The feast of Blessed Paul Peter Gojdich, the patron of our Knights of Columbus Council, is on Tuesday, July 17. Blessed Paul Peter was an extraordinarily humble man. Born in 1888 in a priestly family, Peter chose to be a celibate Greek Catholic priest, so as to give himself entirely to Christ. Assured of a brilliant career in the Church, in 1922 he threw that aside.
Instead he withdrew to the ancient Saint Nicholas Monastery in Mukachevo, where he entered as a novice. He was professed as a monk of the Order of Saint Basil the Great, with the new name of Paul Peter. The monastery had just finished a major reform, returning to the Eastern traditions more strongly. Father Gojdich became a sought-after preacher and defender of the Church against Orthodox propaganda.
To his surprise, Pope Pius XI named him as Administrator of the Eparchy of Presov in 1927. Instead of the traditional panagia which our bishops wear, Pius XI gave Bishop Gojdich a pectoral cross and predicted that he would have many sufferings but would prevail through the power of the Cross, and that his new double name was equally prophetic.
After Czechoslovakia was destroyed in 1938, Bishop Gojdich faced a hostile regime in Slovakia. The Slovak authorities wanted a purely Catholic Slovak population, thus the pressures on the Rusyns to assimilate. He defended the Rusyn population against forced Slovakicization, and the government demanded his resignation in 1940. Instead, Pope Pius XII named him as full Bishop of Presov, as a sign of his support. On August 8th, 1940 he was solemnly enthroned at Prešov in the cathedral and then on January 15, 1946 confirmed in his jurisdiction over the Greek-Catholics in the whole of Czecho-Slovakia.
Our Blessed was the lone Catholic bishop to publicly defend the Jews against the anti-Jewish laws introduced, and he condemned the deportations. In fact, he rescued 27 Jews personally, hiding them in his residence or elsewhere, and he ordered the priests to baptize any Jews who came to them, as this would save them from deportation to Auschwitz.
Hailed as a defender of human rights after the War, he was reviled by the communists when they took over in 1948. Some of the Jewish families who he had saved encouraged him to emigrate with them, and failing that, interceded for him as an anti-fascist fighter. That failed. In 1950, the communist state dissolved our Church, but offered Bishop Gojdich the position of Orthodox Archbishop if he would convert.
He refused, and was imprisoned after a show trial in which he was sentenced to life as a traitor and spy for the Vatican. In prison, it was forbidden to celebrate the sacraments, but he did so secretly. God gave him the gift of bilocation so as to comfort dying prisoners deprived of a priest, and the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus. He died in 1960, on his birthday, July 17, a grace he had asked for. In addition, he asked God that he be attended by a priest at his deathbed.
A great desire of bishop Gojdič was to die comforted by the sacraments on his birthday. Both desires were fulfilled.
Father Alojz Vrána was transferred to the room of the prison hospital of Leopoldov (Slovakia), where the bishop passed his last days, and could hear his confession. An eye witness of the last instants of his life was his fellow prisoner – the nurse and Catholic Action student František Ondruška. He died on bone cancer, a painful illness, for which he received limited treatment. To the end, he refused to convert.
Afterwards he was buried without ceremony in the prison cemetery in a nameless tomb, with the prison number 681. The relatives of imprisoned priests paid a guard to tell them which grave was his. After the 1968 Prague Spring and partial restoration of our Church, his body was exhumed and buried in the cathedral in Presov. Only after the end of communism could he buried under glass, under the side altar of SS. Peter and Paul.
When Pope John Paul II made a visit to Slovakia, an elderly priest, Father Marian Otas, OSBM, told him that he could not die until the pope beatified the long-suffering bishop. He was beatified in 2001, along with Father Methdius Trcka, a Byzantine Redemptorist. I attended those ceremonies with great joy, and met up with my Slovak friends for the first time in our lives. Father Otas died a few years later.
In 2007, Israel recognized him as a Righteous Gentile for saving Jews. Our parish has a first-class relic of this great bishop, which I obtained through the help of Daniel Cerny, a seminarian then for Kosice and now for Presov.