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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 Crimea, 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 corpses.

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 orthodoxy.

Cardinal Josyf Slipyj 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 eyewitness 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 Andrzej Szeptycki, 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 Moscow Patriarchate.

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 Siberia.

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 priests.

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 church.

“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 Liturgy.

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 gospel.

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 this task.

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.