Dr. Kania: Church and Life. Part One

Keeper of Story – Fr. Stanisław Fedorovych

As you begin to read this piece, I ask the reader to pause and think of a person in your life thus far – who has changed your life for the better, who has been your greatest influence to help form who you are. As you think of that person, I want you to remember when you first met – and what attracted you to them. In a moment close your eyes and pray for them. Give yourself a few minutes to pray for them. After this meditation is over – commence reading this piece once more. ATK

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The year 1939, began in the city of Jarosław with the double threat of the encroaching NAZI presence of Germany’s Third Reich to the West – and geographically closer, to the East, with the ever-prevailing threat of Stalin’s Soviet Union. For this once important Central European market town, boasting the second largest annual market in the latter Middle Ages, (after Frankfurt), her fate lay in the hands of two of history’s greatest tyrants. Jarosław had throughout her history experienced life under various rulers and governments. The definition of what it meant to be a Ruthenian contributed to the ensuing tension within the town. Ruthenian families, in particular the nobility, moved away over time from their Eastern Church roots to the Latin west – and by doing so secured for themselves heightened status under a Polish monarchy. A subsequent vacuum of leadership occurred, for those who chose to stay within the Eastern Church. This group suffered for want of lay leaders, but in time, they experienced a degree of freedom under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, only to see these freedoms later restricted after the collapse of the Habsburgs, and the subsequent territorial wars and fractures that took place between ethnic Poles and Ukrainians striving for hegemony. The clergy of the Ukrainian Catholic Church took a prominent role in the formation of Ruthenian identity, not only by their status at the Liturgy and in Church matters – but by being educated, and because of this, being at the forefront of culture, politics, and the arts.

Sheptyts’kyi was gravely concerned that Ukrainian Catholic children might find Soviet and NAZI youth organizations, tempting.

The town, which was named after the Grand Duke of Kyiv-Rus’, Yaroslav the Wise (978 – 1054), had a demographic that clearly expressed its rich and fraught history. The majority of the town comprised of three ethnic groups: Ukrainians, Poles and Jews. The latter ethnic group had come to the town because of its market-place status, the former two, because of ruling and shifting cultures. Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595 – 1657) had once declared of Jarosław that he wanted L’viv, Peremyshl and Jarosław permanently back under Ruthenian and Cossack rule. (Kentrschynskyj, 1962, p. 86) One of the catalysts for a significant rift in my family would be the dispute over the position of Khmelnytsky, some were against him, yet others were supportive, even giving him a place to stay in the city. Khmelnytsky was known in Jarosław, and by the family, well before he became Hetman, as he had been a student there at the Jesuit House of Studies, in his younger years.

A further family dispute would always be about – what did it mean to be a Ruthenian? The answer to this question, by the time my grandfather was growing up in Jarosław, was that being a Ruthenian was to take cultural and ethnic heritage from Kyiv-Rus’, and that this meant adherence to Eastern Christianity, and the paradigm of a Ukrainian nation. It is evident from my father’s recollections of his father’s memoirs, that Jan Kania, my grandfather, was educated with a strong Hrushevsky influence running through his spine, which meant with the understanding that the Russian and Ukrainian peoples are two distinct ethnic groups, and that the Ukrainians (Ruthenians) are a European people, and the rightful heirs to Kyiv-Rus’, where the Russians/Muscovites are in large part derived from Asiatic peoples. The priests who educated my father echoed the very same notion of what being a Ukrainian meant.

One needs to belong to a Church – it is vital for the Church to be a keeper of shared Story. Church is about creating a community; and putting this community at the centre of your life.

Ironically for Jarosław, the ancient town named after a great Ruthenian leader, her history had been mostly outside of Ruthenian/Ukrainian territory. In 1939, Jarosław was part of Poland. Indications for her future, under the pall of Germany and the Soviet Union were – bleak.

Jarosław, is a town situated on the San River. In 1939 it was a town of mixed races, of times of precarious harmony, of times of persecutions, understandings, and misunderstandings. Over time, Jarosław, gave birth to national strivings, and religious yearnings. Jarosław, is a junction point where Catholic East meets Catholic West; where Jewish Mysticism for a time, flourished. Jarosław, is a town that lies near the heart of what Timothy Snyder calls the Bloodlands. This city, is the austere backdrop to the family drama.

