Bishop Bryan Bayda, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparch for Toronto and Eastern Canada, conducts the Great Blessing of Water in Montreal. Photo by Peter Stockland

Montreal’s Great Blessing of Water calls for Ukraine peace

By  Anna Farrow, Catholic Register Special
  • January 13, 2023

MONTREAL -- Carrying Cross, incense, candle, and icon, a contingent of Ukrainian Greek Catholics processed last week from Montreal’s historic Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel to the Clocktower that stands sentinel over the Old Port. 

The worshippers who braved the bitter wind blowing off the cold, grey St. Lawrence River were present to celebrate the Great Blessing of the Water on the eve of Theophany. But they were equally there to pray for peace in their war-torn spiritual homeland across the sea. Amidst the ice and wind, it was not difficult to think with sympathy of Ukrainians enduring equally harsh environmental conditions on top of the privations of war.

For even in hyper-secular Quebec, said event organizer Dr. Pascal Bastien, “praying for peace is acceptable” when the hope of worship is to end the suffering Ukrainians have endured through the 11 months since the country’s invasion by Vladimir Putin’s Russian armies.

Bastien hit on the idea of holding the procession in Montreal via his role as board president of the foundation that serves Toronto’s Sheptytsky Institute, which is housed at the University of St. Michael’s College and acts as a North American hub for study of Eastern Christian Theology. 

With the support of the Catholic Near Eastern Welfare Association (CNEWA) and LeVerbe Media, the Institute organized the Theophany liturgy as an “opportunity for people of good will to gather in a show of unity across cultures, traditions and jurisdiction,” Bastien said.

Adriana Bara, national director of CNEWA Canada, testified to both the suffering of the Ukrainian people and to the response of Canadians to that suffering.

 “We have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the Canadian people,” Bara told The Catholic Register.

CNEWA Canada has sent $6 million directly to the Ukrainian churches and religious communities that run orphanages, health clinics and schools. The funds have also been used for emergency projects, providing the basics of life: generators for light and heat, food and water.

Water was of central symbolic importance to the Jan. 5 procession because Theophany commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River as it marks the end of the Christmas season. Bishop Bryan Bayda, Eparch for Toronto and Eastern Canada, said: “The Feast is about the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, revealing themselves to us, by Christ in the Jordan, by the dove, by the voice of the Father.”

To mark this “enlightenment of the world,” Byzantine and Orthodox churches gather beside natural bodies of water, rivers, lakes and oceans, to both bless the holy water that will be used in the upcoming year and to bless the local waters. The blessing is a recognition that Christ’s descent into the waters of the Jordan effected the sanctification of all of creation.

In English, French and Ukrainian, prayers and readings were said and chanted. Little children, seemingly impervious to the grim St. Lawrence wind, assisted the bishop. At the end of the service, the faithful were invited to drink the newly blessed, frosty holy water. 

Bayda’s eparchy, or diocese, of Toronto stretches from the Manitoba-Ontario border to Newfoundland, an expanse unimaginable to most bishops of the Latin rite. It therefore made sense for Bayda, known as a “traveling bishop,” to drive from Toronto to Montreal to stand beside and bless the St. Lawrence, a river that connects much of his vast diocese. Using the occasion of the feast to pray for peace, Bayda said, was a means to remember those Ukrainians “witnessing with their lives” as war rages on.

The bishop noted that by November 2022, 120,000 Ukrainians had arrived in Canada. Some 420,000 have been given permission to come to the country, and 650,000 have asked to come to Canada. 

“We have seen approximately one-sixth of the number of Ukrainians that will be arriving,” Bayda said, adding the influx has had a tremendous effect upon Ukrainian Catholic communities across the country.

Ukrainian Catholic schools are “busting at the seams” with a shortage of teachers and the need to put up more and more portable classrooms, he said.

Andrew Bennett, a deacon at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Shrine in Ottawa, says attendance has doubled at the Sunday morning liturgy held entirely in Ukrainian. Before the wave of Ukrainian immigrants, that Mass was the most sparsely attended at the church.

As the close of the Theophany liturgy, Bayda, with a vigorous arm, ensured the assembled were more than just sprinkled with the holy water. He prayed the water would be: “For healing of soul and body.”  

The prayers for healing and peace were called out over the St. Lawrence and flowed on with the river, out to the seas and the lands beyond where those prayers for peace are most needed.

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