When he was a young pastor, Archbishop Stefan Soroka of Philadelphia (Ukrainian) was impressed by how a new Knights of Columbus council energized the faith and leadership of many men.
“The power of fraternal prayer and works of charity in an atmosphere of unity with patriotic love of God, Church and country transformed these men,” he recalled in a homily during the Supreme Convention in Philadelphia last August. “This in turn inspired these Knights and their families to reach out in service to the needs of others.”
Today, as head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholics in the United States, Archbishop Soroka is thrilled to see a similar transformation underway in Ukraine, the land of his father’s birth. This time, though, it is about giving a boost of Christian life not to just one parish, but to a country of more than 40 million people after 70 years of Soviet oppression and 25 more of mainly oligarchical misrule.
Members and councils have multiplied in Ukraine since the Order established a formal presence there over two years ago. And as the country struggles with pro-Russian rebels and vestiges of corruption to consolidate recent democratic gains, local Church leaders say the Knights showed up with material and spiritual assistance when it was most needed.
“The presence of the Knights of Columbus in Ukraine seems to me the action of Divine Providence,” said Archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki of Lviv, in western Ukraine. “They’ve come with so much help in the struggle with the many difficulties.”
CALLED TO BE PRESENT
The origin of the Knights’ expansion into Ukraine goes back to 2005 at the 123rd Supreme Convention in Chicago. It was there that Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, then major archbishop (now emeritus) of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, appealed for a “transplanting” of the Order to Ukraine.
The Knights’ way of practically living the faith was needed to help heal “deep wounds” in Ukrainian society, the cardinal said. Communist persecution, he added, could not kill the faith in people’s hearts, but it did largely eliminate it from habits of daily life.
Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson took the request seriously, according to Supreme Director Larry W. Kustra of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Beginning in 2009, the Supreme Council, with assistance from Knights in Poland, laid the groundwork for the Order’s expansion, while Kustra was tasked with preparing a team to conduct degree ceremonies in the Ukrainian language. It helped that Manitoba had nine Ukrainian Greek-rite K of C councils, though none of the Ukrainian speakers had any degree experience, Kustra said.
During an initial trip to Ukraine in the spring of 2012, the team initiated Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who succeeded Cardinal Husar in 2011 as head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, together with Archbishop Mokrzycki, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine and former personal secretary of St. John Paul II. The team also gave presentations on the Order to priests and groups of laymen.
They returned to Ukraine in May 2014, this time initiating several dozen men in Lviv and in the capital, Kyiv. Now with a critical mass, the first councils could be formed. The supreme knight announced the Order’s formal start in Ukraine and Lithuania at the 131st Supreme Convention in San Antonio in August 2013. It was the first international expansion since councils were chartered in Poland in 2006.
Major Archbishop Shevchuk welcomed the news as bolstering the ability of Ukraine’s Catholic communities — including roughly 5 million Greek-rite Catholics and 1 million Latin-rite Catholics — to help renew Christian life in the country.
“The cherished and practiced ideals of the Knights of Columbus resonate deeply in the soul of a Church and a people experiencing a vivid resurrection in its spiritual and moral life,” the major archbishop said in a video address to the convention.
The Greek-rite St. Volodymyr Council 15800 in Kyiv and Latin-rite John Paul II Council 15801 in Lviv were established in September 2013. On Nov. 6, Major Archbishop Shevchuk celebrated a Divine Liturgy to commemorate the historic expansion. In his homily, he reflected on the Order’s mission, and said, “We rejoice that knighthood is taking root in the life of our Church.”
Later that month, the approximately 125 members in Ukraine were caught up in dramatic historical events that would put their newly forged commitment to the Order’s principles of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism to the test.
TRIAL BY FIRE
On Nov. 21, 2013, just weeks after Bogdan Kovaliv and Youriy Maletskiy became the charter grand knights of the first K of C councils in Kyiv and Lviv, respectively, protesters filled Maidan Square in Kyiv to start a “revolution of dignity” against corruption and Russian influence, and in favor of European integration.
Amid freezing temperatures and police repression, the so-called Euromaidan movement suffered dozens of casualties before the old authorities ceded power in March 2014. Since that time, violence has continued as a result of Russia annexing Crimea and separatists in eastern Ukraine fighting to break away.
