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An Ancient Church, a New Ukraine

Editors’ note: Some 30 years ago, dramatic changes were unfolding in the U.S.S.R. that would affect the lives of tens of millions of Soviet citizens, and the lives of their immediate neighbors. As the Soviet Union crumbled, socioeconomic and political forces redrew the map of a massive portion of the globe. The impact was especially pronounced in Ukraine, where Christians who had worshiped in secret climbed out from the shadows and faced the world openly.

For three decades, CNEWA has watched this remarkable drama unfold, and has accompanied and supported our partners in the region to help Christianity once again take root and grow — walking with the local churches, planning with them, praying with them, helping them to rebuild. We have documented these events in the pages of this magazine and on our blog, bringing to our readers and benefactors the inspiring accounts of new life and hope from Ukraine to Armenia as well as the stories of people still recovering from the often violent instability of the post-Soviet world. The unwavering faith of the people has been powerful and humbling to behold — and reminded us of something that Msgr. John E. Kozar has said often: “Pentecost isn’t over … it continues today.”

In this edition of ONE, we bear witness to that — bringing together for the first time some of the most important voices and key players in this remarkable story in the life of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, to tell the history that was made and the future that is still waiting to be lived among the committed and courageous people of that community of faith.

Three decades ago, the Greek Catholic Church in Soviet Ukraine — at the time the largest outlawed faith community in the world — emerged from the catacombs, heralding the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of an independent Ukrainian state. Two years later, in 1991, Ukraine achieved its sovereignty and the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Myroslav Ivan Cardinal Lubachivsky, returned to Ukraine from his long exile in the West.

Ukrainian society has since sought to throw off the yoke of its Soviet past in favor of more Western principles. This transformational odyssey, however, remains a struggle socially, politically and culturally.

“The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the beginning of a new era, not only in Ukraine, but throughout Europe,” says the current head of the church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv- Halych.

“We are just beginning to comprehend the ecumenical, social and international consequences of this event,” he adds, including “the legalization of the church and its entry back into society.”

As Greek Catholics — bishops, priests, religious and laity — emerged from their hiding after more than four decades of suppression, he continues, we had to explain “who Greek Catholics were, why we were Catholics, what our mission was, and what role this church could play in Ukrainian society.”

People of all ages stand in a small room praying.
In this undated photo from the late Soviet era, Greek Catholics attend a secret liturgy in Ukraine. (photo: Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

This process grew more complicated. After the state recognized the legal identity of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, local governments began to return to the church those properties the Soviet government had transferred to the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate when liquidating the Greek Catholic Church in 1946. Threatened with the loss of parish communities, priestly vocations and income, the Moscow Patriarchate reacted to these property transfers with hostility, fearing the loss of Kyiv itself, which many Russians consider the “mother of all Russian cities.” Thus, even the restitution of humble village churches threatened to nullify high level Catholic-Orthodox advances in dialogue after hundreds of years of antipathy.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church belongs to the family of Catholic and Orthodox churches that descend from the baptism of the Eastern Slavic peoples into the Byzantine form of Christianity in the year 988 in the city of Kyiv. These Eastern Slavs, known collectively as the Rus’, had formed a loose confederation of principalities — with Kyiv at its center — that had reached its zenith in the 11th and 12th centuries. But even as the Rus’ deferred to the grand prince of Kyiv and the metropolitan archbishop “of Kyiv and all the Rus’,” their princes vied with one another for power and control of the trade routes that linked the Baltic and Black seas.

The power and wealth of these Rusyn cities grew, however, at the expense of Kyivan Rus’, exposing the realm’s weaknesses to more powerful neighbors, such as the Lithuanians and Poles. None were as fierce as the Mongols, however, who overran Kyivan Rus’ in the 1230’s and in the year 1240 laid waste to Kyiv, killing or enslaving most of its inhabitants.

The “Mongol Yoke” — as the scribes of the time described the vassalage of the Rus’ by the Mongols — endured for more than 200 years. Ultimately, it had significant ramifications for the Eastern Slavs of Kyivan Rus’, as it divided them into four peoples — modern Belorussians, Carpatho-Rusyns, Russians and Ukrainians — and into multiple Catholic and Orthodox jurisdictions of the one church as founded in Kyiv in its Byzantine form.

“You cannot teach the faith, it can only be passed on.”

Through much of its history, the Greek Catholic Church has played an important role in civil society, particularly in the historic Rusyn areas of Halych and Volhynia, which were later annexed by the Lithuanians and Poles after the collapse of Kyivan Rus’.

