“We are brethren. We have the same Christ, the same faith. Our liturgy and spirituality are different, but this heritage we share forms part of the Eastern lung, which, as John Paul II said, together with the Western lung makes the Church breathe in Europe. We don’t want to be confined in a ghetto. We wish to work together for the evangelization of this land, Italy.” Msgr. Dionisio Lachovicz, delegate “ad omnia” of the Apostolic Exarchate for the Ukrainian faithful of the Byzantine rite residing in Italy, introduces himself with these words. SIR met him in Rome at the end of the Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The Exarchate in Italy was erected in July by Pope Francis. Hence both the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Angelo De Donatis, and the President of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Card. Gualtiero Bassetti, took the floor at the Synod. To date a total of 70,000 Ukrainian Catholic faithful of Byzantine rite are living in Italy. The Exarchate has 148 communities and 6 parishes, distributed throughout Italy (including Sicily and Sardinia), and 64 priests. They form part of the small Ukrainian community that has settled and integrated itself in Italy: some 300,000 people according to official figures, but this figure could well rise to 500,000 if we consider that many are without residence permits. Twenty thousand Ukrainian children are enrolled in Italian schools.
Most Ukrainians living in the country are women. Some communities are virtually frequented only by women. In his meeting with the Ukrainian bishops, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis spoke about their presence in Italian families. “They take care of the needs of the weakest, the elderly and children, or help in the daily life of the families.” This experience, he added, has brought “the Ukrainian people into close contact with the Italian people.” “Ukrainian women are hardworking – Bishop Dionisio pointed out – and they are religious. Many have managed to bring back to the Church the elderly people they are taking care of. With this spirit, they also prepare them for death.”
But today they are facing a new problem. It’s called “Italy Syndrome.” Bishop Dionisio explained: “These women arrived in Italy to work when they were 30,40, or 50 years-old. But after 20 years as immigrants, now they are elderly women. They left their husbands and children behind, and many families have broken up. When their working experience in Italy was over, they returned home, but they were rejected. I heard it myself: ‘My mother was never there when we were kids, we don’t want her with us anymore’.
They sent home all the money they earned. That money allowed them to get their children into school, build a house. But there is no place for them in Ukraine today.”
“At the beginning – Dionisio continues – we had to face the problem of the “white orphans” – the children left in their homeland. Now there is the problem of elderly, lonely, unemployed women who don’t know what to do and where to go.” The exarchate in Italy, together with the Italian Bishops’ Conference, will attempt to respond to this cry for help. The idea is to provide homes for these elderly women, offering all the care they need.
In Italy,” said Bishop Dionisio, “we want to be a gift. We want to be witnesses of the universality of the Church, lived by each one with his/her own identity but in fraternal communion.” The presence of Ukrainian Catholics of Byzantine rite will bring to Italy the “novelty” of married priests, envisaged by the Greek-Catholic Churches. “Their presence is a gift,” said Msgr. Dionisio Lachovicz. “They do a wonderful job. Their wives often cooperate in the life of the community. Together they help form the community, the domestic Church, the family of the Church.” When asked if these married priests could also be a model in Italy and thus an answer to the decline in vocations, the bishop replied: “Besides being a gift, the presence of these married priests in the Church is also a question. At the beginning there was a very strong opposition against this reality. Now we perceive a certain degree of openness. So let’s say that married priests are not the solution to a complex problem at the moment, but they represent an open question for the Church.”