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He has come this far by faith

Published February 26, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - Nothing marked the house from the outside. Inside, a group of men quietly studied their lessons, one of several cells scattered throughout the city. They changed houses every few months, wary of the spies who constantly tried to infiltrate their ranks.

In this moveable seminary in west Ukraine, Mikhail Kouts pursued his secretive religious training in the declining years of the Soviet Union, which had banned the church.

"It was the last years of the Communist regime," Kouts recalled recently in his halting English. "We only was careful, so that some KGB agent would not find us because KGB could destroy everything."

Kouts finished his training, and became a priest in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. He was ordained in 1991, two years after the church was legalized, the same year Ukraine won its freedom.

A year later, following millions of his countrymen looking for freedom and opportunity, Father Mikhail left his country.

On Thursday, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, patriarch of all Ukrainian Catholics worldwide, paid a visit to the small St. Andrew's Ukrainian Catholic parish north of Cortez Boulevard on Weeping Willow Street. Kouts became the pastor there last year.

In the audience, fewer than 70 people listened as Husar told them they had not been forgotten. Though they might not have visited in decades, might not even speak Ukrainian, they were still brothers and sisters.

His eyes peered kindly from above his bushy white beard. His gentle voice filled the small church, speaking first in Ukrainian, then in English.

"You have thought of them. You have prayed for them," Husar said. "I wish to assure you that they thought of you. They prayed for you."

Rich culture, tradition

This is life for a Ukrainian far from home: going without food to buy calling cards, waiting a year to bring your wife and son over, staying up late to talk with parishioners, just to hear the language of home.

This was Kouts' life during his first years in Canada.

And for a Ukrainian who stays behind: sending family away to find work, surviving on remittances and care packages, waiting for the phone call.

And like the voice on the other end of the line, this church.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church, sometimes called the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, enjoys full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The mysteries celebrated in the Eastern rite includes the familiar sacraments: baptism, communion, confirmation, marriage.

But the Ukrainian rite retains a rich tradition of differences from the more common Roman rite, including bright Byzantine iconography, complex symbol-laden ceremonies, and a long melodic liturgy. It also retains a provision allowing married clergy, provided they marry before ordination, as Kouts did.

To keep its complex tradition alive, a man baptized in the Eastern rite who later seeks ordination in the Roman Catholic Church must train in the Eastern rite, although he can choose to train in both.

In the Eastern rite, the altar is closed behind an ornately decorated iconostasis, or icon screen. The large center doors, called King's doors, are decorated with vibrantly colored icons of the four evangelists. To the right of the doors is an icon of Jesus, a bright gold halo around his head. To the left, a picture of Mary cradling baby Jesus, his small hand raised in a blessing.

Only ordained priests can enter the King's doors. Flanking them are two smaller doors, called Deacon's doors, used by Kouts' two sons: Alexander, 15, and Zenon, 13, both altar boys.

A banned church

The church was banned by the former Soviet Union, its priests jailed, their families sent to labor camps.

But the church survived. Kouts' family raised him and his two brothers in an underground church in Ternopil, a city in west Ukraine.

"My parents were very good Christians and simple people, and they don't care about political system, especially my mother," Kouts said.

To keep the devout from celebrating church holidays, his school required children to attend on Easter. Kouts and his brothers did not. On the next school day, teachers called out the names of students who hadn't shown up, reprimanding them for their absence.

The same thing happened at Christmas, when police harassed caroling children, Kouts recalled.

Kouts later studied music. Then, during a difficult two-year stint in the Russian Army, he promised God that he would go into the seminary. When he left the army, he tried to avoid that obligation. But he felt guilty, and began asking local priests about entering the priesthood.

Then a man in Lviv gave him an address in his hometown.

"I did not know this man," Kouts said. "And he said I call about you. And he said go to this place, and they will make welcome for you at the seminary."

Kouts remembered how touched he was that his fellow seminarians didn't search him, the custom for newcomers in those days to make sure they were not KGB.

Between 1946 and 1989, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was the largest banned church in the world, according to the church's Web site. Some church leaders died in prison.

Those who could leave fled to the United States or Canada, following waves of economic immigrants that settled there in the early 20th century.

"Our people who lived in the United States and other free countries were helping those who were persecuted and denied their basic human rights," Husar told the congregation Thursday morning.

"You were the voice of the silent church in those days," he went on. "You spoke to the world for those who could not speak for themselves."

[Last modified February 25, 2007, 20:08:08]

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