Terror in UkraineROBERT ROYAL
Bishop Romzha was only one of many brave believers who paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to the faith in Ukraine. As horrible as their experiences were, their commitment bore rich dividends.
Bishop Romzha had his jaw broken in two places, almost all his teeth knocked out, and severe bruises all over his body. He had to be fed through a tube and regretted that his injuries prevented him from receiving communion. After about a week of normal convalescence, he died suddenly in the early morning hours between Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, 1947. A nun who worked in the hospital later recounted what happened. The Communist hospital director, Dr. Abraham I. Bergmann, ordered everyone out of the ward where the bishop was being treated. A special nurse was brought in to take care of the bishop. Her treatment consisted in administering a dose of poison that brought about the bishop’s departure from this world.
The Soviets had their reasons to fear Bishop Romzha. A young, energetic, and absolutely unyielding leader, Romzha had denounced the pressures being put on his people by the combined efforts of the Soviet authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox themselves had suffered terrible persecution at Soviet hands and, no doubt, quite a few of them deplored the persecution of their Greek Catholic brothers and sisters. But the Moscow Orthodox leadership had been used by Stalin beginning in 1943 to help rouse the people for the “great patriotic war” against the Nazis. After the Germans were repelled, Stalin decided to continue manipulating the population by bringing as many believers as possible under the sway of the co-opted Moscow Patriarch Sergei. In much of Ukraine, this led to violent acts against Catholics who refused reunion with the Orthodox and the state-imposed substitution of Orthodox leaders in Catholic dioceses and parishes.
On Good Friday of 1947, in the Uzhgorod Cathedral, Romzha had publicly denounced these measures as “the lawlessness of the dark forces of hell.” He was not exaggerating. Soviet agents organized an illegitimate sobor (council) of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, which no true bishop attended. All but Romzha, including the great national leader Metropolitan Joseph Slipyi, were imprisoned and several (M. M. Budka, H. L. Khomyshyn, Gregory Lakota, Petro Verhun) died under detention as did many priests, nuns and lay people. Those present at the sobor were manipulated into liquidating the Ukrainian Catholic Church by making it part of the Russian Orthodox system. In a single stroke, the Soviets had eliminated over 4 million Catholics together with the whole Church hierarchy within their post-World War II holdings. The Ukrainians became the largest suppressed group of believers on earth until they arose again after the 1989 fall of Communism.
To an outside observer, it might seem strange that the Soviet Union would fear these Catholics. But the attention they paid Romzha is indicative of the strategy the Soviets adopted towards stamping out all potential centers of resistance to their totalitarian dominance of the peoples under the regime. Pavel Sudoplatov, who directed the operation against Romzha, has since revealed that then-Ukrainian Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev and Stalin himself knew of the plot, which was intended to clean out the “terrorist nest of the Vatican in Uzhorod.” An often-repeated remark of Stalin’s represents him as scoffing, “How many divisions does the pope have?” But in fact, he and his cronies thought of the Holy See as their most challenging moral foe before, during, and after the Second World War.
That is why the “nurse” who administered the poison to Romzha was a KGB agent. In the various parts of Western Ukraine, the Soviet strategy aimed at liquidating the Greek Catholic Church, the traditional religion of many of the people and, in certain areas, a faith that claimed almost the entire population. The deputy director of the Council for the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine had visited Romzha and told him bluntly that the “Greek Catholic Church cannot exist in the Soviet Union.” Romzha replied, “I would sooner face torture and death than betray the true Church of Christ.”
His outburst reflected the attitude of his whole people. Romzha told his clergy, “Do not give in for anything in the world.” They listened: both clergy and lay people in Ukraine vigorously resisted Soviet pressures to convert and flocked behind Romzha. In 1945, 50,000 faithful made the traditional pilgrimage to Cerneca Hora on the Feast of the Assumption to hear him preach. In 1947, when the Soviets tried to co-opt the populace by taking possession of Cerneca Hora and installing subservient Orthodox clergy there, only 3,000 made the pilgrimage. Instead, 80,000 showed up at Romzha’s celebration near Mukachevo. After that, the authorities kept him under close surveillance and would not allow him to leave his residence. His death came when, a few months later, he chose to go to Lavky anyway, despite all warnings.
Bishop Romzha was only one of many brave believers who paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to the faith in Ukraine. As horrible as their experiences were, their commitment bore rich dividends. When the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was allowed to resurface in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it showed that it had maintained a remarkable underground existence. Eight covert bishops appeared along with 1,000 priests and 1,200 nuns — all in a church that had not existed officially since the 1940s. Thanks to the faithful acceptance of much suffering and not a few heroic martyrs, the Ukrainian Catholic Church endured a half-century of persecution and arose from apparent death to quite vibrant life.
Royal, Robert. “Terror in Ukraine.” Arlington Catholic Herald (2000).
Published by permission of Robert Royal and the Arlington Catholic Herald.
Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his books are The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History, Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality, The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History, The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, and most recently, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Robert Royal is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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