Ukraine  25 August 2015

“Priests who do not have a calling will not last long here in the Ukraine,” Bronislaw Bernacki, Roman Catholic Bishop of Odessa-Simferopol, said in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “You have to be crazy about God to persevere here.” Everything is at the very beginning; in many places there are no churches and a priest first has to find the faithful and do pioneer work. In one town, the church had been converted into a bus station during Communist times. It had been completely laid to waste and was damp. The Polish priest who had been assigned to the church tried to raise money while on retreat in Poland, but achieved very little. “He sat before me and cried like a child,” the bishop recollected.

In another parish, a number of derelict cellar rooms were restored to the church in 2002. Bishop Bernacki reported, “I was there when they were opened. They were full of fat rats.” The bishop receives a pension of 50 euros because he once worked on a kolkhoz as a young man. “That is just enough for the gas I need to drive to the far corners of my diocese,” he said. “But I have never taken even a cent from any parish for gas. On the contrary, when I visit my priests, I try to bring them something.”

A large problem for the Catholic Church in Ukraine is that many of the buildings that were once church property have yet to be restored to it. If the buildings belong to the state, there is a chance that they will be returned. However, if they have in the meantime been sold to private persons, then the church has to buy them back from the new owners. During Soviet times, the Cathedral of Odessa was misused as a gymnasium. A false ceiling was installed inside. The building was restored to the church in 1991, but the surrounding buildings, which had also once belonged to the church, were not given back to the church. The few rooms that the church was able to recover do not offer nearly enough space. Even the priests are only living in temporary accommodations. One of them lives in the room of another priest who is currently undergoing medical treatment in Poland. Auxiliary Bishop Jacek Pyl, who usually works in Crimea but is now no longer able to return there, is living in the room of a priest who is currently studying in Rome. Up until recently, Bishop Bernacki himself was living in a steeple until Aid to the Church in Need helped him purchase a flat in a house that had once belonged to the church. The surrounding buildings also once belonged to the church; however, several of the new owners believe that the church is rich and are therefore demanding exorbitant prices while others want to keep their flats.

The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Kiev-Zhytomyr is also suffering badly from a lack of space. The priest of the Cathedral of Kiev is living in one of its steeples, while Archbishop Petro Herkulan Malchuk has to pass through the flat of a family of strangers whenever he wants to enter his small flat. Very few rooms are available to meet the needs of the archdiocese.

The Roman Catholic parish church of St. Joseph in Dnepropetrovsk is an especially impressive case. The communists confiscated the church in 1949. The building received a new front and was declared a “Monument of Communism”. The interior was divided into two storeys, parts of which were used as Politburos. In 1998, the building was illegally sold to a company and has changed hands many times since. In July of 2007, Catholics praying peacefully in front of the former church were threatened and violently assaulted by security guards hired by the company. Even older women were beaten. Time and again, the faithful who gathered together day after day to kneel on the sidewalk and pray for the restoration of the church were threatened with violence. It was only in 2009, following a long and difficult legal battle, that ownership of the former church was returned to the Catholic Church. The Catholics worked hard and prepared the church for reconsacration with their own hands. Aid to the Church in Need also supported the restoration of the church. The consecration was attended by bishops, priests and faithful from all over the Ukraine. The celebration began with a procession of the Most Holy Sacrament through the surrounding streets, which still bear the name “Lenin Street”, “Marx Street” and “Konsomolskaja Street”.

More and more people are coming to the churches. However, everyone agrees on the importance of having a proper church to give the people confidence and encourage them to attend Mass. When services are held in private flats, as has been and continues to be necessary in many places due to a lack of church buildings, many people stay away for fear that this may be a sect.

Aid to the Church in Need has helped build or renovate churches and catechetical centres in many places. The church representatives have all said that they regularly pray for all of the benefactors and celebrate Holy Mass for them. “Without their help, we would not have been able to achieve all that we have by now,” Greek Catholic Curial Bishop Bohdan Dzyurakh said. In the Greek Catholic parish of Ihor Tabaka in Lubotyn near Kharkiv, which received 25,000 euro in aid this year for a new parish church, the families even take turns praying the rosary for all of our benefactors for one week at a time.

Last year alone, Aid to the Church in Need contributed 5.1 million euro in aid to the Ukraine.

Eva-Maria Kolmann.