COLORADO SPRINGS. “Mercy” was the theme of the evening Oct. 11, as the Catholic Outreach to Northern Ukraine (CONU) celebrated 25 years of ministry to the Catholic community of Northern Ukraine. The event at Holy Apostles Parish, which featured special guests from Ukraine, music, and sharing from the audience about receiving and giving mercy, both celebrated and challenged the people gathered to extend God’s love through acts of mercy towards their fellow men and women.
Doug Brummel, a Catholic musician and entertainer, emcee’d the evening and provided musical entertainment with Dave Wilson and Friends. Also featured were the Samoan Christian Community singers under the direction of Pete Opetaia.
Two Ukrainian bishops and a young Ukranian priest sat in the first row of the sanctuary awaiting introduction as Father Paul Wicker, retired pastor of Holy Apostles and founder of Catholic Outreach to Northern Ukraine, explained how the ministry began.
“Twenty-six years ago, Father Vitaly from Sumy, Ukraine came to Holy Apostles Parish. He asked me if the parish would like a sister parish, and so I asked the parish council, and other leaders, and we prayed, and the answer was that this was a call from God, and we should respond.”
He asked Father Vitaly what it meant to be a “sister parish,” and he replied that Father Wicker should come and see. So, in the spring of 1995, Father Wicker, along with several parishioners, made the first of many trips to Ukraine, where they helped rebuild Father Vitaly’s parish church, Annunciation. They also helped rebuild two other Catholic parishes, aided orphanages, brought in medical teams, and aided a ministry to pregnant, single homeless women.
“And here is Father Vitaly, except now he is Bishop Vitaly,” said Father Wicker, at which the Bishop stood and greeted the audience, which was translated from Ukranian by the young priest, Father Yuriy Sema.
Several members of the audience shared stories about either receiving or giving mercy. A member of the Jewish congregation Temple Beit Torah said that many Holocaust survivors belonged to her community. When they heard that the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs’ Theaterworks was working on a production of “Cabaret,” which has as its backdrop the Nazi rise to power in 1930s Germany, they were concerned. She invited the director to visit. He listened to all of them and said the play would be presented in a way that was sensitive to their concerns. Everyone who attended the production said it was very good.
Another member of the audience spoke at length about prison ministries and how good it was to give former inmates a taste of home life.
Father Sema told the story of how he and a seminarian convinced a young woman not to have an abortion.
“I got the message, ‘Father, will you pray for this woman? She is going to abort the child tomorrow.” The woman lived four hours away, and Father Yuriy was scheduled to say Mass in the morning, but he felt that “this is probably the decision for a life, for new life.” He left about 4 a.m., with a seminarian who was not very happy about getting up at that hour. “But still, after the morning Lauds (morning prayer) I told him what the case was about, and he was okay.
When they arrived at the woman’s home, her mother told them that her daughter had fallen in with a bad crowd, went somewhere to work outside of the city, and had gotten pregnant as a result of rape. The mother, fearful that her daughter would abort, had volunteered to adopt the child.
“When (the pregnant woman) saw me and the seminarian, she knew who I was, so I just told her, here are the words the angel spoke to Our Lady, ‘do not be afraid, Full of Grace, because God love you so much and he wants you to have this baby.’” The girl began to cry. She told him that, for the first time in her life, she felt that she loved somebody spontaneously, with no conditions, and she was afraid that when she gave birth to the child, she would stop loving him. Father Yuriy and the seminarian accompanied the pregnant woman to the hospital, where she gave birth that same day.
He asked, “Who was a good Samaritan to that woman?” It wasn’t him, he said, it was Christ himself, through the Word of good news, giving her power of the Holy Spirit, to accept her situation, to accept her life and her consequences for her life.”
Bishop Radislaw Zmitrowicz, the other bishop from Ukraine, prior to the event, had just visited the Marian House Soup Kitchen. He was inspired by the orderly precision with which the volunteer-staffed ministry operates, serving an average of 600 meals a day.
“Seeing so many volunteers, so many people coming to help,” he said, “Creating other conditions for families.” The idea of providing help to the needy on such a scale was impressive to the bishop, who dreams of building a seminary. “We participated in two conferences in Chicago of bishops to share our experiences,” he added, “Our people suffered a lot under totalitarian rule. We have a duty to share our experiences, how the spirit of God allowed us to survive during those years.”
The evening concluded with music and singing, and a reception was held afterwards. More information about CONU can be found at conuhome.org.