Europe Ukrainian Catholics in border diocese face suffering, uncertainty
For Catholics in the southeast Ukrainian Diocese of Odessa-Simferopol, ongoing Russian control of Crimea has created serious challenges and “incredible devastation,” a local bishop said.
“We pray for a solution which would create a new civilization that does not turn to force to resolve problems, but finds ways through dialogue and mutual respect to build a new society,” Bishop Jacek Pyl, an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Odessa-Simferopol, told Christian charity group Aid to the Church in Need Sept. 4.
“This war actually created unbelievable wounds within marriages and families – the society and the churches. So, we pray for healing and reconciliation, because it brought upon this nation incredible devastation.”
The Diocese of Odessa-Simferopol straddles both southern Ukraine and Crimea, a territory annexed by Russia in March but still claimed by Ukraine.
Bishop Pyl described the diocese as “missionary territory” with “many challenges.” There are about 64 priests and 3,000 faithful in the diocese, which covers an area about one-third the size of Poland.
However, the diocese was split when Russia annexed Crimea in March, following violent political conflict in Ukraine. The diocese’s bishop, Bronislaw Bernacki, is in Odessa, while Bishop Pyl is more than 300 miles away in Simferopol, on the Crimean peninsula.
“Although there is war in Ukraine, and Crimea is under Russian rule, the Catholic Church can still exercise its ministry but we do not know how our future is going to look,” Bishop Pyl said.
Adding to the uncertainty was the kidnapping of a priest in eastern Ukraine. He was released a week later after Catholic bishops and priests of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow worked to free him.
The deadly crash of the Malaysia Airlines plane in July was also “a great shock,” the bishop said, adding that it was terrifying to learn that some of the bodies of the several hundred crash victims had been mistreated by thieves who stole their clothing, belongings, and “whatever they could find.”
“They were not treated like human bodies,” he lamented.
Bishop Pyl said his diocese’s needs are “very great and varied” because its basic work began only 25 years ago. The diocese needs priests and religious sisters to help evangelize. Masses in Crimea are celebrated mainly in Russian, but also in English and Spanish, with occasional Masses in Ukrainian and Polish.
“If I would have enough priests I would be able to open several new parishes,” the bishop said.
There are presently seven parishes and 13 priests in his region.
Bishop Pyl said he would like to invite a contemplative order of religious sisters to move to the diocese to pray and support its mission.
If the situation stabilizes, he would also like to build a co-cathedral due to the “very small” present venue for celebrating Mass and for holding meetings.
“We have been waiting for the last 20 years to get permission to build a church,” the bishop said. Preparations for a co-cathedral had been under way until the annexation, but the Russian takeover halted these plans.
“We are not sure if we will have to start again from the beginning or what will happen with the project,” he said.
Ahead of upcoming elections, Bishop Pyl said the Latin rite Catholic Church “prays for just elections” and for the election of wise people.
“Ukraine has suffered so much and for so long – so it is about time that we have good and wise people who will rule this country. We also need champions for peace - because whenever war takes place, everyone suffers. Families and children – Ukrainian and Russian people suffer alike. War tears people and families apart.”