‘A Special Time of Brotherhood’

Created: Feb 22, 2024
Category: General News

A K of C chaplain recalls the months he spent under Russian occupation in the Ukrainian city of Melitopol



Father Oleksandr “Sashko” Bohomaz didn’t flee when Russian troops invaded Ukraine Feb. 24, 2022, nor when they captured his home, the city of Melitopol, on Feb. 26. For nine months, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest and K of C chaplain worked with his pastor, Father Petro Krenitskyi, to bring the sacraments to Ukrainians living under through the Russian occupation. At the same time, he worked with his brother Knights to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and care for the sick.

This work brought Father Bohomaz to the attention of authorities, who interrogated him repeatedly before arresting and deporting him to Ukrainian-controlled territory Dec. 1, a few days after Father Krenitskyi was similarly deported.

One of the topics of Father Bohomaz’s interrogations was the Knights of Columbus. Like the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church itself, the Knights of Columbus was banned by the Russian occupational government in late December 2022. Interrogators accused Father Bohomaz of recruiting men into the Knights — which was true: He has been encouraging men to join the Order since becoming one of the very first Ukrainian Knights as a seminarian in 2013. Two years later, he helped found St. Peter Council 16252 in Melitopol, which was active and growing at the time of the invasion.

Father Bohomaz, who now lives at the parish of St. Volodymyr the Great in Zaporizhzhia, spoke with K of C staff about his work as a chaplain in times of war, his arrest and deportation by occupation authorities, and the importance of faith in life-threatening circumstances.

How did your ministry as a priest change during the occupation?

FATHER OLEKSANDR BOHOMAZ: I had to make the decision to stand with the people, and it came very naturally to me. I believe it was by grace, not my merit. The Lord gave grace, and I accepted it.

What was my ministry like? I just had to be with the people. I asked myself when the occupation began: Who am I and what is my role here? And I remember giving myself an answer: “I am a priest. What can a priest do? A priest is here to administer the sacraments: Divine Liturgy, confession, Communion. All seven holy sacraments.” And I did it.

I wanted to be present in the lives of our parishioners. I thought: “Jesus, I am your instrument. Wherever you want to go — I want to be your donkey. Show me where you want me to go, and I will go there and do what you want.” As long as he needed me to be somewhere, I was ready to go there.

What were your activities with the Knights while you were still in Melitopol?

FATHER BOHOMAZ: Even during the occupation, the Knights played an important role. No one walked around with sashes, but they were dependable people whom you could count on. Essentially, it was humanitarian aid, typical challenges for such times: transporting someone, finding money for someone’s treatment, buying coal or firewood for heating because people didn’t have gas for heating. In the beginning, my pastor, Father Petro Krenitskyi, traveled to the villages every day — he brought bread with the Knights, which they bought in Melitopol because there was no bread in the villages.

There was a time when there was hardly anything to eat. We traveled to farmers with our Knights, packaged, distributed and delivered tons of grains, potatoes and various vegetables.

When people left, we took care of the elderly people. One of our Knights took responsibility for an elderly woman who already had dementia. Her children fled, and every day he brought her food and took care of her needs. That’s our Knight! We responded to every call.

How did you support each other as brothers?

FATHER BOHOMAZ: We communicated daily, participating in the Liturgy. That was an extraordinary source of joy and solace. I frequently had visits from the Knights. There were days when from morning till night, I was engaged in spiritual conversations — one person left, another arrived. It felt as if I went through the entire day just talking. The men just needed to share, to express themselves. We couldn’t share any information on the phone, we couldn’t pour our hearts out on the phone.

Both they and I couldn’t trust anyone else; we could only trust those we knew well. Even now, we can only trust those we’ve verified. You were always looking for someone to confide in. That is what we did — we listened a lot. It was a period of camaraderie and encouragement — a special time of brotherhood.

You were repeatedly interrogated by the occupation authorities. What were these interrogations like? Were you questioned about your cooperation with the Order?

FATHER BOHOMAZ: You will have heard about the document signed Dec. 26, 2022, banning the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church from occupied territories. Accordingly, all organizations born from our Church, including the Knights of Columbus, were also banned.

There were interrogations, there were conversations. They came to me in the parish, to my house. Sometimes they came in masks, with automatic weapons and questioned me directly. Other times, they came without masks, as if they just wished to talk. They wanted me to cooperate with them, to tell them what people were confessing — that is, to break the seal of confession. Obviously, I refused.

