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Martyr of Communisms: Blessed Nicholas Charnetsky

Blessed Nicholas was a public witness to the truths that we need a Redeemer and that no government or political system can ever be a substitute for Him.

An undated photo of Bishop Nicholas Charnetsky (Wikipedia); right: Image of an old Gulag camp (Wikipedia)

On April 2, the Catholic Church commemorates Blessed Nicholas Charnetsky, a Ukrainian Catholic bishop who suffered martyrdom at the hands of Soviet Communists. What can his life teach us about how to live out our faith today? Perhaps the best place to start is to ask a question: why did he respond to God’s call to become a Redemptorist priest in the first place?

Saint Alphonsus Liguori founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer in the eighteenth century. Since then, the mission of the Redemptorists has been “to strive to imitate the virtues and examples of Jesus Christ, Our Redeemer, consecrating themselves especially to the preaching of the word of God to the poor.”1 Three words in this mission statement are particularly applicable in the life of Saint Nicholas: virtue, Redeemer, and preaching.

Nicholas (Ukrainian: Mykolay) was born in 1884 in western Ukraine and discerned a call to the priesthood when he was young. He became a priest, but he was then sent to Rome, where he earned a doctorate in theology. He returned to Ukraine to teach at a seminary, but in 1920, he took a sharp turn in his career to become a professed member of the Redemptorists.

By becoming a Redemptorist, he chose to leave behind a more comfortable position as a philosophy and theology professor. Instead, he was sent to serve as a missionary to the Volyn region of Ukraine. Nicholas was needed there not only because the Catholics in that region lacked a priest but also to encourage reconciliation between Christians of the area.

In America, religious pluralism is understood. Your Catholic parish may peacefully coexist next door to a Baptist church (mine does, for example). But in Ukraine, religious tensions between Catholic and Orthodox have a long and often unhappy history. Nicholas’ attention to reverently celebrating the liturgy according to the Eastern Catholic rite earned him the respect of local Catholics, but also the respect of his Orthodox counterparts. In time, he was able to open both a church and a monastery in the city of Kovel, and Pope Pius XI showed his admiration for Nicholas’ success by appointing him as a titular bishop. Nicholas’ desire to “preach the word of God to the poor,” fulfilling his duties of a Redemptorist, might have seemed like a bad career move, but the pope thought otherwise.

During the early 1940s, Ukraine endured occupation by the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again at the end of World War II. Nicholas’ status as a Redemptorist led to repeated persecution throughout his life, but not only for the obvious reason that the Soviets considered the Redemptorist order to be a Western, and therefore dangerous, organization.

Communism believes, in part, that the economic injustices of the world can be solved by getting rid of private property and letting “the community” control its goods and services instead. In effect, Communism sees the government itself as a savior or redeemer, that is, as the only thing that can save the world from what it sees as the greatest of evils: economic inequality.

The Soviets who controlled eastern Europe surely saw all Christians as criminals merely because Communism explicitly denies God. But they were right to also recognize anyone who claimed to see Jesus Christ as our Redeemer as a particular threat to their ideology. If Jesus Christ is the One “who paid the price of his own sacrificial death on the cross to ransom us, to set us free from the slavery of sin, thus achieving our redemption”2—and He is—then all of the promises of Communism are meaningless. Economic equality will never save anyone from sin, much less every human being’s inevitable confrontation with death. Simply by being a faithful Catholic and Redemptorist, Blessed Nicholas was a public witness to the truths that we need a Redeemer and that no government or political system can ever be a substitute for Him.

Soon after the Communists took control, Nicholas was arrested. He was brutally and repeatedly interrogated, tortured, and beaten by the authorities. Because he was a Catholic bishop—and because he did not break under torture or capitulate to Communist demands for control of the Church—he was labeled an agent of the Vatican and sentenced to ten years in prison, serving in thirty different prisons and camps. As often happened with important prisoners of the Communists, he was only released because his physical condition had deteriorated greatly, and the Communists feared to make him appear a martyr. At the time of his release in 1956, death appeared imminent as a result of multiple medical conditions he had contracted while in prison.

God, in His mercy, worked a miracle. Nicholas recovered and lived for three more years after his liberation. During that time, he was forced to live quietly in an apartment, but he prepared candidates for the priesthood, ordained several men, and continued to impress others with his prayerful, patient life. Visitors even reported finding him in a state of ecstasy in prayer.

But the holiness in Nicholas that the faithful reported at the end of his life was hardly a new development. He had spent a lifetime displaying the virtues of our Lord. Like Jesus, Nicholas had responded to persecution at the hands of his fellow Ukrainians (for being an Eastern Catholic and for being a Redemptorist) with forgiveness and peace. Like Jesus, Nicholas had taught his students about the importance of humility and obedience through his personal example, which even included taking his turn at sweeping the floor for his community. Like Jesus, Nicholas inspired others through his steadfast faith in God, despite enduring hundreds of hours of torture. Even while in prison, he knew the names of his fellow prisoners, consoled them with encouraging words, and gave them hope when all hope seemed lost.

Today, Christians face other challenges from unbelievers. But Blessed Nicholas Charnetsky’s witness reminds us of the encouragement offered by another great man of faith and virtue who trusted in God despite great suffering:

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then from my flesh I shall see God. (Job 19:25-26)

Endnotes:

1 Wuest, J., “Redemptorists”, in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911).

2 Definition of “Redeemer/Redemption”, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition (United States Catholic Conference—Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2019), 896.


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About Dawn Beutner 60 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of the upcoming book The Leaven of the Saints: Bringing Christ into a Fallen World, as well as Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press. She blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

2 Comments

  1. Correction:

    Although Blessed Nicholas died on April 2, his feast day is kept on June 28 in the Roman Rite and June 27 in the Ukrainian Rite along with his companion priests, all martyrs, of the Redemptorists.

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