Honesty compels me to admit that I am an Eastern European mutt: Lithuanian on my father’s side, Ukrainian on my mother’s, and Polish on both – thanks to shifting political borders. My four grandparents arrived in America between 1910 and 1915. My father was born in Massachusetts in 1912, as was my mother in 1917 (the families didn’t know each other there). Both families migrated to Newark and Brooklyn, respectively, by 1925.
My maternal grandmother came to live with us in Newark when I was eight. Since kindergarten, I had declared my intention to be a priest. While my parents never discouraged this intention, Grandma Makara (her surname bowdlerized at Ellis Island!) took me very seriously.
She shared with me that her baby brother (Michael), ordained in Ukraine in 1917, went home to his village to celebrate his first Divine Liturgy. On his way back to Lviv to assume his first priestly assignment, his train was stopped by the Bolsheviks for a “security check.” Espying my grand-uncle in his cassock, they escorted him off the train and put a bullet into his head. He was just three weeks a priest. Not content with that damage, they then went back to his family home and confiscated the farm since having a religious in the family made one an “enemy of the state.”
Being a very precocious future priest, I had all the vestments of every color and “celebrated Mass” every day! My boyhood sin of pride was that, of all my would-be priestly classmates (three of us did become priests), I had the most beautiful purificators, corporals, and finger towels, thanks to my grandmother’s exquisite crochet-work! My mother would say to her mother, “He’s only a kid; don’t take him too seriously.” Grandma’s response: “No, Anna, he is Mikey!” Of course, she didn’t think I was the reincarnation of her saintly brother (although Michael is my middle name), but she had done the same things for him that she was doing for me and saw a similar attitude and response in me as she had witnessed in him. I must confess, shamefacedly now, that I enlisted my grandmother as my altar server!
By third grade, we had to read a book a week, write a one-page report, and make a one-minute oral presentation to the class on Monday. The first book I read was on the North American martyrs. After I completed my oral presentation, Sister Vera asked, “And, Peter, what did you learn from the book?” “I learned that I want to be a martyr when I grow up!” Very gently, Sister sought to modify my child-like enthusiasm: “Maybe just a confessor (that is, one who suffers for professing the true faith, without receiving the grace of martyrdom)!”
Sadly, my grandmother died just months before I entered the seminary – although I had been accepted to priestly formation before her untimely death, so that she knew I had made the decisive move, which greatly rejoiced her loving heart.
By almost happenstance, over the years of my priestly ministry, I pastored a Lithuanian parish for seven years, a Byzantine parish for three years, and had bi-ritual faculties for over a decade. Further, likewise for over a decade, I served as the personal secretary of Bishop Paul Baltakis, charged with the pastoral care of Lithuanians of the Diaspora. I have visited Poland on a number of occasions, always edified by the vigor and devotion I encountered there. In 1998, I had the incalculable privilege of conducting a week-long workshop for the administrators of the newly-reopened Catholic schools of Lithuania.
Regrettably, I have not yet had an opportunity to visit Ukraine. Of course, if Grandma had been among us when I took on those various responsibilities, she would have urged me to change “happenstance” to “Providence,” believing that her holy brother was “in the mix.” The theological expression for her pious intuition is the maxim of Tertullian, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.”
I hope that my grand-uncle, Father Michael, and my dear grandmother – looking on “from another shore, in a greater light” – have been at least somewhat pleased by what this confessor has done, following their noble example and benefitting from their salutary prayers.
May St. Josaphat, patron of Ukraine and Christian unity, pray for the flock for whom he gave his life.
Last but not least, I think it would gladden the heart of that son of a Polish father and Lithuanian mother who became Pope, St. John Paul II, if we put on our lips these days the prayer he offered to Our Lady during his longed-for and historic apostolic visit to Ukraine in 2001:
O Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Zarvaniza,
I thank you for the gift of my visit to the Kyivan Rus’
from where the light of the Gospel spread through this whole region.
Here before your miraculous icon,
kept in this church of Saint Nicholas,
I entrust to you, Mother of God and Mother of the Church,
my apostolic journey to Ukraine.
Holy Mother of God,
spread your maternal mantle over all Christians
and over all people of good will
who live in this great nation.
Lead them to your Son, Jesus,
who is for everyone the way, the truth and the life.
A classic maxim of Christian spirituality reminds and assures us: Post crucem, lucem (After the Cross, the light).
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