In Kiev in 1992, Colm Tóibín met the Bishop of Zhytomir, who was dressed in his full regalia. 'He had that wonderful, well-fed, lived-in look that reminded me of several Irish bishops.' The Bishop surely personified the universal assurance of the episcopacy and, although he had been back in Kiev for only a year, of Catholicism itself. He also had a cathedral, now returned to the Church from which it had been seized in 1937, and available for celebrating mass after half a century's use as a dormitory, a planetarium, an atheism club and a porn video theatre. The cathedral, however, was almost a ruin. The only place where the Bishop and his three priests could live was in the organ loft. They lacked the most basic artefacts of the religious life, such as chalices, Bibles and books. In the diocese there were 25 churches in need of restoration, but almost no people to fill them. The Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches were competition, and the Catholic community no longer existed. The continuity of the faith in this corner of Europe had been just about destroyed. Although the Bishop maintained a despairing loyalty as he surveyed the wreckage, he was, says Tóibín, 'the first Catholic clergyman I had met who had no power'.
LRB 24 November 1994 | PDF Download