. This suffering makes them all in a similar way children of God and of His
Church. This is a gain of inestimable value. Modern œcumenists would do well
not to lose sight of this new state of affairs.
And the Communist Regime?
We may also ask the question what our Ukrainian Church can
expect from the communist regime. Absolutely nothing!
In the communist system there is no room for the Church. If she
is in any way tolerated this is for the sole and exclusive purpose of achieving
ends that have either nothing to do with the Church or are against the Church.
And if we discover positive Christian elements in the Church structures
tolerated by the Soviet State, these have been determined not by the will of
the ruling communists but by the will of God. The true welfare of the Church
cannot be hoped for from a system that on account of its diabolic character
must in principle fight against God, the Church and every religion.
Our brothers and sisters in the Ukraine therefore count on God
alone, who by a miracle of His Providence can stir up men even at a distance of
thousands of miles to become instruments of His merciful love. For many years
now this work of love in helping my martyred people has been carried out in a
noble manner by Father Werenfried's "Aid to the Church in Need". On behalf of
my forgotten and unknown Ukrainian Church I thank him and all of you for the
inestimable help she has received from you. Our gratitude is all the greater as
we feel that you give us not only your money but also a part of your heart.
Your Task of Helping
Far more important than material help is the spiritual and moral
support you can give. It is your task and your duty never to forget your
persecuted brothers. The former professor and rector of our seminary at Lviv,
Dr. Ivan Czorniak, who died a saintly death on 26th January , 1980 after a Calvary
of 35 years, asked me in his last letter to do everything possible to influence
public opinion, shake up the conscience of the world, demand the elementary
right of religious freedom for all oppressed peoples in the Soviet Union, and
to prevent the Church of Silence from being silenced to death by those who are
well able to speak. Now that the day draws near on which God will call me from
this life, I avail myself of this opportunity, which may be the last, to carry
out my martyred brother's last wish.
But it is not enough just to speak. You must pray and work, and
above all you must lead a consistently Christian life. When at last the day
comes on which our persecuted brothers can again admire moral strength,
unshakable faith and defense of all human rights in the Church of the free
world, on that day they will draw fresh courage to continue their struggle.
Then their hearts will be filled with greater trust. Then their yoke will he
easy and their burden light (Matthew 11: 30). Amen.
†Josyf Cardinal Slipyj
Rome, July 28, 1980.
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