Catholic voices from Eastern Europe

Twenty-three years ago this November, the Berlin Wall fell. At the time, Catholics around the world rejoiced. Finally, their brothers and sisters in the East could worship in peace, free from the persecution that had hindered Catholic life and belief for so many years. The promise of the moment was great. 

But has the promise been realized? To what extent have two decades of democracy and capitalism helped the Church in the lands where atheistic communism once reigned? 

In September, Our Sunday Visitor traveled to Central and Eastern Europe, as well as parts of the former Soviet Union, looking for answers to those questions. We visited people, places and programs, toured renovated Churches and ramshackle cathedrals, looked upon walls pierced by Soviet bullets, and stood in the spots where priests were slain. 

In the pages that follow are just a few of the stories collected along the way, stories that offer some answers, but that also raise more questions — questions about the responsibility of the Church in the West for our Eastern brethren and about the West’s culpability in the state of the Church in the East today. 

UZHHOROD, UKRAINE

Artur Bubnevich is tired. His long, lean body bounds energetically through the corridors of the Uzhhorod cathedral offices, but the lines on his face — too many lines for someone only 36 years old — betray the underlying exhaustion. 

Bubnevich should be exhausted. Over the past six years, as special projects coordinator for the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Mukachevo, he has singlehandedly overseen the construction of nearly 160 parishes and 25 parish houses. Plans for 40 more parishes and 160 parish houses are in the works. 

Right now, however, Bubnevich’s main concern is the restoration of the eparchy’s sprawling 18th-century bishop’s residence and office complex here in Uzhhorod. 

The complex, like everything else the Greek Catholic Church in Mukachevo once owned — parishes, houses, schools, seminaries and orphanages — was taken from the Church in 1947, two years after the Soviet Union excised the Transcarpathian region from Czechoslovakia and declared it part of Ukraine. 

Secret worship 

When the Soviets arrived, they immediately ordered the bishops, priests and laity to convert to Orthodoxy, declaring all Ukrainian Greek Catholics “traitors to the state.” Under the leadership of Bishop Theodore Rajan, the Catholics of Mukachevo at first resisted. Most, however, only held out for as long as Bishop Rajan lived. Once he was dead — at the hands of the Soviet Secret Police — and 120 more priests were killed or exiled, all of the eparchy’s property was confiscated, and the remaining faithful moved underground. 

For the next 45 years, the Ukrainian Greek Catholics who held fast to the faith worshipped in secret, usually at night and always with sentinels posted, on the lookout for spies and raiding parties. Priests were few, and Divine Liturgy rare. As time passed, those who gathered to pray, in homes or cemeteries, grew fewer and older, while many of their children and grandchildren became “good communists.” 

Independence arrived in late 1991, but save for the cathedral and a few parish churches, none of the stolen properties were returned. The cathedral itself would have remained in the possession of the Orthodox Church if not for the riot that broke out when the state initially refused to return it. 

And that’s where Bubnevich comes in. It is his job to make up for all that the Greek Catholic Church in his eparchy lost 55 years ago. For the past six years, he has worked day and night carrying out the ambitious rebuilding plan put into place by Bishop Milan Shashik at the beginning of his tenure in Mukachevo. 

Bubnevich, like most Ukrainians his age, was baptized secretly as a baby but raised as an atheist. 

“Growing up, I was just a normal kid in the Soviet Union,” he explained. “I was a Young Pioneer and did all the normal stuff Soviet kids did. I believed it all, about Lenin and the Communist party. But it turned out to be a big lie. 

“That left me — left many — with a deep wound,” he added. “When you finally realized the truth, you felt cheated.” 

It was curiosity, more than anything else, that led Bubnevich to go to Divine Liturgy once it became possible to attend. At the time, the novelty of religion attracted many people, young and old.  

For Bubnevich, however, it quickly became something more. 

“I was one of those people for whom religion was a totally new discovery,” he said. “I lived in a system where there was no God, then suddenly this new world opens. At first that seemed really fearful, but at some point, I saw that I only needed to say yes. As long as I said yes and wanted it, then God would lead me. And he has.” 

