On July 20, before a crowd of 200,000 faithful at the Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Zarvanytsia in Ukraine, Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk solemnly proclaimed Blessed Bishop and Martyr Vasyl Velychkovsky as patron of prison ministry for the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
This honour and gift is given not only for the people of Ukraine but in a particular way also to the faithful in North America.
Blessed Vasyl lived his last year of life in Winnipeg. He died in 1973 and his holy relics, a fully intact body, are now enshrined in St. Joseph's Ukrainian Catholic Church there.
Born in Ukraine, Blessed Vasyl became a powerful Redemptorist missionary. After the Second World War, the Soviet Communist government declared the Ukrainian Catholic Church illegal. All the bishops and hundreds of priests were arrested and imprisoned.
Blessed Vasyl was arrested Aug, 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 also on death row, at their request he began to catechize them, prepare them for the sacrament of Reconciliation, hear their confessions and secretly celebrate the Divine Liturgy.
These prisoners, who were condemned to death for the crimes they committed (murder, rape, thievery, etc.) had lost hope in life. Through Blessed Vasyl's ministry, they not only recovered hope but found a new freedom in Christ as they faced their imminent death.
Blessed Vasyl's own sentence was later commuted to 10 years of hard labour in prison camps. Most of those years were spent in Vorkuta, Russia, above the Arctic Circle. Again while working in the coal mines, he began a ministry with his fellow prisoners.
In the deep mine shafts, he created a small chapel in a niche. Here he spent time praying the rosary for the prisoners and the guards, confessing the prisoners, counselling and consoling them, and occasionally celebrating the Divine Liturgy for the trusted few.
The Divine Liturgy was celebrated using a table spoon 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 actively organize an underground Church. Having the courage to conduct secret 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, Metropolitan Josyf Slipyj secretly consecrated him a bishop in a Moscow hotel room. As a bishop, he intensified his underground pastoral ministry. He consecrated other bishops and thus re-established a hierarchy for the illegal Ukrainian Catholic Church.
In 1969, he was again arrested and imprisoned for three years where he was tortured physically, chemically and with electricity. Upon his release, he was exiled from Ukraine, went to Rome and then to Canada.
In 1973, he died within a year of his arrival as a result of the torture he endured in prison. On June 27, 2001 Pope John Paul II beatified him as a martyr.
The synod of the Ukrainian Catholic bishops chose Blessed Vasyl to be patron of prison ministry because of his faithfulness and zeal for the salvation of prisoners who lack hope in life. His example gives a witness and encouragement to those who themselves do prison ministry.
He is also a patron of all who find themselves enslaved by the circumstances of their life.
Blessed Vasyl has already shown himself to be a powerful intercessor as is seen by the numerous blessings and healings recorded at the Bishop Velychkovsky Martyr's Shrine.
Now the Church has given him a special ministry of intercession, inspiration and assistance to all those who minister in any way to those who are enslaved, whether they be in prison or in any oppressive situation in life.
September 8, 2014
FR. JOHN SIANCHUK, CSSR