Once a month I travel just over two hours to serve a Ukrainian Catholic mission in the mountains of North Carolina west of Asheville. The decision to start a mission was made by one of our priests after a group of us had traveled once a year for three years to Western North Carolina to celebrate an annual Ukrainian Catholic Divine Liturgy.
During those three years, from fifty to more than 100 had attended the liturgy each year. Many had expressed interest in our establishing a mission. Since starting the mission in June of this past year, we have never had more than a dozen attend our services. Usually, we can depend on the attendance of at least two men of Eastern Christian background, one of Ukrainian Catholic heritage.
The numbers discouraged me at first, but prayer and spiritual reading led me to realize that the desire of just one person for monthly Ukrainian Catholic catechism, prayer, and liturgy was enough.
Part of what discouraged me was the situation of being Ukrainian Catholic in North Carolina. When you are a member of the Ukrainian Catholic Church (also called Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) living outside the church’s traditional national territories, outside the traditional places where Ukrainian Catholics have settled and established communities in the United States, and miles from your bishop, you can feel alone.
You are Orthodox and you are Catholic, but if you practice your faith traditionally you feel more at home with the Orthodox than with Catholics in your theology and spirituality, and in how you pray and worship.
You feel alone, because the Orthodox reject you and, in those places where you have the support of Catholic bishops and their flock, Catholics often accept you as little more than a curiosity.
Too often, many who attend Ukrainian Catholic missions are Roman Catholics seeking to gain an experience of Eastern liturgy. Welcome as this is, their mistaken definition of Eastern liturgy often tends to mean a liturgy that is a variant of the traditional Roman Catholic Latin liturgy. You cannot build a stable mission on the foundation of such visitors.
Things can become more complicated when you add into the mix those from other Eastern churches or other churches from within the Byzantine rite, often Latinized, who wish to make the mission a mirror of their own.
A further complication is the name of the church, which to some limits it. Some criticize the national characteristic of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, yet without this national identity, the church loses a good amount of its authenticity.
Some in the United States, especially in mission country, seem to all but resent our Ukrainian heritage and seem to seek ways to hide the full name by referring to themselves only as Eastern Catholic or Christian.
Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the church’s major archbishop, or patriarch, has noted that the Ukrainian Catholic Church is Orthodox and as part of the Catholic Church not limited by nationality but open to all. At the same time, he has not removed “Ukrainian” from the name.
When you take the name “Ukrainian” out of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, serve mostly Roman Catholics or members of other Eastern churches in your mission, and as a cleric become primarily an adjunct of a Roman Catholic parish or diocese, you risk becoming a curator of a kind of living but a somewhat dusty museum.
Take the name “Ukrainian” out of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and you also tarnish the history of a church that has struggled to exist throughout its history. You diminish the struggle of those who kept this church alive despite the interference of other nations and cultural upheaval, and you diminish the commitment of those in Ukraine still struggling with the effects of the persecution of the Soviet Union.
The Catholic Church’s breathing with two lungs cannot be allowed to mean simply that one has the ability to move back and forth between different rites, one day worshiping or serving as a Ukrainian Catholic, the next day as a Roman Catholic.
For Ukrainian Catholics, and other Eastern Catholics, breathing with two lungs must mean that you know and live the experience of your Orthodox faith and tradition fully and without interference from others. It must mean that you have a right to exist and practice your Orthodox faith as a member of a unique church within the Catholic Church and not as some kind of historical variant.
To be a member of the Ukrainian Catholic Church who embraces tradition also means being fully aware that those who have kept this church alive suffered, like Our Lord, for your sake. You honor their memory by forming true communities of faithful who express their faith in Jesus Christ through worship as fully committed members of this particular church.
This became more apparent to me after reading an article in the December 2017 issues of One, the official publication of CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association), a papal agency that provides aid to the Ukrainian Catholic Church and other Eastern Catholic churches.
“Planting Seeds, Nurturing Faith,” an insightful article written by Mark Raczkiewycz of the Kiev Post, with striking photographs by Ivan Chernichkin, has given me a new understanding of my experience in mission country. My experience, I now see, is similar to that of those serving miles outside of Kiev who hold services in homes of parishioners or priests, and in buildings such as a garage.
Like them, I do not have “the benefit of traditional churches or chapels, structures roofed with gilded cupolas and topped with crosses.” Like them, I usually serve few in number.
The task of those Ukrainian clerics, however, is far more difficult than mine. Unlike many of their parishioners, those I serve for the most part have a strong understanding of the faith. Through the generosity of a local Roman Catholic parish, I have the benefit of serving in a small church.
Raczkiewycz writes that despite few priests and deacons, the Ukrainian Catholic Church remains committed to the vision expressed by its former patriarch: “…the principle handed down by the late Major Archbishop Lubomyr Husar, who said wherever there is one family, a group of three or five people, it needs to be served.”
Like the priests and deacons in Ukraine, my purpose in mission country is to plant seeds and nurture faith. My purpose is to put down the roots of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the soil of new territory, one person and one family at a time.
I no longer feel alone in mission country.