"The particularity of Transcarpathia is that something which would seem impossible somewhere else is possible here."
Interview with Bishop Milan Sasik, apostolic administrator of southwestern Ukraine’s Mukachevo Greek Catholic eparchy
Bishop Milan, not all RISU readers know enough about the Mukachevo Greek Catholic Eparchy. Could you please tell us about the juridical status of your eparchy?
Our Mukachevo Greek Catholic eparchy originated from the Uzhhorod Union, signed on 24 April 1646. In the beginning, it had no juridical church recognition, but, still, it was a part of the Roman Catholic diocese in Egger. It received juridical recognition from Pope Clement XIV on 19 September 1771, during Empress Maria Theresa’s reign. With that, a new era began for the eparchy with Bishop Ivan Bradach at the head, and, later, Andrii Bachynski, who was the ruling bishop of the Mukachevo Greek Catholic Eparchy from 1772 to 1809. During his rule, the eparchy received a big present, a church which formerly belonged to the Jesuits and their school in Uzhhorod, which now could be used as a cathedral and the bishops’ residence. Thus, the hierarchs moved their residence from Mukachevo, where they had resided for a long time in the Basilian monastery.
Since that time, Uzhhorod has become the center of the eparchy. At that time, it was located in the center of the eparchy, which also spread its influence to eastern Slovakia, which now includes the Presov eparchy, the Kosice exarchate, part of Hungary, part of Romania, the modern Hajdudorog eparchy, and one Romanian eparchy in Transylvania. It used to be a large eparchy. Nowadays this center is not so central, since it takes 250 km to get to Uzhhorod from the remotest parishes.
When the eparchy received recognition from the Pope, it was the suffragan eparchy of the primate of Esztergom, since it was situated on the territory of great Hungary. During Czechoslovak rule, the eparchy was given the status of “sui iuris.” They were even thinking about the creation of a Mukachevo metropolitanate, with a suffragan eparchy in Presov, as well as the creation of one or several eparchies. Unfortunately, the war, and later the invasion of the Transcarpathia region by Hungary, did not allow these juridical changes to be introduced. When the Transcarpathia region was divided between Ukraine and Hungary, there was an apostolic administrator in Khust. As a result, there were two separate parts of one eparchy. Postwar events did not allow any juridical changes to be made.
During its existence, the eparchy knew great success, also. The seminary, which initially functioned in Mukachevo thanks to the gift of Maria Theresa, was moved to the Uzhhorod Castle, which was the center of spirituality for more than 160 years, until the arrival of the Soviet army.
After the legalization of our church, we experienced many internal tensions and problems; therefore, for the time being, the Holy See decided that the Mukachevo Greek Catholic Eparchy will continue with the status of “sui iuris.” It means that it is directly subordinated to the Holy See, not to the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
You’ve been head of the Mukachevo Eparchy for two years now. What changes have taken place during this time? What are you planning to do in the nearest future and what is still in the prospect?
Officially, I became head of the Mukachevo Eparchy on 25 January 2003. During this period, we have completed the construction of our theological seminary, named after Blessed Teodor Romzha. I believe this is a very important event. The seminary was blessed the day we celebrated the transfer of the relics of Blessed Martyr Teodor Romzha. With the blessing of the Holy See, we celebrate the eparchial holy day on this day, 28 June.
This year, Apostolic Nuncio Ivan Jurkovic attended the celebration, and Cardinal Jozef Tomko from Rome headed the ceremony. It was a surprise to everyone that he served a wonderful Liturgy of the Byzantine rite and preached a nice sermon in Ukrainian, which you can find in our newspaper, “Good Newsletter.”
There are 100 students in the seminary. We also offer a preparatory-year program. Some of our students study abroad. The total number of seminarians is 130. With God’s blessing, many students have a vocation and it gives us hope that they will enter the priesthood, since we lack priests. We also have many “borrowed” priests from western Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankivsk and Kolomyia eparchies for a three- to five-year period, which made it possible for our parishes to have their own pastors. The lack of pastors used to be a big problem. Not everything has been solved, but we are on the right track now.
After the relics of Blessed Martyr Teodor Romzha were found, a year ago on 27-28 July they were transported to Budapest for anthropological analysis, where they remained in the Jesuits’ church after the beatification. Due to my efforts, the relics were returned to the church. Before that, they were kept in the crypt. The relics were believed to be destroyed, but they were found in 1998. The return of these relics gave our eparchy a tremendous impetus. The very celebration became a truly spiritual event. I believe it is the crucial point of our activities, which gave rise to the new spiritual revival of the eparchy.
