In June 2001, Bishop Nicholas Charnetskyj was one of five Redemptorists among 27 martyrs beatified by Pope John Paul during his visit to the Ukraine. Fr Brendan McConvery, C.Ss.R., who lectures in scripture at Maynooth University and the Kimmage Institute, tells the story of Bishop Nicholas’s heroic suffering for the faith. During his visit to […]
In June 2001, Bishop Nicholas Charnetskyj was one of five Redemptorists among 27 martyrs beatified by Pope John Paul during his visit to the Ukraine. Fr Brendan McConvery, C.Ss.R., who lectures in scripture at Maynooth University and the Kimmage Institute, tells the story of Bishop Nicholas’s heroic suffering for the faith.
During his visit to the Ukraine last June, Pope John Paul beatified 27 martyrs and ‘confessors of the faith’, representing the countless members of the Greek Catholic Church of that country who witnessed to the faith during the darkest days of the Soviet occupation. They included eight bishops, seven diocesan priests, eight priest-religious, three sisters and one layman. The religious included five Redemptorists. One of them, Bishop Nicholas Charnetskyj visited Ireland to represent his church at the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932.
Outwardly, the Ukrainian Catholic Church (also known as the Greek Catholic Church) resembles the Russian Orthodox Church. It has retained a married clergy. The Byzantine liturgy is celebrated in the Old Slavonic language. Western Catholics are usually struck by the length of the Sunday celebration. A typical parish mass can last about 11/2 or two hours. Everything is sung in beautiful, unaccompanied polyphonic singing. The churches are richly decorated with icons. But what distinguishes the Greek Catholics from the Orthodox is that they have been in communion with Rome since the 17th century.
Redemptorists in the Ukraine
The Redemptorists went to the Ukraine from Belgium at the beginning of the 20th century. They were one of the first religious communities founded in the Latin church to work among the Greek Catholics of Eastern Europe. The Redemptorists adopted the Greek Catholic way of celebrating the liturgy, and devoted themselves to their traditional apostolate of parish missions. They soon attracted young Ukrainian men, and within a few years there was a flourishing Redemptorist community.
Several diocesan priests joined the Redemptorists. Among them was Nicholas Charnetskyj. Born in 1884, he spent the first years of his priesthood as a seminary professor and spiritual director. He entered the Redemptorists in 1919 and was professed the following year. Pope Pius XI appointed him Apostolic Visitor for the Ukrainians in Volynia in 1931, and he was consecrated as bishop in the Redemptorist church in Rome. During the ceremony, his bishop’s mitre fell to the ground, but the new bishop swept away the embarrassment of the server with a joke: “Maybe it’s a sign that I’m going to lose my head like St Josephat” (the martyred bishop who brought the Ukrainian Church back to unity with Rome). Events were to prove it an accurate prophecy.
The following year, Bishop Nicholas came to Ireland to attend the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. One of the purposes of a Eucharistic Congress is to show the universality and diversity of the church’s faith in the Eucharist through a number of solemn liturgies in different rites. Bishop Nicholas was chosen as celebrant of the Pontifical liturgy in the Byzantine Rite at the Jesuit Church in Gardiner Street, Dublin. While in Dublin, he stayed with the Redemptoristine Sisters at their convent in St Alphonsus Road. He visited most of the Redemptorist houses in Ireland, celebrating Mass each day in the distinctive Greek Catholic Rite.
On his departure, he asked the sisters to remember in their prayers the persecuted church of Russia. Within a few years, the persecution was beginning to touch the Ukraine. The Russian occupation of 1939 led to the closure of churches and the dispersion of religious communities. Bishop Nicholas remained at his post in Lviv. The situation was not improved by the arrival of the Germans two years later, and Bishop Nicholas was held under close confinement.
When the Russians returned in 1944, the Ukrainian Catholic Church was declared to be illegal and its members to belong henceforth to the Orthodox Church. The first step in the dissolution was the arrest of all the Greek Catholic Bishops. Bishop Nicholas was charged with collaboration with the Nazis and with being an agent of the Vatican. He was tortured cruelly but bore his sufferings with great humility. One of his chief torturers was so impressed by the bishop’s humility that he asked his forgiveness. Bishop Nicholas gave him absolution and the kiss of peace.
Bishop Nicholas was sentenced to five years in a labour camp, one of the notorious gulags that Alexander Solzhenitsyn has described in such horrifying terms in The Gulag Archipelago. Since he steadfastly refused to admit to any crime, a further 10 years were added to his sentence. Under the Soviet system, prisoners were moved frequently from one camp to another to prevent anyone on the outside from learning too much about the system. During his years of detention, Bishop Nicholas passed through about 30 labour camps. It has been estimated that he spent a total of 600 hours under torture and interrogation. Nevertheless, he found ways even in the camps of continuing his work as a pastor, comforting other prisoners with a kind word or a verse of scripture.
When his health finally broke, Bishop Nicholas was released in 1956 and permitted to return to Lviv to die. He was able to spend his last days in a hired room with a Redemptorist brother as a companion. Despite serious ill-health, he resumed his work as bishop. He devoted much of his remaining energy to training future priests to work in ‘the underground church.’ Each of these priests needed a civil job as a cover for their secret lives as priests. Some were factory workers, doctors, engineers by day. For small groups of believers meeting in secret, they celebrated Mass and conferred the sacraments.
Death and funeral
Bishop Nicholas died on 2 April, 1959. Despite the outlawed status of his church, the faithful crowded into the room where he died for a solemn funeral liturgy around his body, clothed in his Redemptorist habit and bishop’s stole. It was accompanied to its last resting place by a Latin Catholic priest. It was to be more than another 30 years before the dark night of Soviet terror came to an end.
By a miracle of grace and the heroism of men like Bishop Nicholas, the church in the West Ukraine survived. The Redemptorists, like the other religious communities, went underground. New members were received and trained in such secrecy that even their families had no idea they were religious or priests. All had daytime jobs. One brother, who had been forced to leave his community, heard of a job as a night-watchman in a former Redemptorist monastery which had been turned into a factory. For many years, it had been a well-known centre of pilgrimage in honour of Our Lady. The brother applied for the job. Each night, he made a circuit of the building saying the 15 decades on the long Redemptorist rosary, which was the only part of his habit he had been able to keep. He was, he said, keeping it safe for Our Lady until she reclaimed her own. He had the happiness of seeing the monastery and church returned to the Redemptorists.