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Pope St. John Paul II solemnly proclaimed 28 Ukrainian martyrs and faithful servants of God as blessed on June 27, 2000, but their Christian witness amid the terrors of 20th-century communism bears relevance — and provokes questions — in these troubled times.
The new martyrs of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church followed the example of St. Stephen, the first martyr, who in his hour of death, as Acts 7 records, "looked up to Heaven and saw the glory of God." As he was being stoned, Stephen prayed for his killers and asked Jesus to receive his soul.
The Ukrainian martyrs bore witness to God through hard labor in gulags, beatings, poisonings, sadistic torture — even an unspeakably perverse mockery of the Crucifixion.
But they refused to renounce their faith, and the priests among them, including the following, never abandoned their flocks:
A contemporaneous Ukrainian lay survivor remembered Fr. Kovalyk this way:
[His] sermons made an incredible impression on the listeners. But in the prevailing system of denunciations and terror this was very dangerous for a preacher. So I often tried to convince Father Kovalyk ... that he needed to be more careful about the content of his sermons, that he shouldn't provoke the Bolsheviks, because here was a question of his own safety. But it was all in vain. Father Kovalyk only had one answer: "If that is God's will, I will gladly accept death, but as a preacher I will never act against my conscience."
The martyrs were not political activists — they were Catholics following the way of Jesus — but they were considered political criminals whose very existence as believers threatened the Soviet state.
Earlier this month, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia issued an invitation for a special June 28 service — not for the martyrs — but for "all the victims of the COVID-19 virus, those who died as a result of racism or acts of police brutality, and the victims of recent protests, in all our parishes throughout the country."
The metropolitan-archbishop Borys Gudziak of the archeparchy of Philadelphia, among other prelates, created the event, framing it as a "Remember and Pray" memorial service, called panakhyda in Ukrainian.
Their invitation ends with a litany of petitions, including:
Let us ... pray for Mr. George Floyd and others like him who died as a result of injustice, let us pray for those who died in the bonds of slavery or other expressions of racism.
Some Ukrainian-Catholic observers have noted that the June 28 panachyda for George Floyd is scheduled next to the June 27 feast of the Ukrainian martyrs, and are wondering about a hagiographic conflation of sorts.
They question whether Gudziak and his comrades are themselves assuming the Marxist mantle of the martyrs' persecutors.
They wonder, in other words, if the leftist forces that killed the martyrs ironically are now being recreated in such contemporary Catholic services as Floyd's panachyda.
And what would — what do — the martyrs themselves think of that irony being played out in the Church they died for?
"If politics is everything, is there room for God?" one observer remarked to Church Militant.
Church Militant previously reported on Gudziak's failure to "focus on spiritual matters," instead publicly expressing political biases against President Trump.
In that same article, he was criticized in his role as president of the Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine, for having been "deathly silent on an active homosexual professor in 'his' university."
In 1949 — during the thicket of persecution against Catholics in the Ukraine — Pope Pius XII, recognizing the grave physical and spiritual danger Marxism posed for faithful all over the world, issued the Decree Against Communism. The degree excommunicates all Catholics collaborating with or voting for communist organizations. In other words, Catholics cannot aid communist organizations, including Black Lives Matter with its explicit Marxist aims.
An ancient hymn in the honor of the Ukrainian martyrs reads:
O blessed martyrs of Ukraine! You did not tear apart the integrity of the Body of Christ, but handed over your bodies to torment: You did not submit to the flattery of the enemy, nor did you renounce our unity with Peter. From your earthly homeland of Ukraine, together with the Universal Church, receive the gracious gift of this ancient hymn: "O holy martyrs, you suffered gloriously and have received your crowns; on our behalf entreat the Lord, to have mercy on our souls."
As the faithful remember of the Ukrainian martyrs on June 27 — and St. Stephen before them — it must be remembered that many people across the world, for nothing more than wanting to follow Christ, are at this moment being persecuted, tortured and killed.