In the mid-1990s, Bubnevich was sent by the eparchy to study English and theology in Austria. Not until his return did he begin to see the extent of communism’s legacy. 

“How people relate to each other, how they respect each other — you feel the difference as soon as you reach the border,” he said. “For me it was shocking.” 

Lasting damage 

Years later, the shock has worn off, but the problems remain. Although two decades have passed since the Soviet Union fell, much hasn’t changed in Ukraine, starting with the country’s economic situation. Ukraine’s economy remains one of the worst of all the former Soviet states, with corruption and nepotism dominating the government. 

Uzhhorod Ukraine
Elements of Eastern and Western spirituality meet in the architecture of the Greek Catholic cathedral in Uzhhorod, Ukraine. Photo by Kevin Heider

“We have to choose between bad and worse,” Bubnevich said about the country’s election. 

Accordingly, smuggling and illegal trading remain a primary source of employment in this border town, while decay and neglect — of buildings, roads and homes — is omnipresent. Even many of the new buildings are falling apart. The local Greek Catholic Seminary was only built in 1995, but already the roof and doors need replacing, while mold covers the dome of its chapel, completed just four years ago. 

It’s the lack of faith among this once deeply Catholic people, however, that concerns Bubnevich the most. 

“People were taught for 50 years that the family is not important, that there is no God,” he said. He said, “Twenty years ago everyone wanted churches. Now we build them, and many stand empty. That is the most important point that we are trying now to repair, and this is a huge work ahead.”

Fast facts: Ukraine 

Archdioceses: 2 
Dioceses: 14 
Parishes: 4,432 
Catholics: 4.89 million 
Population: 46.1 million 
 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA

“Missionary work used to be so much easier,” said Laco Bučko. “Today, it requires more work, more creativity.” 

Bučko should know. The Slovak native has spent the better part of the past 20 years either serving as a missionary or forming them. 

His first foray into missionary work was in the early 1990s, shortly after he graduated from university in Bratislava with a degree in cybernetics. Unable to conceive of “a life spent always with computers,” and blackballed from the seminary by the communists who retained control of it, Bučko decided to pursue missionary work instead. 

“I told my mother I would be back in three months,” he recalled. “I was gone three years.” 

A long journey 

Bučko headed first to Russia. There, in the shadow of the KGB offices in Moscow, he and his fellow missionaries spent most of their time working with young people at St. Louis Church. 

Laco Bučko
Bučko

“People were hungry for knowledge about God, about Jesus, about the Church, and they were asking,” he said. “It was very easy work. We sat in the church, opened the door, and young people just came and asked questions.” 

After Russia, Bučko traveled to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Siberia — all with guitar in hand — evangelizing and leading prayer meetings. He then returned home for further training in theology, eventually moving his family to Bratislava, where he joined the faculty of St. Elizabeth University and helped found the John Paul II Institute of Missiology and Tropical Health. Now, he teaches young Slovaks how to do what he once did. 

Currently, 520 students study at the institute, which is housed on the outskirts of Bratislava. Since its founding in 2003, 5,000 students have completed the program. Most come as baptized Catholics, but Bučko said it’s not the desire to share the faith that attracts the majority of them. 

“They’re interested in doing good, in social work,” he said. “Many aren’t practicing their faith but they find the idea of helping others attractive. For some, as they go through the program, that changes. But not for all.” 

Freedom, hunger 

As Bučko sees it, students’ lack of interest in sharing the Gospel is a symptom of the consumerism that has swept Slovakia in the years since the communists left power. 

Bratislava
The view of Bratislava, a city of more than 460,000, just off the city’s historic center. Much of the city looks unchanged from communist times. Photo by Emily Stimpson

“For me, half my life I lived under the communism regime. The second half, I lived in the democratic regime. And I am glad that I had the communist regime experience,” he said. “Yes, it was difficult, but it was good, in a way, for us to go without material things, to all wear the same clothes and use the same equipment in the household. It was good because we didn’t look to material things to fill the hunger inside us. We looked to spiritual things. 

