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‘I don’t know what God’s plan is’: The trials of Britain’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop

Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski has had an eventful start to his ministry in the UK

Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski. © Mazur/cbcew.org.uk.

On Aug. 25, 2021, Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski began to feel deeply unwell. Over the next few days, he sensed his body rapidly deteriorating. Before he knew it, there was an ambulance at the door of his residence in Mayfair, central London.

Two attendants helped him into the vehicle while his neighbors across the street looked on. The bishop was taken to the COVID critical care unit of a major London hospital, where the medical team explained that he was in a very serious condition and should consider putting his life in order.

The bishop lay in a room with three others, his mouth covered by an oxygen mask. He didn’t feel afraid — he was too sick to feel anything other than a dim recognition that he was still alive.

In the following days, he gradually became familiar with the staff, who wore personal protective equipment that left only their eyes visible. But he was struck that they were still able to communicate care and kindness.

The bishop could only really speak to other patients at mealtimes. They would take off their masks and eat together, with tubes in their noses to assist their breathing. The suffering strangers offered each other encouragement.

Bishop Nowakowski remembers one patient in particular who was with them for a couple of days. He does not recall her name or religious background. But he describes her as one of the most positive and optimistic people he has ever met.

She would often say: “Well, if we can’t do anything else, we can pray. We can pray for our family. We can pray for our friends. We can pray for the nursing staff. We can pray for the medical team and we can pray for ourselves.”

The bishop, who was struggling to concentrate enough to say formal prayers, thought to himself, “Yes, I can do that.”

Each Thursday during the pandemic, Britons would emerge from their houses to applaud medical workers. When the bishop recovered enough to return home, he went out on his balcony. He looked across the street and caught the eye of the neighbors who had seen him taken away by ambulance. They gave him a wave, as if to say, “Welcome back home, bishop.”

The 64-year-old Canadian is telling this story as he leans back on a sofa at his residence. He is wearing a dark gray clerical shirt, black trousers, and brown shoes, and has a short white beard.

He seems deeply touched by the experience of being nursed back to health and then acknowledged by his neighbors. Summing up what he learned from the experience, he says: “So even here in this megacity, it is possible to develop community.”


A unique enthronement

Bishop Nowakowski acknowledges that little has gone to plan since Pope Francis named him to lead Britain’s Ukrainian Greek Catholics on Jan. 15, 2020.

“My enthronement as bishop of the Holy Family of London occurred three days before the first lockdown,” he says. “And by that time, international travel and even local travel was not possible.”

With no Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop able to preside at the enthronement, the local Cardinal Vincent Nichols stepped in. There were a total of 10 people at the ceremony at Holy Family Cathedral, which can hold up to 900.

“Our Church in Ukraine of course is very used to holding underground, clandestine services, where there’s a very small number of people,” the bishop told The Pillar.

“It was very reminiscent of that, although it wasn’t a clandestine enthronement, it was certainly one of the most unique enthronements of a Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop in the history of our Church.”

Bishop Nowakowski at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in London. © Mazur/cbcew.org.uk.

After Covid, the invasion

After negotiating lockdowns and surviving severe illness, Bishop Nowakowski faced a new challenge on Feb. 24, 2022. That was the day Russian forces began their full-scale invasion of his ancestral homeland, turning more than 7 million Ukrainians into refugees.

“I don’t think anybody slept for the first week and a half,” said the bishop, whose family emigrated from Ukraine to Canada in 1890.

“But after that initial shock, it came to the point where we had to start organizing ourselves, wondering what we can do and start doing it, providing the very minimum that we could provide while planning for the maximum.”

“Planning for the maximum” was a skill that Bishop Nowakowski acquired as a young priest serving in Ukraine in the 1990s, when he helped to establish Caritas Ukraine, the national branch of the Vatican-based relief organization Caritas Internationalis.

Under his guidance, the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of the Holy Family of London joined up with the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain to establish a base for refugees arriving in the U.K.

The Ukrainian Welcome Centre is located in the same complex as Bishop Nowakowski’s residence and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic cathedral. As the bishop leads The Pillar down flights of stairs to the center, he explains that the building was the brainchild of the Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse, who also designed London’s Natural History Museum.

Inside the welcome center — a bright basement room filled with tables, computers, and toys — IKEA employees are assembling furniture for children. Here, volunteers help refugees to register with family doctors, access benefits, and enroll their children in schools.

Bishop Nowakowski outside the Ukrainian Welcome Centre in London. © Mazur/cbcew.org.uk.

Most of the more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees in the U.K. are women and children. They come from a country long marked by ethnic, religious, and linguistic divisions.

“Over the last six months, citizens of Ukraine, regardless of their ethnic background, linguistic group, or religious affiliation, have formed a nation and have become quite clearly a Ukrainian people,” Bishop Nowakowski notes.