Two years after the beatification, on 27 June 2003 we received these relics at the Uzhhorod customs office. Nearly 2,000 people took part in the procession; most of them were priests and seminarians. It was a true sign of something spiritual and grand. It was followed by prayers, vigils with a pontifical Liturgy on the territory of the seminary, headed by Cardinal Etchegaray, the special representative of the Pope, Nikola Eterovic, apostolic nuncio at that time, and our hierarchs. It is important that witnesses and confessors of the faith were present there; among them was Bishop Ivan Marhitych, who was consecrated by Bishop Teodor Romzha. It became a true symbol of the revival of our church.
The next day, 28 June, the relics were taken from the new seminary to the premises of the old seminary in the castle. Later a pontifical Liturgy took place on the foundations of the castle where the Uzhhorod Union was signed. The altar with the relics stood above the old altar. Thousands of people, most of the bishops of the UGCC, and many foreign visitors were present there. It was a great spiritual event. We were all very grateful to God for the gift of our blessed, when Father Mykhail Maslei, who was the last witness of the tragic event, shared his memories with us. Tears came to his eyes as he was telling how he, a student at that time, was sitting next to Bishop Romzha and the officers of the Soviet Peoples’ Commissariat drove into their cart. Father Bartolomei Dudash, a Basilian from Hungary who was the confessor of Blessed Teodor Romzha, was also present at the ceremony. His brother, Bishop Mikulash Dudash, ordained our Blessed Teodor as bishop.
I have been talking mostly about spiritual achievements, but development of the eparchial structure has also been taking place. The apostolic nuncio’s wish was that our eparchy have appropriate structures according to church canons. Therefore, we arranged local meetings with priests and established new deaneries. Now we have 16 deaneries: 14 district offices and 2 city ones, in Uzhhorod and Mukachevo. Because of this, we have the possibility to conduct monthly meetings of priests. Monastic communities have also started their activities. Last year, a new Basilian Sisters’ community opened in Transcarpathia, Velykobereziansk district. This year the Fathers of the Incarnate Word started activities in the village of Dubove, Tiachiv district. The Myrrh-bearing Sisters from Yaremche opened their community in Velykyi Bychkiv, the native village of our Blessed Martyr Teodor.
The church school where the Romzha family lived for three years has been returned to us. The house was in very poor condition, but the active community of Velykyi Bychkiv made every effort to repair it. The building has a small museum, catechism school and nuns’ rooms.
We hope that in the nearest future the Sisters of the Holy Family will start their activities in the area between the mountains. We would like the Basilian and Redemptorist Fathers to be more active, too. People love to come to monasteries; several pilgrimages to the Malobereziansky, Imstychiv and Boroniavsky monasteries bear witness to that.
We have set up a presbyters’ council, an eparchial councilors’ board and an economic council.
What problems is your eparchy facing now?
In my opinion, the most serious problem is the lack of places of worship. Our eparchy suffered heavy losses after the liquidation of the Greek Catholic Church. Above all, it should be mentioned that 90 years ago there was not one Orthodox parish on the territory of our eparchy. The Greek Catholics were in the majority and the Roman Catholics, the Hungarian Reformed and Jews in the minority. During Czechoslovak rule, in the interwar period, certain circumstances led to the division of some parishes and establishment of Orthodox communities. This happened because of emigration from Russia in the first place. The 1920s was extremely hard. Parishes became divided and our Greek Catholic communities suffered greatly. Then the situation changed for the better.The Orthodox who separated from our communities managed to build churches with the help of the Czechoslovak government, which strongly supported the Orthodox.
The arrival of the Soviet Red Army brought about the massive persecution of the Greek Catholic Church. In February 1949, the cathedral and the bishop’s residence were taken away. Gradually, all the churches were either closed down or handed over to the Orthodox. After our church was legalized, a serious crime was committed in 1991: those churches which were not returned to our faithful came into the possession of the Orthodox communities. According to the decree of the head of the regional administration, our churches, despite the crying injustice, were handed over to the possession of the Orthodox communities. This decree added to the innumerable injustices of persecutions. Property which should have been returned to the former owners was given to those to whom it had never belonged.
The Greek Catholics are trying to have their churches returned through the courts, but the decrees are not carried out. Only 25% of our churches have been given back to us, i.e., 101 out of 400 churches. Before the liquidation, there had been 440 churches, 40 of them were ruined. Out of 101 returned churches, half of them were closed down, were not functioning and in awful condition. Most churches were in the hands of the Orthodox. There were also decrees concerning more than 70 churches on taking turns in using them, but only in 19 churches is this really taking place. A great number of communities, there are 350 in all now, are left without churches. For instance, in the village of Benedykivtsi, people have been praying in the open air for 14 years already, despite the decree of the arbitration tribunal that the church belongs to the Greek Catholics. The Rakoshyno Village Council has 7 churches; 5 of them belonged to the Greek Catholics until 1949. Regretfully, the Greek Catholics cannot pray in any of them.
