Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!
Please read all the way to the bottom, below the photos from Syria -thank you.
Easter Procession in Ukraine, Vladimir Y. Yakovsky
One of my favorite times to travel to the territory of our Church in Europe (East Slovakia, Transcarpathia Ukraine, Northern Hungary) was in this time of year. I know this greeting in all the languages of the region, and so was able to respond to the people greeting me as a priest. Times like this, when the Orthodox and Western celebrations of Easter occur at the same time, were especially good as entire districts were celebrating together. That gave me the chance to see what the re-united Church would be like, overcoming these past divisions at long. The Byzantine Catholic Church is part of the period of Unions in the 16th-18th centuries, when the Union of Ungvar/ Uzhhorod in 1646 took place, when people hoped that Orthodoxy and Catholicism would be brought together again. My Church still endures, despite many persecutions and population losses, in Europe and North America. The hunger for union still continues, on both sides, among parties of good will. When we celebrate together like this, it is a stark reminder that disunion is hardly the will of God.
Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk spoke recently in Canada. In part of his speech, in which he asks the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic diaspora to no longer to live for Ukraine but to live, and so diminish ethnocentrism in his Church, he relates this story:
“There is an anecdote circulating in Ukraine: A Russian citizen meets a Ukrainian citizen and asks him: “So, are you one of those ultra-nationalist, fascist anti-semites, who supports the government in Kyiv?” And the Ukrainian citizen replies: “I guess I am, because everybody at our synagogue is!” All joking aside, political humour often makes important statements. This is a blessed time for Ukrainian-Jewish relations. We stand together for the truth. We stand together for a country that has earned to join the family of free and democratic states, through its painfully acquired human dignity.” * That kind of propaganda about “the other side” was the hallmark of Soviet Communism, whereby the outside world was painted with frightening words so that people in Communist Europe would think that the Nazis had raised their head. Now it is used to speak of the Ukrainian revolution that has so frightened Mr. Putin. For if the Russian-speaking oblasts remain in democratic Ukraine, then there will be a Russian-speaking democracy on his doorstep. For after all this suffering, I cannot imagine that Ukrainians will allow a kleptocracy to return to power! And an autocratic regime cannot tolerate that. And so the “popular militias” are still led by men in black masks who are so well armed that they can shoot down a Ukrainian army helicopter with a surface-to-air missile, and who wear uniforms without any insignias, and who speak Russian so well. Putin admitted after the annexation of Crimea that yes, Russian forces had been inside Crimea fomenting unrest, but this is different he says.
Mr. Putin is correct. It is, because now there is not only anger splitting families apart as in Crimea, now there are deaths, and very frightened people on both sides who may not think before they act next. Orthodox and Greek Catholics are celebrating the Resurrection of Christ, and moving forward to Pentecost and the birthday of the Christian Church. This should be the occasion for processions and family celebrations. And the election on May 25th should be an occasion for a new democratic Ukrainian government to be elected nationwide, perhaps a new movement of the Holy Spirit for a long-suffering people – but with the threat of a Crimea-like “referendum” in the east and south, I don’t know if that will happen.
And Russia and the Russian minorities of the Russian borderland from Estonia to the Black Sea are being told by most Russian-language media that fascists (Nazis) are in charge in Kiev (one small faction of the revolution which has disavowed violence), that their homes and lives are in danger from nationalists (evoking memories of the anti-communist Ukrainian nationalists of WW II and the early 1950s). Creating fear among people is bad enough, but costing the lives of civilians and running the risk of a full-scale invasion that will have devastating results is much worse. World War II brought long-lasting suffering to these countries, remembered vividly. A lopsided civil war with Russia’s heavy armor and well-trained troops will leave more damage, and more terrible memories for people who have had too much pain as it is. Dear Lord, grant that the peace of Your Risen Son, and the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, will rule in people’s hearts, and may leaders listen to You, and Your desire for peace and harmony, and for differences to be settled peaceably and in charity, not with violence. Holy Mother of God, whose image in Kiev has survived for a millenium against heavy odds, may your prayers move the hearts of leaders to choose the path of your Son’s peace, and not more heartache and pain.
The Virgin Orans, or praying, Kiev
In Syria, the birthplace of the three-year old revolution, Homs, fell to government troops today. It was Syria’s third-largest city, and one with many Christians living alongside the majority Sunni Muslims. Today it is a complete ruin, looking more like German cities in May of 1945 instead of a major industrial center. There has been a town at this site since 2300 BC – over 4,000 years of continued inhabitance. And today it is nearly empty as the 50 rebels who accepted amnesty, and the last 2,500 people trapped in the fabled Old City – 1,200 rebels and civilians – left in buses for rebel-held areas. The rebels also turned over 71 Iranians and 20 Lebanese Hezbollah to the Syrian government. Foreign fighters have been in the lead of such extreme jihadist groups like ISIS, which has caused havoc in their occupation zones with Muslims and Christians alike being subjected to the most radical – and often cruel – interpretations of Shariah, the code of Muslim law. Having to fight two wars – against ISIS and their ilk plus the Assad regime – has left the secular opposition which began the revolution exhausted.
Father Frans van der Lugt, a 75 year old Jesuit missionary who has spent his entire priesthood living in Syria for 50 years who cared for children and adults with intellectual disabilities and who was loved by all, was taken out of his Jesuit residence on April 7 and shot dead in the street by an unidentified gunman. He was three days away from his 76th birthday.
He had brokered a truce that allowed 1,400 civilians to escape the Old City before shooting resumed, trapping the remainder. He communicated to his superiors:
“If the Syrian people suffer now, I too can share their pain and problems,” he said, choosing to minister to the remaining Muslim families and the 25 remaining Christians (out of a population of 60,000) unable to leave the Old City.
The American Superior of Jesuits, Fr. Thomas Smolich says:
“As the Pope himself said, less for Father Frans and more for the thousands and thousands of other people who had been killed there,” he said, “the [media] play this is getting is another reminder that peace is really what is needed.”
And in the end, peace is the only answer to all conflicts. May the peace of the Risen Lord be in our hearts, and may we be His witnesses where we live, and may His peace rule across the earth.
Homs before and after
Below: the Church of St. Mary of the Holy Belt, founded in 50 AD and containing a piece of the belt worn by Our Lady
On May 10, I will celebrate the 33rd anniversary of my ordination to the holy priesthood. It was a glorious day, for many reasons, when Bishop Michael Dudick of blessed memory placed his hands on my head at the altar of St. Michael Cathedral in Passaic, NJ. The parishioners of St. Thomas Church in Rahway provided a very happy celebration in their hall following the formal dinner at the cathedral hall. I was warned in seminary that celebration of the Liturgy would become routine, as I would get used to being a priest. Thankfully, that never happened. There are so many people who walked with me on the road to ordination, and who have walked with me since. Despite my many faults, and despite my ongoing health problems, it has been a happy journey. I don’t know if I will be able to post on Saturday given what’s going on now physically, so I thought I’d post something now. I am so unworthy to be a priest (nobody is really), and so very thankful to God for His call, and for carrying me safe thus far. May God bless you who read this, and please continue your prayers for me.