“It was a church that often performed the functions of the state for a stateless people,” says the major archbishop, “Rusyns who lived on their own territory, but were subject to foreign rule.”

Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski, who now shepherds the Ukrainian Greek Catholic community in the United Kingdom, recalls those early days of the church’s rebirth in the 1990’s, when he served Cardinal Lubachivsky as his chief of staff in Lviv.

It is important to have buildings and structures, he says, but that “buildings without a well-formed community, without well-formed and educated people, are going to remain empty buildings.”

“One of the challenges of a church coming from the underground is probably not that different from the early church of the apostles. Did they have church files? Did they have a bank account? How did that all work?” he asks.

The cardinal gathered around him highly skilled men and women to form a curia. This body would develop systems to form church members in accordance with the tenets of the faith; document sacramental usage; and nurture religious and lay vocations in service to the church — and for the common good of a newly independent nation.

The curia also introduced volunteerism on a broad scale, an uncommon concept at the time in Ukraine; established guidelines for the distribution of humanitarian assistance; and developed best practices necessary for financial transparency and accurate programmatic reporting. By setting high standards, these initiatives of the revived Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church assisted the Ukrainian state, too.

Parishioners attend a crowded liturgy in church.
Ukrainian Greek Catholics celebrate the return of their faith to public life in the early 1990’s. (photo: Chris Niedenthal/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

As head of Caritas Ukraine, the social service charity of the Catholic churches in Ukraine, Bishop Nowakowski and his team worked with governmental and nongovernmental entities to develop guidelines regulating charities in Ukraine. The bishop points out that the Catholic Church in the West was especially helpful.

In addition to its support for humanitarian aid and the development of monastic and religious life, he says, “I have to emphasize the great role of our benefactors in the West, whether in Canada or the United States, Europe or Australia, who really helped us with funds to support the curia and its administrative functions.

“It is always difficult to raise funds for administrative expenses,” he adds.

“You cannot teach the faith, it can only be passed on.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union gave impetus to “the liberation of the person in that new space that began to exist,” says Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, adding that to “become free is not so easy.

“You can gain external freedom where and when the external shackles have fallen, and we have started to build a new democratic society,” he continues. But responsibility-related freedom, he stresses, is not just an external legal reality.

“Freedom is a spiritual aspect of a person’s life. Ukraine is still in the process of healing its wounds and at the stage of maturation.”

Father Oleksa Petriv, who leads the church’s external relations efforts in Ukraine, notes that “one of the most difficult challenges facing Ukrainian society is paternalism” — that is, the belief that only the state can take care of society and solve society’s problems.

“The hope is that a good man, no matter what his position — secretary of the Communist Party, governor, local administrator or president — will come and arrange everything,” he explains.

Such submission to the state undermines the innate dignity of every human being, stripping them of the will and the ability to work, crushing initiative and thus, he says, reducing individuals to mere consumers. This suppression of the spirit lies at the core of much of society’s ills, the priest adds.

Overcoming such negative phenomena in Ukraine has intensified since the beginning of the Maidan Movement in 2013, when thousands of students and advocates gathered in a square in the center of Kyiv and called for closer ties to the West. The protestors — who urged the then president and his government to listen to the people, condemned violence and the divisions in society, and insisted on dialogue and calls for justice — were met instead with a hail of bullets on 18 February 2014. Snipers injured more than a 1,000 protestors and killed a hundred or more. A few days afterward, the Ukrainian president fled to Moscow.

“Events are moving rapidly in Ukraine,” Archbishop Borys Gudziak recalled in the pages of this magazine in 2014. As president of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv at the time, he had participated in the Maidan events. “The Ukrainian nation has matured considerably in the last half year, leaving behind entrenched fear and moving toward claiming its God-given dignity,” he added.

Bishop addresses crowd outdoors.
Ukrainian Greek Catholic Bishop Borys Gudziak addresses a crowd on the Maidan, 11 December 2013. (photo: Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Department of External Relations)

“The movement that has mobilized millions has at its foundation the fundamental desire for people to live in dignity, claiming it and protecting it, even at the ultimate price: one’s own life.

“Together Ukrainians gathered in Maidan Nezalezhnosti [Independence Square] grasping for something transcendental — in fact, for something fundamentally spiritual,” added the archbishop, who is now the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Metropolitan Archbishop of Philadelphia.

Moving away from the Soviet way of thinking has been a long and difficult journey; so, too, the rethinking of Ukraine’s national identity. For centuries, Ukraine has been subjugated by competing states, bridged Eastern and Western cultures, and has witnessed its church subjugated and divided. Now, as Ukrainians grow in self-awareness and self-confidence, the Greek Catholic Church is better poised to play an important role in the development of a mature civil society.

