Bishops of Eastern churches arrive for the Mass of inauguration of Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 19. 2013. (CNS photo/Chris Warde-Jones)
Bishops of Eastern churches arrive for the Mass of inauguration of Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican March 19. 2013. (CNS photo/Chris Warde-Jones)

Many Catholics are unaware of the various Eastern Catholic communities within the Church. Pope Francis would not be one of them.

Bishop Gerald N. Dino of the Byzantine Holy Protection Eparchy of Phoenix said the election of Pope Francis bodes well for  Catholics who celebrate Eastern rites.

“He’s very familiar with the Byzantine rite,” Bishop Dino said. “It means that we have a leader who understands a minority group within the Church and respects those minorities.”

As a teenagaer growing up in Argentina, Jorge Bergoglio, the future pontiff, attended a high school run by the Salesian Fathers. It was there that he came under the influence of a Ukrainian Catholic priest, Fr. Stefan Czmil.

Fr. Andriy Chirovsky, pastor of St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church in Tucson, said that Pope Francis would rise early each morning, hours before his classmates, to serve at the Divine Liturgy — the Mass — celebrated by Fr. Czmil.

“He developed a great love of and understanding of Eastern Christian spirituality and liturgy,” Fr. Chirovsky said. Fr. Czmil spent 12 years in Argentina before returning to Italy.

That’s where Fr. Chirovsky, the Tucson pastor, studied and where he too came under the influence of Fr. Czmil, whose cause is now up for beatification.

“I was a seminarian there and Fr. Czmil was one of my spiritual directors and my confessor,” Fr. Chirovsky said. “The pope and I share the same mentor. We were both influenced by this good, gentle, holy priest.”

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis was the ordinary for all Catholics who celebrate the Eastern rite. At the Mass of his enthronement in March, it did not go unnoticed that the Gospel was proclaimed in Greek, rather than Latin. And at the tomb of St. Peter, just prior to the inaugural Mass, Pope Francis invited a small group to join him in prayer. Among them were Iraq’s Chaldean Patriarch, Louis Sako, as well as the leaders of other Eastern Churches.

The Catholic Church has not canonized many Catholics in the Eastern Church through the years. Now, with a pontiff deeply influenced by the Byzantine and Ukrainian liturgies and spirituality, many think that could change.

“I have great hopes for Fr. Czmil’s canonization,” Fr. Chirovsky said. “If anybody knows his holiness, it will be Pope Francis.”

Bishop Dino acknowledged that the cost of advancing a cause for beatification and canonization can be an obstacle.

“The cost of trying to advance a person to canonization is so great and our churches are not that wealthy,” Bishop Dino said. “We don’t have that many wealthy people, so it’s difficult.”

Still, he and others hold out hope that some of those martyred for the faith will receive recognition from the universal Church. Many Catholics do not realize that Eastern Churches suffered horrific persecution by the Soviet communists—a persecution, he added, that is recent and largely unknown.

“All of our bishops were killed except for our patriarch who basically stayed alive by divine providence and because he was the most stubborn man who ever lived,” Fr. Chirovsky said. You’d have to be a strong-willed person, Fr. Chirovsky said, to endure 19 years in Soviet Siberian concentration camps.

The Soviets systematically persecuted the Ukrainian Catholics and outlawed their Church for decades.

“If you were identified as Ukrainian Catholic you were either arrested and sent to prison or sent to concentration camp to punish you for counter-revolutionary activity,” Fr. Chirovsky said. “Or they would send you to a psychiatric hospital because you claimed to belong to a Church that didn’t exist.”

The Ukrainian Catholic Church of Tucson prays for the victims of the continuing persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Fr. Chirovsky said. Pope Francis was elected March 13, the five-year anniversary of the discovery of the body of Archbishop Paulos Rahho, kidnapped and killed by jihadists in Mosul in 2008. There’s generally a five-year waiting period before the cause for beatification can be opened. Could the timing of the Pope’s election be a divine signal that canonization for the many Chaldean Catholic martyrs — at least 1,000 since 2003 — is in order?

Msgr. Felix Shabi, corbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Vicariate of Arizona, said the synod of Chaldean bishops meeting in Baghdad this June, might discuss it. In the meantime, he said, Chaldeans are just trying to survive amidst a withering persecution.

“The martyrs are already with Jesus but we still have people who are dying every day in Baghdad and Mosul,” Msgr. Shabi said.