Glory to Jesus Christ!

Glory forever! You’re with Padre Serge and Olia.

Padre Serge: Olia, please answer my question. Do you know where (in the world) there is Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church?

Olia: It seems easier to name the countries where there isn’t one!

Padre Serge: And you’re right! The thing is that UGCC has communities in Africa, Asia, USA and Australia. By the way, last year I had a chance to interview Father Mykola Bychok, who was a priest at that time. Now he’s a bishop who is going to serve Ukrainian people in Australia, Oceania and New Zealand. An interesting fact is that he hasn’t been able to go there and had to stay in Ukraine, due to the coronavirus. In a few days he’ll be flying to Australia. Today is the first anniversary of his episcopal ordination, and we have a great opportunity to ask him some questions.

Let’s go then!

Padre Serge: Christ is risen!

Bishop Mykola: He is indeed!

Padre Serge: Bishop Mykola, please bless us.

Bishop Mykola: May you be blessed by the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit!

Padre Serge: Amen! We had an interview in the US a year ago, just before your ordination. It’s been a year and now you are about to join your flock physically on the green continent. We’d like to ask you some questions. I´d like to introduce you to Olia. She is a theologian. She’s studying in her first year at UCU and she has a few questions to you.

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Bishop Mykola: I´m happy to take part in this interview. Let’s go!

Please tell us about your journey to becoming a monk.

My path to monastic life started in my hometown Ternopil. By the way, an interesting thing which I recently discovered for myself is that redemptorist fathers served in the cathedral in Ternopil when I attended Catechesis classes there. Even though I didn’t fully realize that, later I was looking through some documents and I noticed the signature of one of our priests, who now lives in the States. So that was my first encounter with the Redemptorists. Of course, some time later, when I become more mature, I would go to one of the Redemptorist churches and pray with them. I even spent my free time and school holidays with them too. Seeing their work, especially witnessing their missionary trips or retreats, moved me. I felt something unbelievable, it was what we call “The Lord’s Voice”, the vocation to join that monastery, to dedicate my life to serve God and people.

Every person who decides to become religious has to choose a certain monastic congregation. Please tell us about your path to being religious.

When the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine was legalized, the first church which I went to was the newly rebuilt church of Redemptorists, the Dormition of the Virgin Mary church. The significance of that place lies in the fact that Redemptorists served there before the Legalization of our Church. It was bombed in 1962 and became the first rebuilt church in Ternopil when Ukraine was proclaimed independent. That is the reason why I used to go to that church. In the beginning, there was only a small chapel and then, thanks to the city council, which felt a sense of responsibility for renovating the church, it was eventually renovated.

At the beginning it was really unusual as our priests – monks – Redemptorists – didn’t even have a place to live. They stayed in private apartments. Everything had to be rebuilt, including the monasteries and community life. In the monastery we don’t live there in separation as we are a community, a Redemptorist community.

When talking about my formation as a Redemptorist, I’d like to point out two Redemptorist priests. One of them, who already passed away a few months ago, father Mykhailo Shevchyshyn, belonged to the older generation of Redemptorists and even knew some of our blessed fathers famous missionaries.

For me he was a great role model and the one who told me the history of the Underground Church. Another priest who greatly influenced my formation was father Volodymyr Vons. He was only 35 at that time. As a young redemptorist he taught me and spent a lot of time with me. I sometimes travelled with him. He frequently visited me at home. We played musical instruments – he played the accordion and I played the bayan. There were different situations. This was how my vocation was formed. Thanks to those two priests I saw some things I had not seen before. I could see how a person can be faithful to God, giving their time, talents, and vocation to help people get to know our kind and loving God.

You served not only in Ukraіne but also in Russia and the United States. Could you please share some of your experience with us?

So, my work as a priest started in Russia in 2005, shortly after I was ordained. Within a month of my ordination the father superior asked me to go to our missionary station in Siberia, Russia. The station was located in Prokopyevsk, Kemerovo region. This region is often called Kuzbas (The Kuznetsk basin) because there are many miners there. They extract coal there. It was this exact region to which many people were forced to resettle in the 1950s and 60s. Those people didn’t choose to live there, they were moved from other places against their will. They needed church for some consolation and support in tough moments of their lives.

