Ukrainian Catholic Bishop visits his Tasmanian flock
By Catherine Sheehan
As the threat of Russian invasion hangs over his homeland, Bishop Mykola Bychok CSsR, Eparch of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Australia and New Zealand, said during a recent visit to Tasmania that he was trusting in God for peace to prevail in the Ukraine.
“I have fear but I trust in God,” Bishop Bychok said. “We are praying for peace in the Ukraine. I trust in God it will not be war.”
“It’s not an easy political situation because in 2014 the Ukraine was occupied by the Russians. Also, from that time they started an unofficial war.”
“Right now, in the news they are talking about an invasion, a huge invasion of Russian troops into the Ukraine. So, it is a great fear for us but we’re still praying.”
He also expressed hope that Pope Francis’ announcement that he wanted to visit the Ukraine this year might help stabilise the situation.
“Maybe it will be good news because this year Pope Francis wants to visit Ukraine. We don’t know the exact time. We will see what will be the result… Maybe it will be a trip of peace.”
Bishop Bychok was recently in Hobart, on a pastoral visit to Tasmania’s small flock of approximately 100 Ukrainian Catholics. He is the shepherd to around 7,000 Ukrainian Catholics Australia-wide.
As well as meeting with Archbishop Julian Porteous, the bishop also celebrated Mass for the local Ukrainian Catholic community in Hobart.
At 42 years of age, Bishop Bychok is Australia’s youngest Catholic bishop, and the fourth youngest in the world. In 2020 he was consecrated as a bishop and became the third Ukrainian Catholic Eparch to Australia and New Zealand.
Following his ordination as a Redemptorist priest in 2005, his first assignment was to Siberia, where he ministered to the Ukrainian Catholic community there.
Under Soviet rule in the 1940s and 50s, many Ukrainian Catholics were exiled from their homeland and sent to Siberia.
The then 25-year-old Fr Bychok often trudged through snow and sleet ministering to the faithful in the Siberian climate, where temperatures often plummet to minus 40 or 50.
“We visited a lot of our communities, sometimes travelling 300 or 500 kilometres.”
The difficult life in Siberia led Ukrainian Catholics to develop a strong faith in God, Bishop Bychok said, and as a young priest he learnt a great deal from their witness to the faith under persecution.
“They found it a place to be real witnesses to Jesus Christ in the difficult reality of the Soviet Union.”
“I learned from them, more than maybe they did from me, as a new priest. To be stable, in facing every obstacle to remember that God is with you. You are not alone.”
However, after many years of religious suppression under Soviet rule, the practice of the faith declined among the second generation of Ukrainian Catholics in Siberia, Bishop Bychok said.
“They lost this connection between the parents and children. I can understand this because there was great pressure from the Soviet Union.”
He was moved to the Western Ukraine in 2007, where life had been completely free since the country gained its independence in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed.
Bishop Bychok also served the large Ukrainian Catholic community in New Jersey in the USA, for five years.
Today, the Catholic faith is strong in the Ukraine, Bishop Bychok said, and new churches are being built, replacing the many demolished under communist rule from 1946 to 1990.
When the Soviet Union seized control of the Ukraine in 1946, the Catholic Church there was “destroyed”, Bishop Bychok said, and practice of the faith became illegal.
“Many of our bishops, priests, and religious were moved from Ukraine to Siberia to these jails.” Priests had to minister to the faithful in secret, usually at night, he said.
On one occasion in the late 1980s, half a million Catholics took to the streets to pray to Our Lady, in a public show of faith.
“It was the face of our underground Church,” Bishop Bychok said.
Today, there are approximately five million Ukrainian Catholics world-wide.
The Ukrainian Catholic liturgy is known for is beauty and grandeur, characterised by highly decorated churches with iconography, colourful and ornate priestly vestments, and much use of incense, singing, and processions. The priest celebrates the Divine Liturgy “Ad orientem”, “to the east”, facing the altar in union with the faithful.
Bishop Bychok said that, just like other Catholics, Eastern Catholics in Australia have been affected by the pandemic, with numbers attending Mass lower than in pre-COVID times.
“Maybe this pandemic shows us who is really faithful to God… [Like the] first Christian times, maybe smaller communities, but stronger in belief.”
“But we still have good people here. We have all good witnesses in Australia. Wherever I have been, I met saintly people. Not only in the Ukraine, Siberia, and the USA, but also here in Australia.”
Bishop Bychok’s visit to Tasmania was his first pastoral visit outside the state of Victoria since his enthronement as bishop.
The Divine Liturgy of the Ukrainian Catholic Church is celebrated every fourth Sunday at 10am at the Chapel of the Transfiguration of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, at 185 Main Road in Moonah. All are welcome to attend. For more information: catholicukes.org.au or contact Rev Fr Justin McDonnell on 0402 324 694.