The church advocates that members of the laity and clergy should participate in public life, and that such efforts are an integral part of the Christian vocation. In its Synod of Bishops in 2001, the church appealed to priests who work directly with church communities to take interest in the civil responsibilities of their parishioners and to cooperate with local governments in this area.

Today, Greek Catholic priests charge their parishioners to be aware and active not only in their own parish communities, but also in their local communities. This is a stark change from the Soviet era, when most Ukrainians survived by “living carefully.”

As Archbishop Gudziak notes, familiar proverbs such as “better to have your house at the edge of the village,” “don’t get too involved,” “initiative is punishable” and “we wanted things to work out, but they turned out as always” expressed fear.

As Ukrainian society moves forward, especially since the events of Maidan, there has been a “collective renunciation of fear and the proclamation of identity, solidarity and self-determination, virtually unprecedented in scope and recognition in the history of Ukrainian society,” he concludes.

One of the most helpful tools in the church’s wheelhouse, according to Father Oleksa Petriv, is “the depth of the sermon.

“By the power of the word, in the sermon the priest encourages his flock to think about it in the context of the faith and the church,” he says, adding that those priests who only “pray behind the pulpit and only baptize and bury are relics of the Soviet era.”

Priests are now actively involved in the life of the community life, he says, attending village assemblies, offering counsel and reminding people how important it is to think about the future, urging them to become active members of their communities and to take action.

Father Volodymyr Malchyn, who now heads the church’s communications and fundraising efforts, believes that everyone exists not only to realize their own talents and grow personally, but to work for the common good, expressing his belief that “only in this way can one be happy.”

Hooded priest stands outside of a tent holding a cross.
A Greek Catholic priest stands by the chapel tent during protests in the Maidan in late 2013. (photo: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Half an hour northeast of Kyiv, near the village of Kniazhychi (population 5,202), lies Three Holy Hierarchs Seminary. Established in 2010 by the previous major archbishop of Kyiv-Halych, Cardinal Liubomyr Huzar, the new seminary replaces one that once prepared men for the priesthood until its closure by the Russian Tsarist government after the dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795.

In the new facility’s first year only 13 men had enrolled; today, nearly 75 students, from eastern and western Ukraine, are preparing for the priesthood.

“You cannot teach the faith, it can be only passed on,” says Roman Kichula, a 20-year-old seminarian in his fourth year of studies, as he serves lunch in the seminary refectory. He believes God calls all to serve, but in different ways. His own father is a priest in northeastern Ukraine, but he decided to study at the seminary on his own.

“One of the main missions of this seminary is to give the opportunity for the new generation, born after the 1990’s, to study in the conditions in which they will serve,” says the rector, the Rev. Petro Zhuk.

Before Three Holy Hierarchs opened, Ukrainian Greek Catholics interested in priesthood studied in western Ukraine, where the life and position of the Greek Catholic Church differs dramatically from its life and position in central or eastern parts of the country.

“Ukraine is still in the process of healing its wounds.”

“The challenges here [in central Ukraine] are different,” continues the rector. Communities are smaller and ministry takes place under less than customary conditions, such as home liturgies. But, he adds, this is where and how “young men discern their vocations to the priesthood; they see how priests serve and understand that they are called not only to build churches, but to build a community to unite it.”

When construction of the seminary began, the villagers were skeptical. Father Petro recalls people questioning the need for a seminary: “ ‘Let’s build a pool for the village; that will improve our infrastructure.’

“That illustrated the gulf created by the Soviet system that left the church on the margins of society” he says.

Over time, this attitude has changed among the locals through the work of the seminary community. As they prayed, they began to take an active role locally, socially and environmentally. Moreover, they appealed to the local authorities and offered to partner with them to help people in need. Steeped in knowledge of and experience with Catholic social teaching — primarily through Caritas — they grew to understand the seminary community could not only help the village address its problems, but also give the local authorities the opportunity to help them solve them.

Seminarians interact with the residents in a number of ways, engaging them spiritually in catechesis and Bible readings and discussions, as well as engaging local residents in solving practical issues in the village together. They clean forests, recreation areas and abandoned cemeteries. Together with the village council, they maintain statistics on low-income families and those with special needs, visiting them and collecting financial assistance for them, utilizing local resources. Thus, the seminary community teaches the local community to care for each other, to be in solidarity and to be considerate of one another.

“The priest not only plays the role of spiritual leader, but also becomes the central figure in the building of civil society,” says Father Petro Zhuk, “a society that develops, a society that cares for its children, for its sick, infirm, a society that cares for its environment.