In recent years, we managed to build 50 churches, 70 churches are under construction; but still a large number of communities serve Liturgies in houses adapted for prayer, in village council buildings or in former parish buildings.
Our faithful are ready to pray taking turns with the Orthodox, but the Orthodox do not agree to this. It was very sad when on Christmas in Benedykivtsi we were praying outside in the bitter cold while the church was closed. The problem of church property is very serious; people have taken on the burden of building 70 churches. There are still many places which need to construct new churches, but we lack funds. The aid coming from abroad is not sufficient.
Your Excellency, you mentioned that relations with Orthodox communities are not particularly pleasant. How are your relationships with other confessions?
Above all, I would like to say that we have very warm relations with the Roman Catholic Church. It feels like we are one church, despite the different rites. Both the RCC and the GCC are multinational. In our eparchy, Liturgies are held in four languages: Church Slavonic, Ukrainian, Hungarian and Romanian. The Roman Catholic community serves Liturgies in Hungarian, Slovak, German, Ukrainian and Latin. This is only one side of the situation; the other is that the Roman Catholics hold services in our churches, and there are many more Roman Catholic churches where we serve Liturgies. Liturgies are held in turns. There are Roman Catholic churches given for use by the hierarch which are fully used by the Greek Catholics. There is even one case where a new church was constructed in a Hungarian village, Akliget Klinovets Mountain, where all the faithful are Hungarian-speaking, and it is used by three groups: Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics and the Reformed Church all hold services there. There are several churches, built by joint efforts of Roman and Greek Catholics, where they hold services by turns. Interesting are the movable altars, which are convenient for both. The particularity of Transcarpathia is that something which would seem impossible somewhere else is possible here.
As far as our relations with Protestants are concerned, it depends upon the area. From my own experience, I can say that in numerous cases, for instance, let’s say, the Calvinist preacher can be present at the consecration of a [Catholic] church or at pontifical Liturgies. In one place where our Orthodox brothers do not allow us to go inside our church to pray, we have received a house we adapted for Liturgies. And the local Protestants gave our faithful some money to repair the house. It shows that people can come to a mutual understanding. For example, not long ago I consecrated a new church in the village of Dovhe Pole in the Uzhhorod district, where our faithful and the Orthodox used to pray in turns up to that time. The local Orthodox community of this village donated 2,000 hryvnias to our church. Surely, this cannot compensate for the old church, which was Greek Catholic, but it was a grand gesture, which eases the tension. I am convinced when there are two churches standing next to each other, people will be living peacefully there and praying for the union of the church. It is not a natural phenomenon that the church is split. The positive side is that our people fully understand this and are praying for union.
Generally, it is very hard to talk about the Orthodox. Unfortunately, in many places it would be possible to solve the problems, to resolve tension, to pray in our former church taking turns and not to build new churches. We have small villages, where there is no need to build another church; we could successfully use the church in turns. But, regretfully, the priests encourage people not to agree to taking turns. And when you talk to them, they say the bishop forbade the Uniates to pray in their church. Or very often they say: “The people do not consent;” but we know that the priests themselves encourage people to do this.
There must be someone behind this; somebody gets an advantage from it. I am sure, if we made common efforts in this direction, preaching that we are all Christians, we could reach an agreement, we could pray together taking turns. Our people in Transcarpathia would come to an agreement. Some power stands behind all this which does not want our people to live in peace and harmony. In most towns where people pray in turns, it is possible to find harmony.
Your Excellency, what relations do you have with the local authorities and political forces?
I haven’t had much contact with the political forces since I do not want to get involved with politics. I do meet with the representatives of the government because it is necessary to meet with them to protect the interests of our faithful. As a rule, it is easier to speak than to act. There was one case, though, when one official acted inappropriately; but those were problems of his personality. Generally, in all districts our meetings are held in a normal atmosphere.
Unfortunately, sometimes promised decisions do not get fulfilled; nevertheless, much has been done. For instance, we were given temporary places of worship or land for construction. Problems do exist in some areas, but we are trying to solve them. In some cases, our Orthodox brothers do not want to admit that the Greek Catholics exist, and they do not want us to pray in the village. There are people who do not recognize the principle of freedom of conscience, who do not like the fact that Ukraine is a democratic country and that everybody is guaranteed equality before the law. But this is their personal problem, and our task is to help them understand that they are wrong and that there is no state church according to the laws of Ukraine. I say the same thing to the officials: “I do not want to be privileged among others but I am asking you not to treat us as second- or third-class citizens. Try to be fair with everybody and act according to the national laws. This is the approach of human beings, and we have to help them understand.”
