Seventy-one years ago, on September 25, 1949, Dr. Friedrich Funder of the Catholic newspaper the Register reported from Vienna about the situation in Soviet Ukraine and the functioning of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, as it struggled to maintain its faith in practice under Soviet rule.
A dwindling number of priests, without a single bishop, were keeping the faith alive in Ukraine – a Church that once boasted many bishops, thousands of priests and millions of faithful. The Ukrainian Catholic Church was forcibly liquidated in 1946 through a sham Synod, orchestrated by the Soviets, which absorbed the Ukrainian Catholic Church into the Russian Orthodox Church.
Refugees reported that the 20th century Church of the “catacombs” continued worshiping in old barns and Carpathian mountain recesses, where the few secret priests, dressed as farmers or laborers, continued their work undetected while administering the sacraments.
The Russian Orthodox archbishop of Kyiv (Ivan Sokolov) testified to the fact that these priests carried on their ministry in the face of constant peril, in addition to doing full-time jobs as laborers to earn a living and to escape detection.
The last Catholic bishop in Soviet Ukraine was Bishop Theodore G. Romzha, apostolic administrator of the Eastern Rite Diocese of Mukachevo (Zakarpattia Oblast). Bishop Theodore was killed by the Soviet NKVD in 1947 (poisoned by a curare injection administered by a nurse imposter, while he was in a hospital recovering from a brutal attack by plain-clothed Soviet military personnel) and he was beatified as a martyr by Pope John Paul II in 2001.
Dr. Funder’s report noted that Catholic religious life during those trying times had intensified and was being practiced with heroic tenacity. Both Latin and Byzantine Rites had been officially banned by the Soviets, and Church property was turned over the Russian Orthodox Church. However, these measures did not stop the practice of Catholicism in Ukraine.
By law, no Catholic priest was permitted to exercise his functions as a priest, but nevertheless the celebration of divine liturgy continued. The success of this underground Church was due to the secrecy of their worship services. Sacred spaces were created using a slab of rock as a makeshift altar with minimal ornamentation, usually a crucifix and two candles. Greater scenes of devotion were witnessed at these makeshift churches than in the grandest cathedrals of the world, Dr. Funder noted.
He further explained that some people walked 50 miles to attend services, and only a few people could leave any single village at the same time, and never more than one member of any household so that suspicions would not be aroused.
Marriages and funerals were very different from what would be considered normal, even today. Priests were unable to be present at these sacraments, but they sent their blessings by blessing the wedding rings or blessing a handful of soil that was to be deposited on the gravesite. Baptisms would be conducted by the parents themselves, using holy water provided by the priest.
During this COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen religious life shift to the online realm, where services are livestreamed, limitations were placed on funerals and baptisms, and even weddings have not been held in the same way prior to the coronavirus outbreak. As parishes reopen, and parish community life resumes under these new conditions, things may have been difficult to adjust to during the COVID-19 outbreak, but let us not forget what Ukrainians have endured in recent history and the blessings received.
Source: “Catacombs in Ukraine,” The Ukrainian Weekly, October 3, 1949.