Bishop Mykola Bychok brings a Redemptorist’s zeal and experience beyond his 41 years to his role as Australia’s third Ukrainian Eparch
Within a month of his priestly ordination in 2005 then-Father Mykola Bychok was sent from Lviv, the urbane cultural centre of Western Ukraine known for its literary and architectural pursuits, to the coal-mining city of Prokopyevsk in Siberia.
He was sent to minister to Ukrainian Catholics descended from those who had been exiled or forcibly resettled during the Soviet 50s and 60s.
“It was like the first Christians,” Bishop Mykola told The Catholic Weekly.
Bishop Mykola, a Redemptorist, lived in a small monastery in Prokopyevsk with only a chapel in which to worship.
He would celebrate the Divine Liturgy in apartments or private homes, sometimes with merely a handful of parishioners.
Pastoral visits could involve travelling up to 300km in the snow, and between the extreme weather and poverty other Redemptorists joked that the 25-year-old priest must have received the assignment as a punishment.
“But no, thanks to God, I had the opportunity to serve far from home, in this special place where many of our people were in gaol or camps,” Bishop Mykola said.
The hard lives of his parishioners, and the problem of divided families, meant that many young Christians had few examples of faith to follow.
I was happy, I ministered to people, preaching God through some missions, retreats. I was lucky, and happy. But then I received the call from our Patriarch! Bishop Mykola Bychok
Bishop Mykola and his fellow Redemptorists organised summer camps and other opportunities for young people to encounter Christ.
“There were many challenges but actually, I loved that ministry. I was close to people,” he said.
“I had a great opportunity to listen to their experience of life. Actually, they taught me more than maybe I gave to them.”
In 2007 he was reassigned to a parish in Ivano-Frankivsk in Western Ukraine, home to the majority of Ukrainian Greek Catholics.
A flurry of new initiatives followed: educational efforts, sport and gym activities for youth, Saturday school, and visits from doctors to give pro bono consultations to parishioners.
He was quickly promoted, becoming rector of his monastery and parish, and afterwards bursar of the Lviv Redemptorist province.
By 2015 mission again called. Bishop Mykola was sent to the US, to the parish of St John the Baptist in Newark, New Jersey.
“A tremendous church – but it also was the work of our migrant people from Ukraine who left to find a better life,” he said.
Charitable outreach was a priority during his time as parish priest at St John’s.
In the 2016 Jubilee Year of Mercy the parish committed to giving aid to 2016 struggling people in the neighbourhood.
“We did not only 2016, we doubled it,” he said.
“This idea found support from our people in the parish. Our neighbours from other parishes also supported us because they loved the idea.
“Sometimes we think, ‘The world depends on me, I am alone.’ No.
“When you have an idea, when you’re zealous, you can do many things in a parish if you have some people who will support you.”
During his positions in Russia, Ukraine and the US, Bishop Mykola had never met an Australian.
“I never thought I’d be here as a Bishop. My dream was to be a priest, and to be a Redemptorist.
“I was happy, I ministered to people, preaching God through some missions, retreats. I was lucky, and happy.
“But then I received the call from our Patriarch [Sviatoslav Shevchuk] on 3 January 2020!” he said, laughing.
The Holy Father blessed the decision of the Ukrainian Synod to appoint Bychok as the successor to Bishop Peter Stasiuk, also a Redemptorist, who had served as Australia’s second Eparch since 1993.
He was consecrated in Ukraine, at age 40, on the Feast of Pentecost 2020.
COVID-19 and Visa setbacks delayed Bishop Mykola’s arrival until May 2021.
After hotel quarantine, he visited parishes in Sydney, Canberra, Queanbeyan and Wodonga before arriving in Melbourne.
“Thanks to God I am here! I am looking back and it seems like God’s will,” Bishop Mykola said.
“You can give thanks to God that he created such a beautiful country. In Ukraine they call Australia a ‘green continent’.”
He was installed at the Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul, North Melbourne on July 12 by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli.
“When we had the Rite of Enthronement many bishops who were present, they were shocked! ‘What beauty, what singing! So many symbols.’” he said.
The Ukrainian Catholic Church is the largest sui iuris Eastern Church in communion with Rome, with up to 10 million faithful worldwide and between 8-10% of the population in Ukraine.
The Church was liquidated during the dark years of Soviet Communism, during which countless priests, religious and laity were forced to convert to state-controlled Russian Orthodoxy, gaoled or sent to the Gulag, or martyred.
The Church was permitted to operate freely in Ukraine in 1990; the Ukrainian diaspora was largely responsible for keeping international support for the underground Church alive during decades of Soviet repression.
Bychok inherits a diaspora church in Australia with a dedicated and energetic community, but also significant challenges.
The last major migration from Ukraine was in the middle of the last century, although the Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine has prompted a small number of “new Ukrainians” to migrate.
Congregations are ageing, with second- and third-generation Ukrainian-Australians relating to their heritage in changing ways as they integrate more over time.
Like many hierarchs, Bishop Mykola hopes to put the focus on youth.
“I pray my mission will not only be to welcome back our people from the COVID times – many people are afraid because of the pandemic – but the great challenge will be youth, children,” Bishop Mykola said.
“Many of our families are mixed – Ukrainians, with Australians, Indians, Chinese people.
“It’s difficult to preserve our traditions, difficult to pass on to the next generation our spirituality, the roots of our nation.
“This is a big challenge and obstacle not only for me as a new bishop but for many of our priests and families.”
The Ukrainian language, suppressed by the Soviets, is one important marker of national identity, and is widely used in liturgical services in Australia.
“The older generation are going to Church because they want to hear prayer in Ukrainian, so for them it’s very important,” Bishop Mykola said.
“But I understand that for youth, for children, the Ukrainian language is a second language.
“Sometimes they can’t understand Ukrainian – so I think the future will be, for us, with theEnglish language.
“When will it happen? We will see. It’s difficult to predict.
Bychok also believes the Plenary Council is an opportunity for the Catholic Church in Australia, and a chance for Roman Catholics to learn how to practice synodality from those for whom it is the norm.
“Actually I can’t understand why they waited so many decades since the last Plenary Council!” he joked.
“I can call this Plenary Council like, an explosion. The council gave to many faithful who didn’t have a chance to say something.
“Now as the Catholic Church in Australia we must be attentive, not only to listen to people but to hear them.
“We can share with the Catholic church in Australia. Every five years we have a Sobor, like a Plenary Council. Everyone from our Eparchies attends – we have a few delegates from each Eparchy.
“We’ve had a good experience with the previous few Sobors, Plenary Councils, in the recent 30 years.
He hopes to see Australia hold local councils more regularly, joking that the revered Patriarch Josyf Slipyj was a great promoter of synodality at the Second Vatican Council.
“In those times it was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But you see what happens?
“A few decades later the whole Catholic church wants to move in the direction of synodality.
So God moves in mysterious ways!”