In 1939, in L’viv, Andrii Sheptyts’kyi, the great Archbishop-Major of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, was well into his planning of trying to keep hold of the youth of the Church, by establishing organizations, such as scout movements, as well as his drive to train children to carry on the Liturgical traditions of the Church in the very likely case religious persecution was to occur from either the Soviets or the Germans, or both. The Metropolitan was a incredibly incisive Church leader. Sheptyts’kyi was gravely concerned that Ukrainian Catholic children might find Soviet and NAZI youth organizations, tempting. There was a real danger in his eyes of losing generations to atheism. As will be seen in a later part, my father, was but one member of a deliberate programme by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to train small children to be future Cantors. By small, I mean very young – my father was recruited at the age of five. It was a wise strategy – but the demands on these boys, were great, and training was intense. It had to be – time was of the absolute essence. These were young boys, preparing for a man’s role in a fast changing and threatening world.

The Door of Mercy icon was taken from the Pro-Cathedral, and hidden. Fr. Fedorovych continued his pastoral ministry under incredible difficulties.

By 1939, my family had been in Jarosław for over three hundred years – in one guise or another, be it on the patrilineal or matrilineal lines. Fr. Stanisław Fedorovych (1872 – 1965), who was to become later the Parish Priest (1945 – 1965) of the town’s Pro-Cathedral, The Church of the Holy Transfiguration, would sit and tell my father, Vladimir, tales of family history, telling my father how the land that the Pro-Cathedral stands on, had been donated by common family ancestors. From family history documents, in my possession, Fr. Fedorovych was related to Maria Nowasad nee Fedorovych, the priest being her much younger brother. Maria was the grandmother of my grandfather; and the mother of Kateryna, my father’s grandmother. At the time when Fr. Fedorovych was telling my father these stories, he was the esteemed priest and the Dormitory Director of St. Onufry’s in Jarosław, and my father was a boy-chorister and altar server. For nearly twenty years Fr. Fedorovych had been the Catechist of the Junior High School in Jarosław (1915 – 1933). Although the priest and boy were related; the two did not become acquainted until they met as teacher and student in Jarosław. Fr. Fedorovych took an immediate liking to his great-grand nephew, and spent long hours with his younger relative. The priest knew of my father, long before my father knew of him. Evidently he had sought my father out. To what purpose and why, I do not know. My grandfather had evidently never regularly spoken of the priest, even though of course he knew of him. Jan Kania was a soldier and Cossack, and by the latter term I do not mean a dancer, but a Cossack, battle-hardened, serving the Ukrainian Peoples Republic of the early 20th Century. What is more, although Fr. Fedorovych introduced himself to my father with the words: “Do you know that I am your Stryko (Grand Uncle)?”, he in fact was my grandfather’s Grand Uncle, and my father’s Great-Grand Uncle. Nevertheless Fr. Fedorovych evidently wished to establish a closer familial connection with the young Vladimir. Perhaps his interest was not only because of family connection – but because he saw in my father the potential to be an active part of the Church in the future. His trust would not be misplaced – although the work my father carried out for seventy years in the Ukrainian Church – would be in Australia. Fr Fedorovych could never have envisaged this.

Inside the great Baroque Pro-Cathedral of Jarosław resides a famous icon. This icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, known as the Door of Mercy, that dates from the 17th Century. This icon takes its name from the Byzantine Lenten liturgical text, “Open the Doors of Mercy to me, O Mother of God” and is considered miraculous. In those early years of the 1930’s, one can imagine Fr. Fedorovych standing before the icon of the Door of Mercy, with his hand resting upon the shoulder of Vladimir – teaching him about the past – inspiring him to be proud of family and active in Faith – to understand the profound nexus that exists between Church and Life. Vladimir was five when he met Fr. Fedorovych; the priest, would have been sixty one. My father recounted being taken by his Great-Grand Uncle to the crypt of the Pro-Cathedral. Fr. Fedorovych showed Vladimir the final place of rest of their ancestors, the benefactors of that place of worship. My father learnt their names, and heard their story. I was baptized Andriy, not only because of Ukraine’s patron saint, but because of one of the names of an ancestor in the crypt.

My father and his immediate family fled Jarosław with the advance of the Soviet Army. The last thing they did as a family was attend the Divine Liturgy which was being celebrated in Peremyshl by Bishop Hrhorij Lakota.