It was in 2005. I was 25 and full of zeal when I arrived there, I had many ideas on how to work with young people, adults and families. My plans weren’t exactly shattered when I arrived there, but I realized that some of them were not going to work out and started thinking how to implement them differently. I’d like to point out that we served in two rites – in the Eastern rite for Ukrainians and in the Western one for Roman-Catholics. The Greek-Catholics we served were resettled from Ukraine, the Roman-Catholics were mainly Germans who spoke Russian. I recall that besides that town – Prokopyevsk – where we lived and where our community was, there were 10 other locations we regularly visited. First, we lived in a flat, then built a small house. The distances varied – from 20 km up to 300 km of commute. There were also different groups of people, people of various ages. There were times, I remember, when we arrived in a village (it was called Kutonovo) to confess one single old woman. Sometimes we had a Mass with her. It was completely different from the work we do in Ukraine. We also tried to focus our mission on work with young people and children. Especially in the summer time we used to organize summer camps for them. It was such a great idea for those children to see for instance, the nature in Russia, as there is a lot to see.

Let’s talk now about the USA. That was the place of my most recent service. For five years I worked in Newark, New Jersey, not far from New York. The people I worked with were not moved there, they travelled to the States by themselves. They arrived there looking for a better life. In many cases they couldn’t get to the States straightaway. They had to go to South America, very often Brazil or Argentina, and then gradually they could reach the States. Our community in the States was formed in 1907 around the Saint John the Baptist parish where I was honored to serve. There are many Ukrainians there – a lot has been done. There was a school, now a kindergarten and a bank function there. In the past it was like in a village – a church and people living around and going to the church. But in the 1980s the situation changed when many people left that area looking for work in other places. The church was left alone and only the priests live near the church now. But luckily many people still come to our church as they feel some sort of connection. Somebody was baptized there; someone went to the school by the church or got married there. This is a truly amazing feeling to see how people travel and try to live spiritually, support the church and keep that Ukrainian spirit and culture alive.

For a year you were not able to reach the place of your service. What did you do at that time? What can a bishop do without an eparchy?

A bishop, as a spiritual father, has to pray. It’s the first and foremost thing – to care about his people not only by being physically with them but to pray for them. What did I do? You know, there were many things, and the year went by really fast. There was no physical contact with the people as, due to the pandemic, I was not able to travel to Australia, to my eparchy. However, thanks to modern technology, I could take an active part in communication with the people and the priests. For instance, every month we had thematic meetings with the priests and with the bishop Peter Stasiuk, who is waiting for my arrival as he is leaving to be an emeryte. We also had a few online meetings with the people using Zoom-conferencing. There was one big meeting held on St. Peter and Paul’s Day. Around 200-300 hundred people joined the meeting. It was the first chance I had to communicate with those people. They used that time to see me, talk and ask some questions. We even sang together! That way we celebrated the feast of Peter and Paul, who are the patrons of the church.

There were a few more meetings for families, young people and children. I also tried to be present in the eparchy through some video messages. For example, we had a series of videos “Preparation for Christmas”. There´s another series on Youtube on the channel of our eparchy. It’s called “Questions for the bishop”. In other words, I tried to be present online and participate as much as I could. And now, thank God, I already have the documents ready and I´m ready to go to Australia in a few days.

You have never been in Australia before, but in a few days you will be there as a bishop. What are your expectations?

My first acquaintance with Australia took place in January last year, when the Holy Father Francis, Pope, proclaimed me a bishop. That’s was time when Australia was on fire. There was a terrible fire where many people lost their homes, many animals lost their lives. Australia was then in everyone’s ears. But now before my flight to Australia, of course, I have a lot of expectations, a lot of different hopes. Probably people also have certain expectations and hopes for me, as a newly ordained bishop, who will be enthroned as the eparch of the eparchy of the Sts. Apostles Peter and Paul in Australia, New Zealand and Oceania. There is not just the one country, there are several countries that I have never been to, but to which the Lord God calls me. The apostles also never thought that they would go to the end of the world to preach the gospel. In chapter 28th the evangelist Matthew writes, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” That is why the apostles also went to the end of the world, preaching the gospel. Now those modern apostles are bishops, priests, there are monks of the congregation, who are called to bring the Good News to the ends of the earth. For me, it is also a certain great responsibility, a certain something so unknown, because it is new: a new culture, a new language, new people – all new, new acquaintances. However, I believe that the Lord will not forsake me and the Lord will be my companion in this journey of mine, in this new ministry of mine as a bishop.

You’ve served in Russia and in the USA. In a few days you’ll be in Australia. What is living a life on the road like?

Our life is a constant movement. Even while being in one physical place, we’re still moving somewhere. We have our goals and want to achieve things in our lives. If I think about my life, I realize that it’s been always on the road and in constant motion. You always have to check whether you have the right amount of luggage, what things you have to leave behind and which ones to buy. This way of living is exciting as you don’t get attached to a place – you’re free. The church is calling me to work far away. By living in a monastery, I’ve learnt to be mobile. We are often asked to relocate from one place of serving to another. We learnt the importance of being ready to move somewhere if your superior tells you to do so throughout our formation and studies in the seminary.

