Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
June 25, 2001
The glory of Ukraine's martyrs
Four years ago, Edmonton Ukrainian Bishop Lawrence Huculak was ordained a bishop in a magnificent liturgy at a packed St. Basil's Church. Two days later, in a similar celebration at St. Josaphat's Cathedral, he took possession of the bishop's chair.
In Canada, we take these celebrations almost for granted as times when people can publicly express their faith in God and their allegiance to his holy Church.
Contrast our Canadian experience with that of Redemptorist Father Vasyl Velychkovsky of Ukraine. He was arrested in 1945 for "anti-Soviet propaganda," imprisoned, interrogated and sentenced to death by a firing squad. Undeterred, he taught the faith to his fellow inmates, baptized some and clandestinely celebrated the Eucharist. His sentence was commuted to 10 years in Soviet prison camps.
Upon his release in 1955, he continued his ministry. In 1959, Velychkovsky was named a bishop. However, there was no opportunity for him to be ordained until Metropolitan Joseph Slipyj was released from jail and ordained him in a hotel room.
Ten years later, Velychkovsky was arrested again and taken to a "psychiatric" hospital prison where his health was ruined. He was released and came to Canada in June 1972. He died a year later as the result of the tortures he had experienced and is buried in Winnipeg.
On June 26, Pope John Paul will beatify Velychkovsky, the first person who died in Western Canada to receive that honour. The pope will also beatify Bishop Mykyta Budka, the first Ukrainian Catholic bishop of Canada, who died in a Soviet prison camp, and 25 other Ukrainian martyrs.
The persecution of the Ukrainian Catholic Church by the Soviet government was likely the most brutal persecution of the Church during the 20th century, a particularly brutal period of human history.
Of the martyrs being beatified this week, one was boiled to death in a prison cauldron, another was found dead with cross-shaped knife slashes across his chest, a third was crucified on a prison wall and one was sealed alive in a prison wall after being driven insane, Several of the martyrs first experienced hundreds of hours of interrogation and torture.
One thing all these martyrs have in common is that they refused to renounce their faith despite intense suffering. They were witnesses to the fact that truth can never be compromised, even at the cost of life itself.
This is a particular witness to the Western world today where many question the existence of truth and believe that no salvation is found in fidelity to God's law. We pursue comfort and contentment, a life unworthy of the greatness to which we are called.
Faith is not simply intellectual agreement with a set of propositions. It is a way of life, a way of life that often stands in sharp contrast with the society around it. It is salt and it is light.
In his encyclical The Splendour of Truth, Pope John Paul wrote, "Martyrdom, accepted as an affirmation of the moral order, bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God's law and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man, created in God's image and likeness" (n. 92).
Sometimes the Church is today portrayed as rigid and unbending, as stubbornly clinging to outdated ideas of morality. But those moral norms are the source of our greatest dignity - freedom within God's law. When we compromise that dignity in order to find acceptance within a secularized society, we become the antithesis of the martyr.
We ought to be deeply grateful for that religious liberty that we take for granted. It is better for a bishop to be ordained in a cathedral than in a hotel room. It is better that we not be forced to give our lives to remain true to our faith. But it is best yet that, even if the persecution came, no one would be doubtful about where we would stand.
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