Serving Church and Family

A priest in a small Ukrainian town balances dual responsibilities

text by Matthew Matuszak
photographs by Petro Didula

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Perhaps for Halia Havrylenko, a young woman from western Ukraine, it was destiny.

“A former schoolteacher of mine recently told me she pictured me having this kind of husband,” says Mrs. Havrylenko. Her husband, Father Volodymyr Havrylenko, is a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, just like her brother, Father Vasyl Stetskyi.

The area that is now Ukraine has known the Eastern Christian tradition of ordaining both celibate and married men since Kievan Rus, the medieval predecessor of both modern Ukraine and Russia, embraced Christianity in 988.

The practice was confirmed when several bishops of the Church of Kiev reaffirmed their communion with the Church of Rome in 1596.

Despite this millennium-old tradition, Father Havrylenko was not always certain he would become a priest, much less one having to balance both pastoral and familial responsibilities.

“When I was a child,” he recalls, “going to church was a bore. I was very fidgety.” The army and seminary, however, have changed him, he says. Prayer and service now fill his days.

Since October 2001, Father Havrylenko has been associate pastor at St. George Church in Yavoriv, a town eight miles from the Polish border. He also serves as the administrator of a chapel in Koty, a neighboring village, and helps out at the parish of his brother-in-law, who is recovering from a leg injury.

Born in 1972, Volodymyr Havrylenko was reared during the last years of the underground era of the Greek Catholic Church, which was outlawed by the Soviet government. As a child, he says, he was not aware of the trials facing the church, which has since started to reassert itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine in 1991.

“My parents were Greek Catholics,” Father Havrylenko says, “but we attended an Orthodox church.” He and his siblings, however, were all baptized by underground Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests. An uncle, Father Marian Ferens, was an underground Redemptorist, though the future priest was not aware of his relative’s pastoral duties at the time.

Receiving instruction in the faith from his mother, young Volodymyr prayed daily, but had no further religious aspirations – that is, until he served in the army from 1990 to 1992. The army sent him to eastern Ukraine, which had been part of the Soviet Union since its birth after the disintegration of the tsarist Russian Empire at the end of World War I.

In eastern Ukraine, “I saw a spiritual desert: good people, but with a spiritual emptiness,” says Father Havrylenko. “In western Ukraine, we have all kinds, but there’s always been some spiritual inclination.” Western Ukraine was annexed to its eastern counterpart by the Soviets at the end of World War II.

It was during his military service, Father Havrylenko says, that he began to feel a calling. He dates his interest in preaching to that time.

“Father Havrylenko’s sermons have wonderful content,” says Ivan Dolynskyi, the sacristan at Father Stetskyi’s parish. “I’ve noticed that during the week I can recall the theme of the Sunday Gospel.”

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