Editor’s Note: The blog post below was written in 2013. We republish it now because it provides a window into the former Soviet Union’s historic persecution of Christians in the not so distant past. That window opens after a few paragraphs about the beginnings of EWTN Ukraine and our colleagues, who are now in imminent danger due to the Russian invasion. Please pray for them.
EWTN President and Chief Executive Officer Michael P. Warsaw traveled to Ukraine last week for meetings about EWTN’s Ukrainian-language television channel.
Michael arrived in Kyiv the same day as Father Diego Sáez Martín OMI, the new Director of the Catholic Media Centre, where EWTN is broadcast. In fact, the two men were introduced to the staff of the Centre at the same time! The permanent staff consists of three priests and three religious sisters and four lay people. The rest of the staff are all volunteers.
The Catholic Media Centre, which was launched in 2004 at the invitation of the head of the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference, is located in a church that is still under construction. EWTN Ukraine launched on Dec. 8, 2011. The Centre receives EWTN’s European feed via satellite, downlinks it, and provides Ukrainian translation. The channel is then sent via fiber optics to Volia, the leading Ukrainian cable television company. EWTN Ukraine now reaches 21 towns and cities. Believe it or not, the staff translates all of EWTN’s live shows and papal events into Ukrainian!
“They are also hoping to translate our live shows into Russian as well,” said Michael, “since a significant portion of the population prefers to speak Russian because of the Soviet era!”
To say everyone works extremely hard is an understatement. In fact, the three Oblate of Mary Immaculate priests often work 18 hours a day! On weekends, the priests preach about EWTN in the parishes. They are grateful beyond measure to EWTN for helping them bring the Ukrainian Church back to life.
Although the number of Catholics in Ukraine is small – estimates range from 0.6% to 2% for the Latin Rite and 5.3% to 8% for the Greek Rite –Michael says the miracle is that the Church has survived at all. To understand why, you only have to hear the story of Father Pavlo Vyshkovskyy, Provincial Superior of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Ukraine. Father Pavlo founded the “media community” which does much of its work through the Catholic Media Centre, and also publishes a magazine and EWTN’s Ukrainian website, www.ewtn.org.ua. Father Pavlo was the first director of the Centre and, although he recently became the Superior of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Ukraine, he still tracks everything at the Centre on a daily basis. Michael shakes his head as he recalls this priest’s remarkable story.
“As a boy during the Soviet era, [Pavlo] went to Midnight Mass. Because of this ‘crime,’ he was declared an enemy of the state. Teachers stripped him of everything but his shirt and he had to walk and eventually crawl 5 km home in the middle of winter. He ended up in the hospital for eight months and lost the hearing in one ear — but he survived. He grew up to be a priest with a serious motivation for spreading the Gospel!”
Michael brought back a DVD of Father Pavlo’s account of the Soviet destruction of the Church in Ukraine. It is devastating. You can understand why this priest was willing to suffer as he did while only a young boy. His own grandfather was beaten and buried alive by Soviet soldiers because of his faith. Parishioners defending his parish church were given the choice to deny their faith. When they did not, they were hung by their ears around the church. He says more than 45,000 bishops and priests were murdered: crucified in prison cells, thrown into steam engine boilers, and frozen to death, and most of the churches were blown up. Says Fr. Pavlo: “The Church in Ukraine passed the maturity exam.”
Michael had a chance to see – up close and personal – what happens when the citizens of a country lose the fundamental right to openly practice their religion. During the Soviet era, gorgeous cathedrals in Kyiv were taken over by the government and turned into everything from tractor repair shops and stables to atheism museums and concert halls. Although the Soviet Union has fallen, these houses of worship in Kyiv have not been returned to the diocese. Even today, the Diocese of Kyiv has to purchase seats in its former churches every Sunday for the congregation.
While in Ukraine, Michael had the opportunity to meet Archbishop Petro Malchuk OFM, Latin Rite Archbishop for the Diocese of Kyiv-Zhytomyr. He is the first Catholic bishop allowed to reside in Kyiv in 350 years! Archbishop Malchuk’s office is in the bell tower of the Cathedral. To reach it, one must ascend a rickety spiral staircase to a room with a desk, computer and a phone. The Bishop has no staff.
Michael also had the opportunity to meet with His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. He normally resides in Kyiv, but was in Lviv at the time of Michael’s visit. Unlike Kyiv, which was almost totally destroyed during World War II, many of the beautiful churches in Lviv were not destroyed and are still maintained by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. While that is a significant advantage, both the Latin Rite and the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches face the challenge of rebuilding relatively small congregations.
But how can the Church rebuild after such devastation? In the “I Love Jesus” DVD that Michael was given, Fr. Pavlo tells the story of his days as a young seminarian. He desperately wanted to meet Pope John Paul II.
Fortunately, his order had a contest. The seminarian who learned the most about the Oblate of Mary Immaculate’s founder would be sent to Rome for the canonization. Fr. Pavlo won.
However, Fr. Pavlo is very tall, so he was placed at the very back of the crowd being greeted by the Pope after the canonization. Fr. Pavlo saw he would have no chance to touch the Pope, much less converse with him – so he prayed to Jesus. When the Pope got to his group, he suddenly stopped and said, “Is there anybody from the East here?” Fr. Pavlo was pushed forward. The Pope said to him: “I give you my blessing to revive the Church in Ukraine.”
Fr. Pavlo will have help. As Michael was told time and time again during his trip, EWTN is the primary method for spreading the Gospel in a country where many of the people who are left don’t even know who Jesus Christ is! What an honor – and what a responsibility!
“In Ukraine, the Catholic Church is a small church in a nation that has overwhelmingly had its religious essence taken away by successive governments,” Michael said. “It can happen all too easily. We thank God for inspiring our viewers to make the donations that allow this kind of worldwide evangelization to take place.”
God bless you Family!