“The young people today, they have the same hunger, but they are told that it is the material things that will fill that hunger. Many believe that.” 

Bučko strives to counter that attitude among students. 

“Communism, in the strangest of ways, prepared the soil for a spiritual explosion in the East,” he said. “There’s so much hunger. It would be ideal if we could find a way to merge the freedom of the West with this hunger for spirituality in the East.”

Fast facts: Slovakia 

Archdioceses: 4 
Dioceses: 7 
Parishes: 1,514 
Catholics: 3.9 million  
Population: 5.4 million
 

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY

Budapest
The Budapest Parliament Building faces the Danube River. Photo by Emily Stimpson

It’s lunchtime, and a group of young Hungarian Catholics, all in their 20s and 30s, sit gathered around the table of a deserted restaurant on the Buda side of the Danube. The conversation centers on questions of politics and faith and, as is Hungarians’ wont, their national history. 

The national memory here is a long one. 

“Before World War II it was all about nationalism — the individual ethnic groups having self-determination,” said Kristof Marik*, who works as a diplomat for the Hungarian government. “Then, after World War II, in the eastern half, the Eastern bloc, it was all about internationalism. Stalin was always saying, ‘Who cares if you are Hungarian? Who cares if you are Romanian? You are communist.’ 

“But it wasn’t a real internationalism,” he said. “It wasn’t chosen. It was forced. So, after the Soviet Empire collapsed, what’s the first thing that happens? The Yugoslav War, which was about nationalism again.” 

Shaky ground 

All of which raises the question: What will follow if today’s European Union, with its decided but fragile internationalist bent, falls apart? Resurgent nationalism? Violent revolution? Civil war? 

Those questions are what the Hungarians interviewed see in the patterns of history, which, to a great extent, is why they’re so concerned about the New Evangelization. Only through a resurgence in the Catholic faith, they believe, can a lasting and true European peace be secured. 

“We must think of ourselves as Catholic first, Hungarian or Slovak or Austrian second,” said Boldizsar Koenig, who runs the day-to-day operations of a Budapest parish. “Catholic means universal. It’s a call to a much higher, or deeper, way of life, and it gives you the ability to relate to anyone, from anywhere, if they are Catholic too.” 

The problem with that idea, however, is executing it. 

In Hungary, like elsewhere in Europe, the Christian faith is in decline. Although 6 million of the country’s 10 million people are Catholic, only 20 percent of the baptized go to church at all, and only 10 percent go regularly. 

“Twenty years ago when you went to Mass, the churches were full,” said Marik. “Now, with few exceptions, they’re half-empty.” 

Those numbers both reflect and are a result of the mounting secularism in a country that, in spite of its current center-right ruling coalition, has struggled more than most to rid its government of socialists and former communists. 

“Before 1989, you could never talk about faith,” said Csaba Szabo, a lawyer. “Then, for a short while, we had a time where we could, where we were free. Now it’s going back to that time before, when we were not free.” 

“We thought freedom would bring us the ability to do everything we wanted to do,” he continued. “But instead freedom brought the pro-choice culture.” 

Csaba Szabo
Csaba Szabo

Szabo said 10 years ago he wasn’t familiar with the terms pro-life and pro-choice. “Now, suddenly, our society has reached the point that when you say you are against abortion, you are dismissed as old-fashioned. We have to learn a new way of talking about these things. And we have to teach our children a new way of talking about these things.” 

As Marik sees it, that struggle is part of the learning process that takes place when any culture becomes a democracy. 

“We don’t yet know how to use our freedom well. We are still learning democracy. And it takes more than one decade or two to do that. We had 50 years of communist rule. It will take the same, a generation, to unlearn what has been taught to us. One generation must pass and a new generation must come.” 

*Due to the sensitive nature of Marik’s position in the government, his name has been changed. 

Fast facts: Hungary 

Archdioceses: 4 
Dioceses: 9
Parishes: 2,185 
Catholics: 5.9 million  
Population: 10 million 
 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Additional reading: Training leaders in the New Evangelization