An аppeal of Bishop Mykola Bychok, Eparch of Melbourne to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference

May 10, 2023, 18:40 19

Your Excellency, Dear Brother Bishops, First of all, thank you for the unique opportunity to once again convey the truth about the war in Ukraine at the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Australia. The last time I addressed you on the 9th of November last year, on the 259th day of the war. Today is the 440th day of the war. I want to tell you about the ministry of priests during the war and also about the Advent Appeal for humanitarian aid to victims in Ukraine.

An аppeal of Bishop Mykola Bychok, Eparch of Melbourne to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference

The ministry of priests in the conditions of war is difficult and dangerous. Allow me to share with you about two of my fellow Redemptorists, Fr. Ivan Levytskyi and Fr. Bohdan Heleta, whom I know very well; and also, about their pastoral ministry in the city of Berdyansk during the war.

On the 27th of February 2022, the city of Berdyansk, which is located 80 km from Mariupol, was occupied by Russian troops. From the very beginning of the full-scale invasion until the moment of capture, the Redemptorists, in addition to their parish duties, also gathered together with the people to pray for peace in Ukraine in the central square of the city. Sometimes it happened that during prayer the occupiers came and took one of the men captive. However, this did not scare the priests, they continued to pray, because they put all their hope in God.

Once Fr. Ivan was approached by a woman whose husband was captured by Russian soldiers. She begged the priest very much to help her with his liberation. Father Ivan went to the occupiers for negotiations, where he used various arguments in order to achieve the man’s release. After a long conversation, he succeeded. This one example shows how much for Fr. Ivan, the life of a neighbour is more important than his own, because “greater love has no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15, 13).

Last year in September, when a conference for young bishops was held in Rome, I met the Roman Catholic bishop Pavlo Honcharuk. He told me the following story about the Redemptorist Fathers. The city of Berdyansk belongs to his diocese, and he had certain difficulties with the pastoral care of the Roman Catholic parish, because, at the beginning of the war, his priests left this city to save their lives. In one moment, the parish was left without its pastors. As a bishop, he appealed to the Redemptorist Fathers to take over the care of the spiritual needs of this parish. To which they gladly responded. Bishop Pavlo also said that very often when the priests celebrated the Holy Mass, at the same time, a Russian sniper went to the church bell tower, from which the territory of the city could be seen well, since the church was located on an elevated ground. Just think, at one and the same moment, the priests, as good shepherds served God and the faithful, while the sniper at that same time was doing the reverse, doing evil and sowing death.

On the 18th of November 2022, contact with fathers was lost. They were arrested by Russian special services. Six days later, on the 24th of November 2022, when they were already in captivity, Russian propaganda showed a video on one of the television channels about the terrorist fathers. In this video, it was shown how the Russian special services conduct a search in the church and monastery of the Redemptorists. The main reason for the imprisonment of the priests was material evidence: explosives together with weapons; the icon of the blessed new martyrs of the UGCC, because they did not like the history of some bishops who opposed Russia; and the book of the Servant of God’s Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytskyi “How to build a native house”.

The Redemptorist Fathers have been in Russian captivity for almost seven months. We still do not have any information about their whereabouts. Are they still alive? No one knows! All diplomats, led by the Holy Father Francis, know about this case. I sincerely ask you to pray for Fr. Ivan Levytskyi and Fr. Bohdan Heleta. Please share with your faithful the living history of modern martyrs and witnesses of faith in Ukraine.

Now there is a confrontation between the government of Ukraine and the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The main reason for this is the request of the government to evict all monks, priests and bishops from the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. Since this monastic complex is the property of the government and belongs to the conservation of UNESCO architectural monuments, it was actually leased during the time of independence of Ukraine to the Moscow Patriarchate. I would like to note that this Lavra has a deep history that dates back to the 11th century and is the centre of Christianity in Ukraine. In 1051, the first cave monastery was founded there by two monks Anthony and Theodosius of Pechersk. That is why the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine is doing everything not to lose, in their opinion, the “cradle of Orthodoxy.”

Today, the National Historical and Cultural Heritage of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is the largest in Ukraine. The word “lavra” comes from the Greek language and means a built-up quarter or church parish. There are 144 buildings, 122 of them are historical monuments. There are also a dozen churches and several dozen rooms of the monastery, in which about 250 monks live. This Lavra is located practically in the centre of Kyiv.

It is in the caves of this monastery that there are about 80 incorruptible relics of monks and the head of Saint Pope Clement the Ist, who was the fourth Pope after St. Peter. During the persecution of the Church by the Roman Empire, Pope Clement the Ist was exiled to Feodosia, on the Crimean Peninsula. There he preached the Word of God, for which he was later executed by the pagans. It is very strange that the head of the Holy Pope is in an Orthodox monastery. Looking at current events, we can say that first there was a “spiritual occupation” of Ukraine, and now there is a military occupation of our Motherland.

The very arrest of the Redemptorist fathers took place against the background of the fact that the Security Service of Ukraine began searching churches and monasteries of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine. It appears as an act of revenge. Russian propaganda literature was found there, Russian agents hiding in monasteries were arrested, and monks, priests and bishops with Russian passports were detained. The Russian mass media began to actively write about this and show on TV how Ukraine persecutes the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Last time I appealed to the Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops with two requests: to organize an Advent collection to support our refugees and also to visit Ukraine with a fraternal visit of support. We managed to complete the first request together. An amount of 428,358.41 AUD was sent to Ukraine for the Patriarchal Foundation the “Wise Action”, which we collected during the collection at Christmas time for humanitarian aid to Ukrainians. I also hope for your support in my second request to visit Ukraine in the near future with a fraternal support visit when it becomes possible.

I ask you to continue praying and fasting for peace in Ukraine in your dioceses. I encourage good deeds of mercy that will help us heal the wounds of war.

May God bless the Australian nation and Ukraine!

The UGCC Department for Information