Members of Council 15800, meeting just five blocks away from Maidan during the protests, set to work tending the wounded, providing food and warm clothes, interceding for those who were arrested, and assisting families of people who died. Knights also set up a prayer tent at Maidan to offer spiritual support, thus bolstering the Christian presence of those struggling bravely for change. Knights from Lviv traveled 300 miles (500 km) to assist these efforts.
According to Kovaliv, no one hesitated to offer aid. “Volunteer efforts, solidarity and support for those in need all demonstrate the Knights of Columbus principles for action,” he said. “And these initiatives probably helped the active development of the Order.”
Meanwhile, awareness of the Knights grew in Ukraine. Seven new councils in six cities have been added over the past two years.
“At first, it was a little difficult, but after many, many presentations, and after giving a lot of information to the priests and the bishops, we now have 400 Knights in this country, and I hope we’ll soon have 500,” said Maletskiy, noting that plans are underway to charter additional councils.
The Knights of Columbus is unique in Ukraine for uniting Greek-rite and Latin-rite Catholics in charitable, fraternal and spiritual activities. For historical reasons, the two communities have tended to stay apart, with little interaction and, at times, an element of mistrust.
Serving as a force for Church unity in Ukraine was always an objective for the Knights, and the joint initiation of the archbishops for the two rites set the tone, according to Kustra. Now the Order’s principle of unity is teaching men to work together in specific projects.
“By simply being together, we start to remove the misgivings in the minds of some people,” Maletskiy said. “The Knights of Columbus is definitely helping people to understand better and begin to show publicly that we are the same Church and we take part in the same Catholic work.”
The work of the Knights for the Church and the people of Ukraine has been intense at both the local and international levels. Supreme Knight Anderson touched on this reality when he said at this year’s Supreme Convention that the Order’s members “are committed to defending life and liberty for all: for those on the margins of our communities, and for those on the margins half a world away.”
Ukraine has been a country in transition since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. It has worked slowly to develop better medical care, for example, and build a basic social safety net. Recent unrest, with recurring fighting in the east, has hit the already struggling country hard. Inflation is running above 50 percent, and the World Bank says that the economy contracted some 15 percent this year. An estimated 3 million people have fled their homes.
In response, spiritual support has not been lacking. Knights the world over responded generously to the supreme knight’s February 2014 call to pray for peace in Ukraine in solidarity with Pope Francis and the country’s Catholic bishops.
As this prayer campaign has continued, material help has also been crucial. “The Ukrainian government is very poor these days and cannot provide any significant social help. For many people, the only thing they have left is to rely on mercy,” Archbishop Mokrzycki said in August, adding that the local Knights, with help from abroad, “are surrounding them with care in the daily struggle for survival.”
Knights in Ukraine have raised money locally and channeled donations from Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere to buy medicine and equipment for hospitals. They have also purchased and distributed 1,500 wheelchairs through the Knights’ partnership with the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation and have provided aid to a children’s hospital in Lviv.
Local Knights have likewise assisted Caritas efforts by collecting food and clothes for the needy and helping to transport materials and volunteers. And they have helped refurbish abandoned homes for refugees and visited troops at Easter, bringing care packages and cheer. A delegation from Ukraine even joined the 57th Annual International Military Pilgrimage to Lourdes.
Last February, the Knights of Columbus Christian Refugee Relief Fund disbursed $400,000 for charitable efforts in Ukraine. The country’s Greek-rite Church and Latin-rite Church each used half of the funds to provide emergency food, medicine and shelter for refugee children and families.
In November, the Supreme Council announced a second gift of the same amount for the Church’s continued efforts assisting refugees in Ukraine.
As in every jurisdiction, the Knights in Ukraine also actively serve their local churches. They assist in parish liturgies and with practical needs, like repairs, and even helped build a village church. At the consecration of the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection in Kyiv in 2013, Knights provided an honor guard.
“They’re showing themselves as real Catholic role models,” Kustra said. “Men and their families are becoming stronger in their faith, living their faith. And society in Ukraine is benefitting from the charity works. Given the political situation in the country, they’re doing really well.”
The supreme director and past state deputy is not sure if he will be making any more trips to Ukraine, though he expects the degree ceremonies that he helped adapt will be getting a lot more use there. And he certainly feels enriched and inspired by the Ukrainians he has gotten to know.
“To have the opportunity to go over and bring the Knights of Columbus and make a bit of history for the Order really affected us all,” Kustra said. “It’s been the experience of a lifetime.”
BRYAN BRADLEY is a member of St. Ignatius Council 15900 in Vilnius, Lithuania.