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Blessed Bishop Nicholas Charnetsky, c.Ss.R., & companions: modern martyrs of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

This is an important book, because the story of the martyrs of the Ukrainian Catholic Church--until 1990 the largest underground religious body in the world--deserves to be widely told and remembered by all Catholics and indeed all people. We must not be allowed to forget the ocean of blood poured out by Soviet Communism. This book poignantly witnesses to the mass slaughter of millions precisely by focusing on a few; the stories of these few help to refute the ghastly boast of Stalin himself that "a million deaths is a statistic."

The focus of the book is primarily--but not exclusively--on those Ukrainian Catholic martyrs who were also Redemptorists. The book is divided into four chapters: one each for the bishops, Nicholas Charnetsky and Basil Vsevolod Velychkovsky, and one each for the priests, Ivan Ziatyk and Zenon Kovalyk.

Bishop Nicholas is treated first. The chapter has powerful photographs of the bishop, changes in whose appearance can only be seen to be believed. Such a change, however, is not surprising given that he was arrested by the Soviets in Lviv on April 10, 1945 along with the entire hierarchy of the Ukrainian

Catholic Church and "underwent about six hundred hours of terrible interrogation during his ten years in prison."

When finally released, he went to live in a tiny apartment in Lviv, from which he continued to function as a bishop, clandestinely celebrating the liturgy and ordaining thirteen priests. Toward the end of his life, those who continued to visit the bishop were to say that they often found him "in the state of ecstasy." He died in April 1959 and since then there have been many reports of prayers answered and wonders worked through his intercession. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Ukraine in 2001 (as were the others mentioned in the book).

The second chapter, devoted to Basil Velychkovsky, follows a similar pattern as the first, but this time with commendable "colour:" he is not portrayed as a "clothes rack for virtues"--Cardinal Newman's apt critique of typical hagiographies--but instead we are told of his early life, warts and all. Fr. Basil, however, persevered in his vocation and, with God's grace, became a formidable priest, boldly preaching at public liturgies when forbidden to do so. Interrogated afterwards by the NKVD (the Ukrainian secret police), he revealed himself to be as wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove by the answer he gave, telling the authorities that he persisted in the "illegal" celebration because outsiders were saying the Soviets were enemies of religion, and Fr. Basil was simply proving them wrong. "I did it for the sake of your prestige and reputation" he slyly told the dumbfounded officers, who released him because he was too popular to detain.

His arrest would come in the summer of 1945. In 1955, he was released and went to live in Lviv. In 1963, upon Metropolitan Josyf Slipyj's release, Fr. Basil was ordained a bishop secretly and hurriedly in a Moscow hotel room right before Slipyj--who himself had spent 18 years in the gulag for refusing to renounce his loyalty to Rome--was bundled onto a plane and exiled to Rome. Arrested again in 1969, Bishop Basil was released in January 1972, his health shattered, and was sent abroad, eventually coming to live in Manitoba at the invitation of the Canadian Metropolitan Maxim Hermaniuk. Hospitalized twice In Winnipeg, his heart--into which the Soviet "doctors" had been injecting slow-acting poisons--finally gave out on 30 June 1973. He was buried north of Winnipeg, but after his beatification in 2001, his remains were moved to a new shrine erected in his honour in Winnipeg, only the second martyr's shrine on Canadian soil.

The third and fourth chapters, devoted to Fathers Ivan Ziatyk and Zenon Kovalyk respectively, are very brief. Fr. Ivan's indictment ("Ivan Ziatyk ... promotes the ideas of the Roman Pope of spreading the Catholic Faith among the nations of the whole world and of making all Catholics") really stands in many ways as a summary judgment on all the martyrs mentioned in this book. In the end, it is clear that the Soviets--who also martyred many Orthodox clergy and laity--went after Catholics with an especial vengeance precisely because of their loyalty to the pope, the subject of no earthly ruler.

Of the four in this book, Fr. Zenon, treated in the last chapter, experienced the most gruesome death. Arrested by the NKVD in December 1940, he endured six months in jail and many sessions of torture. Nonetheless he worked among the prisoners, administering the sacraments and leading services. In June 1941, with the Germans invading Galicia, the Soviet jailers were eager to flee and eager to shoot the prisoners. For Fr. Zenon, however, they chose another form of death: they nailed him to the jail wall in full view of the others, his stomach cut open.

After these four, more detailed chapters, there are two appendices to the book, including a listing of twenty-five martyrs in total, broken down into the categories of bishop (eight are mentioned), priest (thirteen), female religious (three), and layman (one). Some of these are well known (eg., the exarch, Leonid Feodorov, and the archimandrite, Clement Sheptytsky) but most are still obscure and the extremely brief descriptions--only a couple of sentences for each--are too short to allow them to come to life the way the four featured in the earlier chapters do.

Given these powerful stories, it almost seems churlish to mention flaws in the book. Happily, there are only a few. There is a certain "ethnocentrism" which, probably inadvertently, crops up in the book, as in the introduction when readers are invited to "read and reflect on the stories of these glorious Ukrainian martyrs." One blanches at such a theologically incoherent qualification. None of these martyrs would willingly endure any of their tortures for a mere nationalist cause: they died out of loyalty to Rome and the concomitant belief that the dignity of the Church and dignity of the human person transcend any political system and can never be subservient to any worldly power. (As the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre acidly observed about "that dangerous and unmanageable institution," the modern nation-state, "being asked to die for it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.") Second, the Catholic Church has officially beatified these men and women as martyrs to "divine and Christian truth." They are, simply, Christian martyrs.

A few pages later, one is told of the early Belgian Redemptorists who, having arrived in Ukraine in 1913, were eager to do missionary work and so "accepted the Ukrainian Rite." If the idea of "Ukrainian martyrs" is theologically incoherent, the idea of a "Ukrainian Rite" is liturgically and ecclesio-logically so, and forty years after the Second Vatican Council clarified these issues, continued use of this phrase is unhelpful sloppiness.

But these are small flaws in an otherwise noteworthy book which has commendably begun the important task of making known a few of those thousands of Christians in the twentieth century who, having washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, now intercede for the Church militant even as they enjoy their eternal reward. May this book also ensure that their memory is eternal.

Edited by John Sianchuk, C.Ss.R. Published by Liguori Publications, Liguori, Missouri, 2002, ISBN: 0764808672, Hardcover, pp. 112, $13.50 can

Adam DeVille, a subdeacon in the Ukrainian Eparchy of Toronto and Eastern Canada, is a doctoral candidate at the Sheptytsky Institute at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, where he is writing a thesis on the papacy.
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Author:DeVille, Adam
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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