Thus the first lesson of Church; that it should always been seen as home, a place shared by God’s people; a welcoming place, where story can be shared, story both Sacred and Cultural, story both modern and ancient. It should be a meeting place; a place of formation. One needs to belong to a Church – it is vital for the Church to be a keeper of shared Story. Church is about creating a community; and putting this community at the centre of your life. My father always felt, that he belonged in Church. A great sense of belonging also for him and the other parishioners, was the continuity of the clergy in Jarosław. From the close of the 19th Century to the mid 20th Century, the Parish of Jarosław, was overseen by a priestly family. My grandfather would receive the Mysteries of Initiation from Revd. Jan Chotyniecki, and my father from Revd. Cyprian Chotyniecki. The two priests, were father and son, and were, in turn both Parish priests of Jarosław. They knew the story of their parish intimately; the parishioners knew them, and the priests knew their flock.

Fr. Fedorovych stayed in the city of Jarosław, long after the Polish Communist government closed and desecrated the Pro-Cathedral as part of Operation Wisła. Evidently for this old priest, his choice to stay and look after the ever-dwindling Parish, was not only vocational, but intrinsically personal. The crypt was to be emptied, the bones thrown out of their resting place. The Pro-Cathedral was pillaged, and the interior walls became bullet-ridden. In front of the entrance to the Pro-Cathedral a large pile of rubble was placed. Entry was forbidden. This ancient place of worship for Ukrainian Catholics remained closed for decades. The Door of Mercy icon was taken from the Pro-Cathedral, and hidden. Fr. Fedorovych continued his pastoral ministry under incredible difficulties. He would pass away an aged priest – the keeper of stories. A married priest, Fr. Fedorovych cared for his daughter – who was slowly dying of leukemia. During his final years he could be seen going through the streets, bringing Holy Eucharist to those who were too infirmed to attend the Divine Liturgy. After the forced closure of the Pro-Cathedral, the Ukrainian liturgy was to be celebrated in a small Jesuit chapel.

For good priests hold a community together even under the darkest of times; their memory can inspire for generations.

My father and his immediate family fled Jarosław with the advance of the Soviet Army. The last thing they did as a family was attend the Divine Liturgy which was being celebrated in Peremyshl by Bishop Hrhorij Lakota. My father was 17, and was serving on the altar that day. The family left prior to the close of the Liturgy. My father knelt in front of Bishop Lakota, and he told the Bishop that he would have to leave now. Lakota blessed my father – and told him to go quickly and safely. The family then fled to Czechoslovakia.

In 1992, Fr. Fedorovych’s Great-Grand Nephew, my father, would return to the city of Jarosław, after nearly fifty years. He came with his Australian wife, Kathleen, with a generous financial donation raised by the Parish of St. John the Baptist in Perth, for the rebuilding of the Pro-Cathedral. The then Parish priest in Jarosław, Fr. Bohdan Prach, gave my parents a tour of the Pro-Cathedral. My parents wept. My father never returned to see the Pro-Cathedral restored to its full glory.

So what can we learn from this vignette? The Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church: Christ: Our Pascha (2016), speaks of the priest in the life of the Church, and in the life of the community in the following words: “A vocation to the priesthood is God’s gift to an ecclesial community and at the same time the fruit of the spiritual life of a community – the family and the parish That is why the Church prays ceaselessly for good and holy vocations to the priestly ministry. …For the good shepherd, who is such as Christ wishes for, is compared to a thousand martyrs. For the martyr died once for Christ but this man dies ten thousand times for the flock, if that is, he be such a shepherd that he ought to be; for such a one can die every day. And therefore you [i.e., the laity], being acquainted with what the labour is, cooperate with him, with prayers, with zeal, with readiness, with affection, that both we may be able to boast of you, and you of us.” (Par. 499)

Priests who stand by their flock against such opposition, are martyrs. For good priests hold a community together even under the darkest of times; their memory can inspire for generations. They leave behind the seeds for the spirit of the Church to be planted in foreign soils, and from there to germinate. As Ukrainians, in the diaspora we know all too well that this be true. We should never forget their names, never forget their stories, never forget what they gave their lives for – even though we, who are left behind, may have had to weep beside the waters of Babylon; speaking in foreign languages, tilling in foreign soil.

Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper

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