Who is a bishop?

A bishop is a father, the one who looks after his people – the eparchy he is assigned to by the Holy Church. There is a famous saying that belongs to Saint Ignatius from Antiochia: “Ubi Episcopus ibi Ecclesia” (The church is where a bishop is). While the bishop’s responsibilities include teaching, ordaining and managing, he doesn’t just perform management duties. A bishop is the one who has two different but equal types of power – legislative and juridical. As there are different Holy Sacraments in the Church, issues sometimes arise, and sometimes there is a need to be like a judge. It goes without saying that a bishop cannot do all of those things by himself. It is his responsibility to care for those things and delegate them to priests. He entrusts them to be intermediaries in such situations.

I know that every bishop has a coat of arms. What does yours symbolize?

My coat of arms is shaped like a letter Y which copies the shape of the omophorion – the distinguishing vestment of a bishop. There is a blackthorn flower at the top. It symbolizes my hometown Ternopil, and also it is a symbol of Jesus´s passions – a blackthorn wreath. There are also three gold coins on the red background. They refer to my name – Mykolay. Saint Nicholas of Myra gave away money, shared his possessions with other people, and helped them. On the left, there is the trident with a cross – a typical symbol used by our diaspora in Canada, Australia and the United States. It hints at the place of my mission. The trident is placed on the green background, which is the colour of the Australian continent. On the right side you will see Redemptorists’ coat of arms placed on the blue background – a cross, a spear, a sponge and an eye – that characterizes my affiliation with the Redemptorist Congregation. The blue colour represents the Virgin Mary. Redemptorists keep the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help given to them by the Pope. There is an inscription at the bottom “Holy Mother of God, save us” which points at Redemptorists’ special devotion to the Virgin Mary.

What were you like when you were a child? Did you ever imagine becoming a bishop and serving thousands of kilometers away from your motherland?

As a child I was a quiet boy. I didn’t misbehave. Obviously, I never thought about becoming a bishop. I honestly never envisioned that my life might be anything like this – that I´ll live not only in Ukraine, but all over the world, namely in Siberia, Russia, but that I’ll also visit various European countries and now – go to Australia, New Zealand and Oceania. Never have I had a dream like that but it’s my life now.

What can I remember from my childhood? When I was a schoolboy, my classmates knew that I was going to church. Sometimes they would tease me saying “You’re like a saint”, “You go to church”. It was bullying to an extent, but it never sidetracked me. I still wanted to be a monk and a priest and I followed that desire.

What do you read and find inspiring?

The last book I’ve read is a book about confession with some suggestions for priests and spiritual fathers about what they could focus on when confessing people. I really like reading various religious books. I especially like Exegesis, the Bible commentary. Sometimes, if I have some spare time, I read poetry. Kryla (“Wings”) by Lina Kostenko is my favourite poem.

What inspires me? I think travelling does. Discovering new places, places I’ve never been to, and admiring the beauty of the world created by God. I also get inspiration from music. I like singing. Sometimes I just like to be alone in nature, to go for a bike ride or for a walk, or to take a few breaths of fresh air – those are the things that add the taste and sense in life.

I know you’re an active person. Scrolling through social networks one can see that you go cycling. Are sports and Christianity compatible?

Yes, they are. But everything has to be done in moderation, with a sound mind. At times people cross a line and become obsessed with sports. It becomes like a cult. Curiously, Apostle Paul says in the first letter to Corinthians Chapter 9, verses 24-26: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we are imperishable. Therefore, I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air”.

So, I very much like sport because it mobilizes me, teaches me to manage time and do something productive, and allows me to do something different from my daily tasks. I remember last year we organized a cycling pilgrimage from Ternopil to Zarvanytsia. That was something I really liked. I hope in Australia there will be places to travel, go cycling and discover new paths which are yet unknown to me.

Padre Serge: So, Olia. You’ve interviewed bishop Mykola. Please tell us what your thoughts are.

Olia: It was truly interesting, meaningful and calm. There was no stress or pressure. Nothing affected the bishop’s or my inner state. Everything went well.

Padre Serge: You know, I’ve known the bishop for many years. He is an active person. If he decides to do something, he always succeeds at it. I believe that this new mission will be very fruitful. I’d like to encourage you, dear friends, to say a prayer for him because this new beginning is definitely blessed by God.

Have a great day!

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

This post is also available in: Ukrainian