Velychkovsky patron of prison ministry

By John Sianchuk, CSsR

WINNIPEG — On July 20, before a crowd of approximately 200,000 at the Marian Shrine of our Lady of Zarvanytsia in Ukraine, Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, solemnly proclaimed Blessed Bishop Vasyl Velychkovsky as Patron of Prison Ministry for the Ukrainian Catholic Church. This honour is given not only for the people of Ukraine but in a particular way to the faithful in North America. Blessed Vasyl lived his last year of life in Winnipeg. He died in 1973 and his relics, a fully intact body, are now enshrined in St. Joseph’s Ukrainian Catholic Church there.

BLESSED VASYL — An icon of Blessed Vasyl was written to commemorate his being named Patron of Prison Ministry for the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Blessed Vasyl, born in Ukraine, became a Redemptorist missionary. After the Second World War, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was declared illegal by the Soviet government. All the bishops and many hundreds of priests were arrested and imprisoned. Blessed Vasyl, as a priest, was arrested on August 7, 1945. Found guilty of anti-Soviet propaganda, he was sentenced to die by firing squad. While on death row, he began his prison ministry.

Finding himself in a cell with other criminals on death row, at their request he began to catechize them, prepare them for the sacrament of reconciliation, confessed them and secretly celebrated the divine liturgy for them. These prisoners had lost hope in life. Through Blessed Vasyl’s ministry, they not only recovered hope but they found a new freedom in Christ as they faced their imminent death. Blessed Vasyl’s own sentence was commuted three months later to 10 years of hard labour.

Most of the years were spent in Vorkuta, Russia, above the Arctic Circle. While working in the coal mines, he began a ministry with his fellow prisoners. The prisoners began calling him their chaplain. In the deep mine shafts, he created a small chapel. Here he would spend time praying the rosary for the prisoners and the guards, confessing the prisoners, counselling and consoling them, and on occasion celebrating the divine liturgy.

The divine liturgy was celebrated using a tablespoon for the chalice and paten, prison bread for the hosts and wine made from raisins which he received in care packages from home.

After his release in 1955, Blessed Vasyl began to organize an underground church. Having the courage himself to conduct secret illegal services, he encouraged others to serve the faithful who found themselves enslaved by the Soviet system, their freedoms stripped from them, in particular their freedom to worship God.

In 1963, he was secretly consecrated a bishop in a Moscow hotel room by Metropolitan Josyf Slipyj. As a bishop, he intensified his underground ministry. He consecrated other bishops and thus re-established a hierarchy for the illegal Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

In 1969, he was again arrested and imprisoned for three years; he was tortured physically, chemically and with electricity. Upon his release he was exiled from Ukraine. He went first to Rome and then to Canada. He died within a year of arrival as a result of the tortures he endured in prison. On June 27, 2001, Pope John Paul II beatified him as Blessed Bishop and Martyr.

The Synod of the UGCC chose Blessed Vasyl to be Patron of Prison Ministry because of the clear example that is found in his life. His courage, faithfulness and zeal for the salvation of the most abandoned gives witness and encouragement to those who themselves do prison ministry. He is also a patron of all those who find themselves enslaved by the circumstances of their life. He is an example for all, persevering to the Gospel in the face of adverse conditions and persecution.

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