I remember one case when the district department on religion reported that they received a complaint about a school principal, saying that she [the principal] changed her confession, converted from the Orthodox Church to the Greek Catholic Church. The demand was to punish her, i.e., to dismiss her from her post. It is necessary to help people understand that this person has the right to go back to the religion of her ancestors. This is her free choice and we cannot oppress people for the free expression of faith.
How are your relations with the UGCC?
The positive side is that, having worked in the apostolic nunciature in Ukraine for six years, I had the chance to become closer acquainted with the hierarchs of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. They got to know me. We were in very friendly relations; I always felt their kind attitude and humanism. Nothing changed when I became bishop of the Mukachevo Greek Catholic Eparchy. Only the way of cooperation has changed. I am a bishop now, and we meet at Synods of Bishops and other ceremonies.
I was very happy that nearly all the bishops of the UGCC came on the day of my inauguration, on 25 January 2003, and almost all were present when the relics of the Blessed Martyr Teodor were returned, and some of them were present at the consecration of the seminary.
For my part, I am trying to find solutions to the problems we are facing. Probably the most painful for us are the problems of our churches, buildings, financial problems. In comparison with western Ukraine’s Halychyna area, we have received a very small part of what used to belong to our church in the past. But pastoral work is our common problem. Together we are trying to find ways to approach people, to bring the Gospel to them, to make things better for our people and our country, and to support spiritual development, without which economic development is not possible. This huge task of the church is our common task, and I do not feel that I am part of some other church. In the first place, we are Christians and Catholics. This means we belong to a single church, the invisible head of which is Jesus Christ, and the visible one, the Pope as the successor of the Apostle Peter. Jurisdictions belong to those matters which can be discussed. First of all, we need cooperation. Europe is moving in the direction of unification; therefore we should always look for something we can do together for the good of the Universal Church and the local church we are living in.
Disputes concerning the issue of giving the UGCC the status of patriarchate have become rather heated lately. A good example of this is the interview with Fr. Robert Taft and the visit of Cardinal Walter Kasper to Moscow. What do you think about the idea of the patriarchate of the UGCC?
I think it is normal that, according to the structure of the Eastern churches, a particular Church is headed by a patriarch: the Melkites, Armenians, and Catholics of other rites have the same. But I think not many people understand the role of the patriarch, and this leads to numerous misunderstandings among our people. There are also journalists who take advantage of this by giving a wrong interpretation and, in this way, they create a big stir. For instance, in the Lviv weekly newspaper “Argument” there was an article “Will the UGCC become Orthodox?” Both the topic and the way of posing the problem alarmed the reader. Many readers were asking: “Are we going to become Orthodox? What is going on?”
People simple don’t understand the essence of a patriarchate. For example, here in Transcarpathia, many people approach this question with fear; they accept the incorrect explanation of those journalists. The journal “Patriarchate” itself, which very often writes aggressively, adds to this; it attacks where it’s not necessary. Then people are simply disoriented; they can’t give objective evaluations of what is happening.
In my eparchy many people express their fear: “Is it true that the people from Halychyna want to become Orthodox or separate from Rome?” And so on. Very often my task lies in explaining everything to them in plain words. I say to them: “I personally know His Beatitude Lubomyr, and also knew Cardinal Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky; none of them is going to separate from the Holy See and none of them wants to cause discord in the church. Don’t worry.”
This issue has no direct connection to us, but still it is a matter of concern to us since we are Greek Catholics and we feel that something wrong is going on there. People say they are going to make Orthodox out of us. The problem is that many people are scared of the word “Orthodox.” But this aversion does not necessarily have to do with something bad. For people who, unfortunately, have suffered from our Orthodox brothers who were the tool for the liquidation of our church, this word is not heard with indifference. Therefore, it is necessary to explain to people that we might interpret the word “Orthodox” as it was understood when it first appeared: no one can be Orthodox without being Catholic, and not like some people interpret it now. This is a very broad issue; I think many people do not understand the approach to the problem. And at the same time, there are people who take advantage of it. I believe the appearance of Lefebvrites in Halychyna proves that many people do not understand what is going on in the life of the Church.
Is the Ukrainian-Russian problem critical in your eparchy?