Despite the horrors of the invasion, the bishop says he has not questioned why God would permit the war, “because that would be presuming that I know the greater plan.”

“I can only perhaps anecdotally say that when I started living in Ukraine, it was in March of 1991, and the Soviet Union still had not formally collapsed. And then on Aug. 19, 1991, when Gorbachev was kidnapped and held in captivity in the Crimea, everything seemed to be falling apart. The understanding of Glasnost, Perestroika seemed to come to an end,” he recalls, referring to the year that Ukraine gained its independence.

“On that particular day, when it seemed that the freedoms starting to be enjoyed by citizens of Ukraine were coming to an abrupt end, Patriarch Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky, the head of the Church, said to those of us who were working with him in the chancery: ‘Don’t be afraid. This is just the tail of a serpent that is flopping around, but its head has been severed. And we do not need to be afraid because God is with us.’”


What is peace?

Since the full-scale Russian assault, Pope Francis has repeatedly appealed for peace. Ukrainians have appreciated most of his statements — but not all.

Last month, the Vatican took the unusual step of issuing a statement underlining the pope’s condemnation of the “morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant, and sacrilegious” war.

Bishop Nowakowski, a savvy communicator with a background in advertising and public relations, chooses his words carefully when he discusses the controversies surrounding the pope’s declarations.

“Has there been controversy? I think there has been, but I also think that we need to look at all of the positive things that he has said,” he comments.

Bishop Nowakowski celebrates the Divine Liturgy at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in London on Feb. 27, 2022. © Mazur/cbcew.org.uk.‌ ‌

The bishop points out that Pope Francis was one of the first international figures to respond to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, which Ukrainians regard as the start of the present war.

“Eight years ago, he was really the first world leader to say that this is war, and call it what it is,” he says. “In those first few months of the invasion, he encouraged the rest of Europe to do something tangible.”

“Shortly after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbas, the permanent synod [of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church], of which I was a member, met with His Holiness, and we talked about what could be a helpful response from the Catholic Church in the West.”

“And so Pope Francis held a special collection on Divine Mercy Sunday of that year, to raise funds to assist those who were suffering due to the invasion, and it became known as ‘Pope for Ukraine.’”

The Pope for Ukraine project had helped nearly a million people by 2020.

Asked if he sees a role for the Holy See in securing peace, Bishop Nowakowski responds cautiously.

“I wouldn’t want to rule that out,” he says. “We’ve seen over the decades that the Holy See has been influential in peace. But for peace, there has to be not just only one side launching peace. And what does peace mean? Peace certainly can’t mean, ‘Well, now that we’ve crushed Ukraine to pieces we’ll have peace.’ What does that mean?”

“So, I think that there’s a role for the Holy See, but there’s a role for countries in the West in general. There cannot be true peace without justice.”

“And one of the things that I think I can say is that Ukraine is not the aggressor and that that needs to be taken into consideration. So what is peace? Is peace simply the cessation of armed aggression? That can happen tomorrow, but what happens after that?”


Packed liturgies and peace prayers

Bishop Nowakowski leads The Pillar from his residence through a maze of corridors into his cathedral. He flips on the lights and the dim interior is suddenly ablaze with gold. Icons of the apostles twinkle on the iconostasis.

The bishop stands in the nave of the cathedral, whose round shape points to its origins as a Congregational church. The building, which has an impressive red brick exterior, opened in 1891, the year after the bishop’s family emigrated to Canada. Ukrainian Catholics have used it since 1967.

Following the recent influx of refugees, the cathedral’s liturgies are packed. Up to 3,000 people attend the five liturgies that run from Saturday evening to Sunday evening. More than 12,000 attended services at Easter time this year. The street outside had to be blocked off to enable worshippers to reach the cathedral without dodging traffic.

The Cathedral of the Holy Family in London. © Mazur/cbcew.org.uk.

“Last year we recorded over 200 baptisms at our cathedral alone. And this year I’m sure it will be the same or more,” Bishop Nowakowski says. “We have about six or seven baptisms every Saturday at the cathedral and many marriages as well.”

Hundreds of people are expected to gather at the cathedral on Wednesday night to pray for peace in Ukraine. They will be joining Catholics across Europe who are taking part in a day of prayer, on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, for an end to the war that has killed more than 5,000 civilians and untold numbers of soldiers.

The trials since his appointment have left Bishop Nowakowski with a clear sense of purpose.

“I don’t know what God’s plan is,” Bishop Nowakowski says of the wider war. “But I know that my job as bishop in Great Britain is to pray for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, and especially for those Ukrainians who have fled harm’s way and are somewhere in the world, and to provide pastoral care and humanitarian aid here.”

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