During interrogations, and when the final search was conducted, they did of course raise the issue of the Knights of Columbus. I didn’t know who these people truly were — they didn’t introduce themselves — but I understood them to be FSB [Federal Security Service of Russia] operatives. They accused the Knights of Columbus of being an American spy organization and said it was banned. They accused me of being the one who recruits men for it! Well, this was essentially true, because I did encourage our men to become Knights.

Did they threaten your life?

FATHER BOHOMAZ: Of course, there were threats, cursing and yelling, telling me to prepare for execution. You never know what’s going on in their heads. They came into my house with weapons and said: “Don’t be afraid, we’re your friends.” I told them, “Friends don’t come into my house with weapons.”

Two of our Berdiansk priests have been in captivity for almost a year and a half. [Editor’s note: Father Ivan Levitsky and Father Bohdan Geleta were abducted in November 2022 from the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in Berdiansk, about 75 miles east of Militopol. Their whereabouts remain unknown.] I don’t know why Father Petro and I are not in captivity, not in prison, or why we are alive. It’s just some sort of God-given miracle. I understand that I must strive to live fruitfully in life, responding to this gift from God.

There was a period when I didn’t dream or plan for the future at all. I lived day by day. When the Berdiansk priests and then Father Petro were taken away, I just waited for my turn. There was no hope for the next day. There was only today, and I wanted to live it to the fullest.

Russian forces arrested and deported you from occupied territory Dec. 1, 2022, reading you the sentence and taking you to the last checkpoint outside Melitopol. What happened next?

FATHER BOHOMAZ: When I was passing through the Grey Zone [between Russian- and Ukrainian-controlled areas], walking toward Zaporizhzhia, I did not know if I would make it out alive. There was a strong sense of uncertainty. However, there was also a profound sense of God’s presence there. I promised the Virgin Mary that if I were to make it out alive, I would encourage people to pray the rosary.

So it happened that local people showed me paths so I wouldn’t step on mines. The first Ukrainian soldier I met there was one of our parishioners. He recognized me and started shouting and running toward me. That’s when I realized that God was guiding me.

Ten months later, the bishop gave me the task of taking the statue of Our Lady of Fatima and traveling through the parishes of our exarchate, to awaken this devotion to the Virgin Mary and teach people how to pray the rosary. As I was heading to the first parish, I remembered that promise, and I am very grateful to Our Lady for helping me fulfill it. I visited about 30 Greek Catholic parishes in the east of Ukraine this fall.

When you visited parishes with a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, you also talked about her call to pray for Russia. How was this message received? And how does the rosary help you to live your priestly ministry?

FATHER BOHOMAZ: We understand that the conversion of the Russian people is primarily good for us. The conversion of the Russian people means turning away from lies. This is the victory of truth, love, and goodness.

Of course, we all want Russia to finally convert and go away. Russia is obsessed with keeping other people in slavery. How do we make the shackles of slavery fall? How can we destroy those lies and make the occupier go away? Only God can win here. And God’s victory is a conversion! The Mother of God asked for this.

There is a lot of evil around me that I cannot overcome. I hear so many stories of injustice. I see so much misery. Some parishioners from Zaporizhzhia, who are now my friends, have no place to live because their homes are destroyed. Their children have no home. There is a hole where their house used to be. What can I do? I can listen to them, just take a rosary in my hand and pray. That is probably the source of my strength.

You have been a member of the Knights of Columbus in Ukraine from the beginning of the Order’s presence there. What message would you, as a longtime chaplain, share with the chaplains of other councils in Ukraine and abroad?

FATHER BOHOMAZ: Don’t be afraid to be present. Even if it’s dangerous. Don’t run away. If someone is in trouble, or if they turned away from you — in all circumstances just be present: cry, laugh, rejoice. Now I understand that the presence of the priest is the presence of an alter Christus. The priest is the one who makes God present through the sacraments.

Even though I’m not a military chaplain, I often visit our soldiers in the Melitopol Battalion of the Zaporizhzhia Territorial Defense. Once I came to a unit that was very close to the front line. One man was dying, and it was not possible to evacuate him because of the heavy shelling. He said on the radio: “I will wait for you until the evening, and I will try to survive.” Many of our dead soldiers lay there for a long time. Our men could not recover their bodies without endangering their lives.

I didn’t know how to behave, but I began to prepare for the Divine Liturgy. I said maybe two sentences during the sermon because I didn’t know what else to say to them. But I saw how the Lord, present in the Holy Mysteries, changed those men. When they saw that I went with them where no one wanted to be, they appreciated it. They became open to receiving the word of the Gospel.

I saw how they began to change after receiving Communion. Under normal circumstances, you simply cannot see this, you don’t see how human faces change. I understood that the chaplain, the priest, makes God present. He is an instrument of God. So be present!