The story of two Ukrainians who discover God and themselves in Rome.
Viktoria: from no religion to the military
Viktoria’s father was a communist.
That is why she grew up with no religion.
“My parents did not teach me to pray,” she remembers. “When I went to work at a factory, a friend gave me a letter with the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ written on it, and advised me to read it before bedtime. It was the only prayer I knew.”
In 1995, Viktoria left the factory and entered military service. She became a duty officer and her job was to stop people from entering the military base.
But her voice was not “authoritarian” enough, she says, so she found it difficult and stressful fitting into the military lifestyle.
Maksym: from the military to religion
Maksym’s uncle was a colonel, a Commander of the Helicopter Regiment.
That is why he found himself at home in the military.
“When they asked me what I wanted to do in the army, I answered that I wanted to fly, like my uncle,” he says. “But my parents were so scared they convinced me to go anywhere, but not into aviation.”
So Maksym entered the artillery intelligence department. In his fourth year of studies, he started making friends with the military chaplains.
“Chaplains are very interesting people,” he says. “I used to go with one of them to the orphanage. It was like a breath of fresh air after the hard military world.”
A moment of deep self-discovery for Maksym arrived when he first experienced a church liturgy. “It was so deep, so touching. I did not understand what was being said, but it was fascinating and impressing.”
Viktoria: the road to Rome
In the year 2000, Viktoria came to Rome, leaving her daughter, Katerina, with her grandmother in Ukraine. Viktoria did not speak Italian, but she needed to earn money for Katerina’s education. In Rome, she met Maria who suggested that her daughter should come to Italy as well. She came. But things did not work out as planned.
“At first, she did not want to be here,” says Viktoria. “She was not accepted at school without specific documents.” Mother and daughter both started working as nannies for two different families. They also started drifting apart.
“When I came to Rome, Maria gave me a prayer book and I began to study prayers,” remembers Viktoria. “I liked the prayer for children especially and I used to pray it every night.”
When she had weekends off, Viktoria would walk to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major and pray there until late in the evening. Her prayers were always for Katerina.
Maksym: the path to the priesthood
Maksym was also praying. This was something new for him. His prayers were mostly about what to do with his life, whether or not he really wanted to be in the military.
Eventually he made an important choice: he went to confession and took communion for the first time.
“I remember the moment when I said I would like to enter to the seminary. It was a shock to my relatives, commanders, and friends.” “I felt so peaceful and happy,” he says, describing this time as one of a “deepening relationship with God and personal profound conversion.”
After what he calls a “cluttered military environment,” Maksym says he felt free: “I could develop, I had the right to choose.” It was in the seminary that he first discovered psychology. “I was interested in it because it gave me a better understanding of myself, the opportunity to spiritually recognise my calling.”
Viktoria: finding a home away from home
Thanks to the influence of Maria, both Viktoria and her daughter started going to church every Sunday. They attended the Ukrainian parish in the centre of Rome, at Madonna dei Monti. It was there they met the many members of the Ukrainian diaspora in the city: they could chat, share news from home, celebrated holidays together, and even make “vertepes” – a typically Ukrainian form of puppet theatre performed at Christmas.
“Our relatives are far away,” says Viktoria, so it is the parish community that keeps us together. “At Christmas, we prepare a Ukrainian dinner for 20 to 30 people together in the same house.”
There are so many Ukrainians living and working in Rome that one day they even had an audience with the Pope. Viktoria proudly shows us the photograph to prove it.
Maksym: finding a vocation within a vocation
Maksym did not want to be ordained immediately. He was still fascinated by psychology: a vocation within his vocation. He studied at the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome. But he lived at the Pontifical Greek College of Saint Athanasius. “It was an opportunity to study at a university where there are a lot of nationalities,” he says.
Back home, Maksym had experienced only the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church: “Then I met the Roman Church and it expanded my spiritual outlook… I saw an example of a Church that is open to people and accessible.”
Maksym admits that theological disciplines can be rather theoretical and philosophical. Not like psychology, which is very practical and touches the “psycho-spiritual reality” of people’s lives.
“Psychology provides access to people who are not in the Church and who have difficulty in life,” he continues. “It provides tools, knowledge, and approaches to communication with them.”
Maksym believes that theology and psychology can be combined in a practical way. That is why he plans to exercise both vocations at once: “to engage in psychotherapy as a therapist, and in the affairs of the Church as a priest.”
In Rome he has met people who successfully combine both.
Viktoria: the power of prayer
Viktoria’s prayers for her daughter were answered. Katerina made new friends and found a new passion: martial arts. She earned a black belt in Taekwondo. Today she conducts classes for children and has plans to open new training sections.
Katerina also graduated in psychology at the Rome Catholic University of Santa Maria Assunta. This is what she wrote on the first page of her thesis: “Mum, we did it together!”
Viktoria admits it was in Rome that she discovered the Church. The people she met there helped her come closer to her daughter, she says. But, in the end, it is the power of prayer that counts.
“I think that prayer is a great force,” concludes Viktoria. “If you pray, God will hear you.”
Maksym: living with God
Maksym too believes that being in Rome played an important part in his journey and vocation. “During my studies, I began to feel much more enthusiastic about my personal search,” he says.
“Rome helped me to further develop my spirituality and to establish myself in my true calling.”
It was here that Maksym claims he established his fundamental values: “to live with God…as a person.”
With thanks to Vatican News, Natalia Kindrativ and Irynka Hromotska, where this article originally appeared.