Theology of an Icon: Redemption, Evangelization, and Mercy
Getting to Know Our Mother of Perpetual Help I had a lot to learn. You might think I was born on the planet Vulcan when it came to following the rules during my seminary high school days at St. Vladimir’s College. Like Spock, I had my own logic of how things should be done. I struggled to put life into a nice, neat, predictable package. Consequently, as the class rep and “keeper of the rules,” I had little compassion for others in those early years. You might say I showed little mercy. Yet ironically that is exactly what I was seeking each time I entered the chapel. For two years my assigned seat was directly in front of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Our Byzantine style of prayer, singing repetitiously in unison, allowed me to pray with the congregation while simultaneously focusing on a private conversation with our Mother. She was a constant for me, especially at a time in my life when I was, let’s say, (efficiently) losing all my friends. She was my comfort. Little did I know the seed of my vocation was starting to blossom. But I was only sixteen. I had a lot to learn.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Redemptorists
My heritage as a Ukrainian Catholic Redemptorist who belongs to the Yorkton Province can help explain why Our Mother of Perpetual Help is so special to me, to many other Ukrainians, and indeed to Catholics across the world. The comfort that I sought from our Mother during my time of teenage crisis uncovered in my heart a call from God. I wanted others to find the same comfort I found. She sustains in me this message of mercy and plentiful Redemption. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is one of more than twenty Eastern Catholic Churches in full union with Rome. Saints Cyril and Methodius faced great challenges when responding to a “request made by Prince Rastislav to the Emperor Michael III through his envoys: ‘Many Christian teachers have reached us from Italy, from Greece and from Germany, who instruct us in different ways. But we Slavs…have no one to direct us toward the truth and instruct us in an understandable way,’” writes Pope St. John Paul II in his 1985 encyclical Slavorum Apostoli (9). Known then as the land of Rus’, present-day Ukraine was the origin of my ancestral pagan traditions that transitioned to ones with Christian significance. John Paul II speaks about Cyril and Methodius in Slavorum Apostoli (10):
For the purposes of evangelization, the two holy Brothers—as their biographies indicate—undertook the difficult task of translating the texts of the Sacred Scriptures, which they knew in Greek, into the language of the Slav population which had settled along the borders of their own region and native city. Making use of their own Greek language and culture for this arduous and unusual enterprise, they set themselves to understanding and penetrating the language, customs and traditions of the Slav peoples, faithfully interpreting the aspirations and human values which were present and expressed therein.
These efforts of enculturated evangelization resulted in a faith deeply and culturally embedded in the people. It was strong enough to weather the turbulence of the East-West Schism in 1054 that led to the Union of Brest in 1596 which confirmed the union of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church with Rome. Yet like many Eastern churches, with the privilege of its own Code of Canons for Eastern Churches, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) managed to develop and retain a distinct religious character through its spirituality, liturgical practice, customs, and hierarchy. This was preserved at some cost to Redemptorists from Belgium. Adélard Langevin, OMI, the archbishop in western Canada in 1898, requested a Redemptorist monastery be established in what is now Brandon, Manitoba, so that—among other things—priestly service could be provided to the numerous Eastern European emigrants. With permission from Rome, Fr. Achilles Delaere, CSsR, was the first non-Roman Catholic Redemptorist. He unselfishly became a Ukrainian Catholic Redemptorist to minister to Eastern Ukrainian Catholics, referred to at the time as Ruthenians. The chronicles of the Roman Catholic Redemptorist community recorded in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, echo the efforts of Sts. Cyril and Methodius regarding enculturated evangelization to Ukrainian Catholics, as written by Paul Laverdure in Redemption and Ritual: The Eastern-Rite Redemptorists of North America, 1906–2006:
Behold him now, Father Delaere, a Ruthenian priest, purely and exclusively a minister of the Ruthenian Catholic rite, with the power to confirm Ruthenians after their baptism, to say Holy Mass, and the Ruthenian breviary according to the Julian calendar, giving Holy Communion under both kinds, bread and wine, making the Ruthenian sign of the cross, holding the Ruthenian cross, preaching the Ruthenian language, baptizing, marrying, burying and blessing according to what the Ruthenian rite prescribes.
I owe a great deal to Fr. Delaere, who preserved my religious heritage so that one day I might appreciate better my encounter with Christ and share Mary’s message of her Son’s plan of plentiful Redemption. Achilles understood the spiritual riches and cultural treasures found in my Church. One treasure that truly stands out is God’s gift of mercy that comes to us through the mystery of an icon.