ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Bringing God Back to Ukraine

Institute helps heal wounds inflicted by Soviet atheism.

As a political activist, gulag survivor and, now educator, Myroslav Marynovych can, in a nutshell, sum up the work of the innovative organization he founded.

“The totalitarian communist regime left such deep wounds on the body of religious communities that healing them is a matter of great effort and time,” said Marynovych, the Director of the Institute of Religion and Society in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine.

Through teaching, research and bringing people together, the Institute is helping heal the wounds that Soviet atheism inflicted upon Ukrainian religion and society for over half a century. The Institute, a department of the Lviv Theological Academy – a CNEWA-supported institution that reopened in 1994 – is a strong champion of interreligious dialogue and cooperation. This past June the Academy was renamed the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) to acknowledge its growing scope as higher education in Ukraine again broadens.

“A thaw in religious life came in the 1990s after the artificial ice age imposed during communist rule ended. This led to a great religious renewal,” Marynovych said. In 1988, there were fewer than 6,000 religious communities registered with the government in Ukraine. As of 2002, the number is now more than 24,000. The Institute, which opened in 1997, works with church and state to reintegrate religious groups into society.

Marynovych’s background has made this task manageable. Reared in a family of Greek Catholic priests, Marynovych spent 10 years in a Soviet labor camp for his membership in the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, which waged an open struggle for human rights.

Following his release in 1987, Marynovych became a writer and a scholar. His account of his time spent in the gulag system, “The Gospel According to a Fool for God,” was published abroad in 1988 and later translated into German and French. He continued to write, began teaching and traveled on fellowships to institutions such as Columbia and Emory universities in the United States and the World Council of Churches in Switzerland.

Marynovych’s Institute is an integral part of the Ukrainian Catholic University, which is breaking ground in Ukraine. Though a Greek Catholic institution, the UCU campus has students and staff of various Christian denominations, including a Jewish instructor who teaches Classical Hebrew. UCU does not give out statistics about the religious backgrounds of its students; the question is never asked on campus.

Among the greetings sent for the inauguration of the University, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Orthodox Church expressed his hope that the University will “serve peace and unity between the divided children of God.”

Reintegrating Religion Into Society. Though taken for granted in the West, one of Ukraine’s greatest successes is, according to Marynovych, government-guaranteed religious freedom.

“This has created legal ground on which the most important religious rights of Ukrainian citizens can be protected,” he said. This is unlike the situation in most of the former Soviet Union, where religious organizations have not freely developed.

The current challenge for Ukraine is to bring religious sensibilities back into long forbidden areas. One of the ways the Institute does this is by its annual series of lectures on the role of Christians in politics. These public discussions bring together government officials, the armed forces and other secular professionals to reflect on faith in everyday life.

The Ukrainian Catholic University has also been reintroducing God into the military. Lviv seminarian Bohdan Manyshyn said: “The traditions of communist society have left their mark on the military. The people in the service are in a very real way neglected. The education that these chaplains conduct is truly needed.”

As no regular chaplains serve the armed forces, Manyshyn and his fellow students visit the soldiers in the barracks, ministering to their spiritual needs.

Lubomyr Cardinal Husar, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, has asked the University to develop and implement a program to train professional chaplains who will be assigned to minister to the more than 800,000 Ukrainians who serve in the military.

To inform the Ukrainian public and the world about religion in Ukraine, the Institute started an Internet-based news Web site. The Religious Information Service of Ukraine (RISU) is available in English and Ukrainian at In addition to the activities of more traditional religions, RISU often carries content on the activities of new religious groups in Ukraine, whether it concerns Buddhists in eastern Donetsk or a convention of 13,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lviv.

Bringing People Together. To teach religious groups how to coexist, the Institute and the University organize interreligious gatherings. Every year the Institute holds ecumenical conferences for students from throughout Ukraine, covering themes such as church-state relations, post-totalitarian social problems and the phenomenon of contemporary religious belief.

One of the most important meetings the Institute has sponsored was a two-day academic seminar in 1999 on Judeo-Christian dialogue. Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, and then-Auxiliary Bishop Lubomyr Husar headed the groups from both religious communities. The gathering was co-sponsored by the Institute of Judaica in Kiev.

Works of mercy also bring the faiths together. The developmentally disabled and their friends and families join for prayer and social interaction at meetings of the ecumenical Faith and Light community. In 2001, a center was opened to coordinate this movement and to support those with special needs and their families.

Another occasion for religious unity is pilgrimages. Thousands of Ukrainian youth and adults, Catholic and Orthodox, join together for pilgrimages throughout the year. Although the Soviets forbade the practice, they could not stop it. With religious freedom, pilgrimages have returned in force. Last May, for example, a 45-mile walking pilgrimage to Dormition Monastery in Univ drew crowds whose average age was about 15 or 16.

Ihor Schuryk, a member of Ukrainian Youth for Christ from Ternopil and a pilgrimage veteran, said the problems associated with such a journey help to create the spirit of a pilgrimage.

Publishing and Teaching. While Ukraine’s churches and religious groups have contact on a day-to-day level or come together for special meetings, they are not yet ready for serious theological dialogue. Marynovych said that is why the Institute is critical.

“The theological potential of all religions was brutally reduced, if not destroyed, during communist times,” he said. “To conduct serious dialogue now, the participants need to be well-educated and, as the religions have just recently created educational institutions or renewed their activities, it will be necessary to wait at least 10 years to bear fruit.”

One way of addressing this lack of theological education is by making works on religion and human rights available to the public. The Institute publishes translations of major Western works, with an ecumenical selection of texts. It also explores themes, such as the theology of human rights and freedom.

The Eastern Christian tradition has not explicitly developed this area, so the Institute is gathering scholars for an international conference, the results of which will be published.

Lesia Kovalenko, head of the Institute’s research staff, teaches and writes to raise awareness of religious issues. A canon lawyer, Kovalenko is Ukraine’s leading expert in the field of legislation about religion. Currently at work on her dissertation at the Catholic University of Lublin (Poland), she has written articles for the Parliamentary Committee on Religious Affairs in Kiev and for several international publications.

Hoping to improve the quality of theological instruction throughout Ukraine, the UCU shares its scholarly expertise with other schools. One of these is Patriarch Mstyslav College, a seminary of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church in the eastern city of Kharkiv. UCU’s professors of liturgy, biblical studies and other theological subjects travel across Ukraine to serve as visiting instructors at the Orthodox institution.

Orthodox Archbishop Ihor Isichenko of Kharkiv and Poltava encourages this ecumenical cooperation and, being a scholar himself, has returned the favor by lecturing at Greek Catholic institutions.

“To think about the future of the church means to be concerned about education,” he said.

Catholics and Orthodox are also working together for the religious education of the very young. Marynovych said “both Greek Catholic and Orthodox hierarchs have signed an agreement supporting the teaching of Christian ethics in public schools in western Ukraine.” The Catechetical-Pedagogical Institute of the UCU is responsible for the theological education of hundreds of instructors, Orthodox and Catholic, who teach the subject.

As a crossroad between Europe and Asia, Ukraine has long been home to communities from various religious traditions, not only Christians, but to Jews and Muslims as well. Myroslav Marynovych and his Institute are helping these groups live together peacefully so they can bring God back to the discussion table in Ukraine.

Matthew Matuszak is Director of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine.

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