I, personally, do not feel this problem. The issue of nationality, as well as the choice of religion, is something very personal. All we can do is try to understand. According to church canons, the bishop was sent to be the pastor for all people on his territory. This is clearly said in the ecclesiastical law for the Eastern churches. Therefore, I want to work here for as long as God gives me strength to do it. The first thing I am asking Him for is to give me wisdom to find a kind approach to all people and to be a pastor for all people, regardless whether they consider themselves Ukrainians, Russians, Hungarians or Romanians. There are also Slovaks, but they make no demands and attend the Liturgies they want. In the cathedral, Liturgies are held in three languages. Nobody is spying on anybody here. Everybody is free to choose what they want.
In my opinion, the church has to serve all people. Despite the period of certain changes taking place now, the church has to be in a higher position; it cannot give preference to one people and wage war against the others. I believe our priests are trying to work honestly for all people.
You are said to be the most Orthodox among the Greek Catholics of the Mukachevo Greek Catholic Eparchy, despite having been raised Roman Catholic. What can you say about this?
[Smiling] No one has ever said that to me before. If you are talking about the Orthodox faith, united with the Universal Pontiff, then I do want to have all signs of what we are praying for in our prayers, to be both Catholic and Orthodox, meaning to be faithful to everything that the Catholic Church teaches us. I am trying to follow our traditions and all our directives. Some people were surprised when from the very beginning I served the pontifical Liturgy [editor’s note: a special Liturgy served with the participation of bishops or other hierarchs]. Some people thought I made up a new rite. The problem was that my predecessors were not accustomed to the pontifical Liturgy. I just took the hierarchal prayer book published in Rome for our church in the Church Slavonic language; so, I serve Liturgies according to this. I haven’t introduced anything new.
I am doing my best to have everything in the church there should be. For instance, not many people knew about the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts [editor’s note: a combination of vespers and a communion service celebrated during weekdays of Lent.] So, I asked our priests in a circulating letter to serve this Liturgy on Wednesdays and Fridays during Great Lent. Some people would say, though, that I introduced something we did not have before. Then I had to explain to them that they remember the period of underground; but this Liturgy was held and still is, let’s say, in Hungary, and the Presov and the Kosice exarchates. And we belong to this tradition, since they are daughters of the Mukachevo Eparchy; so, we can’t differ.
This frightens people sometimes. For instance, during Great Lent the color of vestments is red; some people don’t like this since it resembles the red color of the communist flag. But red is the color of martyrs. In that case, I say to them: “You are like my neighbor. When the Roman Catholics, after the Second Vatican Council, introduced red instead of black vestments to be worn on Great Friday, she, on our way from church, was saying that the communists have a hand even here: the poor priests have to wear red vestments on Great Friday.” But when we explain its essence, people begin to understand. I believe we have to preserve what we have and to revive what is good. Therefore we are trying to celebrate, for example, the feasts of the Eucharist [Corpus Christi] and of the Heart of Jesus. And nobody is saying here that this is not our tradition, because those who know Eastern theology understand that the feast of the Heart of Jesus, or of Jesus Christ the Lover of Mankind, is our tradition.
The church is a living organism. Now, for instance, the Pope proclaimed the Year of the Eucharist, which will begin in the Universal Church in October with the International Eucharistic Congress in Mexico. This Year of the Eucharist will concern our church too, because it is a very important event. We have to think how to celebrate this year and how to revive our eucharistic life. I know that benediction, the prayers before the Holy Gifts, are close to our people. It can do people no wrong; it only deepens their spiritual life.
Interview conducted in Uzhhorod in August 2004
Biography from the official site of the UGCC:
His Excellency Bishop Milan Sasik was born in Lechina, Slovakia, on 17 September 1952. After he finished primary and secondary schools, he studied philosophy and theology at the major seminary in Bratislava from 1971 to 1976. On 31 July 1971, he joined the Congregation of the Mission [Lazarists]. On 27 September 1973, he took vows. On 6 June 1976, he was ordained priest. Then he fulfilled various pastoral activities; at first, he was a chaplain, later a pastor. With the permission of the Holy See, Fr. Milan Sasik served in both the Greek Catholic and Latin rites. From 1990 to 1992 he studied at the Teresianum in Rome, where he received a master’s degree. From 5 October 1992 to 7 July 1998 he worked at theapostolic nunciature in Ukraine. Later, within one year he became head of the novitiate at the Congregation of the Lazarist Fathers in Slovakia. In August 2002, he returned to Ukraine and became pastor in Perechyn, Transcarpathia region. On 12 November 2002, Pope John Paul II appointed Fr. Milan as apostolic administrator ad nutum Sanctae Sedis [at the command of the Holy See] of the Mukachevo Eparchy of the Greek Catholic Church. In addition to his native Slovak, he speaks Ukrainian, Italian, Czech, Russian and Polish.