Saint of the Day – 23 July – Blessed Vasil Hopko (1904-1976) Bishop and Martyr, Founded the Movement of Greek-Catholic Students and the Greek-Catholic Youth Union – also known as Basil, Professor, Writer – born on 21 April 1904 at Hrabské, Presovský kraj, eastern Slovakia and died on 23 June 1976 at Presov, Presovský kraj, Slovakia. He was a Bishop of the Slovak Greek Catholic Church. While in prison, in addition to the torture he received, he was given small doses of arsenic which caused a chronic poisoning, which was later verified by an analysis of his bones. He was Beatified by St Pope John Paul II for his martyrdom under Communist occupation.
Vasil’ Hopko was born on 21 April 1904 in Hrabské, a small village in eastern Slovakia. His father died when he was 1 year old, leaving his mother alone to care for the child. Vasil’s mother left for the United States in 1908 to find work, putting Vasil’ under the care of his grandfather. When the boy was 7, he went to live with his uncle, Demeter Petrenko, a Greek-Catholic priest.
His uncle’s example awakened in Vasil’ a call to the priesthood and in 1923 he decided to enter the Greek-Catholic Seminary of Presov. He was ordained a priest on 3 February 1929 and was entrusted with the pastoral care of the Greek-Catholic faithful in Prague. Here, he was involved in many different activities – work with youth, the elderly, the unemployed and orphans. Fr Vasil’ founded the Movement of Greek-Catholic Students and the Greek-Catholic Youth Union and contributed to the building of the city’s Greek-Catholic parish, becoming it’s priest. It was also in Prague that, after 22 years, the young priest met his mother who had returned from the United States.
In 1936, Fr Vasil’ returned to Slovakia where he served as spiritual father in the Greek-Catholic Seminary of Presov. In 1941, he was appointed as secretary of the Bishop’s Curia and he became professor of moral and pastoral theology at the Theological Faculty in Presov in 1943. He also found free moments to write and publish various works and became the first editor of the magazine Blahovistnik (The Gospel Messenger).
After World War II, the Czechoslovakian Republic fell under a growing Soviet Bolshevik and atheist influence. Foreseeing a systematic “Sovietization” and the resulting totalitarian-atheistic Marxism, Bishop Gojdic of Presov asked the Holy See for an Auxiliary Bishop to help him defend against the attacks on the Greek-Catholic faithful and the Church. Fr Vasil’ became the newly-appointed Auxiliary Bishop and was ordained on 11 May 1947. He helped the Bishop greatly, preparing the people for hard times on the horizon.
Little by little the Czechoslovakian Communist Party prepared for the violent elimination of the Greek-Catholic Church in its nation. On 28 April 1950, the Communists carried out their work of “liquidation” during the so-called “Council of Presov”, held without the presence of Bishops. Here they declared that the Greek-Catholic Church of Czechoslovakia no longer existed and that all its priests, faithful and churches were to be transferred over to the Orthodox Church. Bishops Gojdic and Hopko were arrested.
Following the arrest, Bishop Hopko underwent drastic interrogation and torture so he would deny his faith and confess to fabricated accusations. On 24 October 1951, after more than a year of cruel and diabolic interrogation, he was condemned by the State Court to 15 years in prison and a loss of all civil rights for 10 years. While in prison, in addition to the torture he received, he was given small doses of arsenic which caused a chronic poisoning, which was later verified by an analysis of his bones.
On 12 May 1964 he was released from prison for health reasons. After years of mistreatment, the Bishop suffered from grave physical ailments and mental depression caused by the constant torture and inhuman treatment. Notwithstanding all this, he continued to contribute actively to the resurgence of the Greek-Catholic Church.
On 13 June 1968, the renewal of the Greek-Catholic Church of Czechoslovakia was re-stabilised after 18 years of open persecution. From 1968, Bishop Hopko began living in Presov, on 20 December 1968, Pope Paul VI confirmed his appointment as Auxiliary Bishop for all Greek-Catholic faithful in Czechoslovakia. He carried out this responsibility with great care, encouraging the faithful and ordaining priests.
Bishop Hopko died on 23 July 1976 in Presov. He made his own the words of Bishop Gojdic – “For me, it is not important if I die in the Bishop’s Palace or in prison, what matters is entering into Paradise”.
He was beatified by St Pope John Paul II on 14 September 2003 at Bratislava.