Archbishop dons the crown of his office at his enthronement ceremony.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk is enthroned as head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Kyiv on 27 March 2011. (photo: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images)

“It helps to build in Ukraine what we call civil society, where everyone feels connected and responsible for these processes — not standing aside, but taking an active part.”

In building up a modern nation, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church participates with other national institutions in the National Transformation of Ukraine Forum, where the major archbishop is a member of the supervisory board. Church representatives participate in various initiatives in the lawmaking process, joining in working groups and commissions of various reforms efforts, such as constitutional, judicial, educational, pension and land use.

An important component of the church’s activities is to inform and educate citizens of these reforms, explaining their essence. “In fact, all socially important state reforms are not without our involvement,” says Father Oleksa Petriv.

The church has established a network of training centers for financial literacy, an initiative that will be introduced to the curriculum of Ukraine’s schools next year. Children in western Ukraine, meanwhile, have begun studying the “Fundamentals of Christian Ethics,” which was introduced by local regional councils on the advice of the churches of Ukraine, including the Greek Catholic Church.

Among the major challenges facing Ukraine today is corruption, and the church has set up an initiative to counter corruption, heightening awareness of the problem among the clergy through conferences and seminars that in turn activate the laity to counteract it.

“The world has yet to come up with a perfect state mechanism to fight corruption … but the center of corrupt decision-making is located right between our ears,” says Father Oleksa Petriv.

Forming consciences is the church’s primary means of combating corruption, explaining that corruption is a sin as well as a criminal act and urging people to think about the consequences of this in a spiritual way when confronted with such temptations. A corrupt individual, spiritual directors emphasize, is not only the one who offers the bribe, but the one who accepts it as well.

In recent years, issues of war, the conditions of prisoners and religious oppression have dominated Ukrainian society. Much attention is paid to these matters at working meetings of The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations. One of the most influential and respected institutions in Ukraine, the council began in 1996, and represents more than 90 percent of believers in Ukraine. The council is an effective tool to consolidate the efforts of churches and other religious communities in their common concern for the well-being of all Ukrainians, especially those most in need. Through the council’s activities, religious communities demonstrate that, despite dogmatic and jurisdictional divisions, they can work together for the sake of the common good and to ensure fundamental principles, such as human rights and freedom.

“It helps to build in Ukraine what we call civil society, where everyone feels connected.”

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk says there is a thirst for church unity in Ukrainian society. People expect Christians to “share in common witness and action.” During the events on the Maidan in late 2013 and early 2014, people of different denominations prayed in one “ecumenical tent” and invited members of all denominations and religious communities to join them.

The war in the east, pitting Russian-backed separatists against the state, has also become a catalyst for the search for unity among Christians.

“At the front, the bullet does not differentiate whether you are Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant. Everyone looks in the same eyes of death. And they feel themselves as Christians and believe in one and the same God,” the church leader says. As for denominational hierarchical structures, he thinks they have not yet caught up with public hunger for unity. The global Christian community has achieved more in this direction than Christians in Ukraine.

“There is no official ecumenical dialogue in Ukraine today. We are trying to start it somehow,” he says, but “on the part of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, we try not to quarrel with anyone and work with everyone. We want to cooperate for the good of the Ukrainian people with everyone who wants such cooperation.”

Dialogue, he continues, is an essential tool to help prevent and resolve misunderstandings. And the most important goal, according to the head of the Greek Catholic Church, is to preserve religious peace in Ukraine, which is a matter of national security, too.

Leaders of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — bishops, priests, religious and lay — question how to retain tradition and yet remain relevant in the modern world. First of all, the major archbishop explains, the church must understand and address not only modern man’s needs, doubts and wounds, but how modern man is different from man in the 1990’s.

“To be contemporary,” he says, we as church need to provide pastoral care for the people of today. And that means — as the basic components of any society are community and family — that family life is central for the church today. And one of the main tools of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to help keep families strong is a program of marriage encounters.

Several adult couples sit around a table, chatting.
Andriy and Martha Svystun, right, lead a thriving program of marriage encounter. (photo: Ivan Chernichkin)

Marriage encounters first began as a movement in Poland more than 41 years ago, and later in Ukraine by the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate. Initially charged with teaching catechism for children, the sisters realized this was not enough; as the children returned to their families, parents were unable or unwilling to talk to each other and live according to Christian principles. And so three-day retreats for married couples began to be held in the bosom of the church.

Martha and Andriy Svystun, who are marriage encounter animators in Kyiv, have been involved in this pastoral movement for more than 17 of their 22 years of marriage. They both cite dialogue as the charism of their work: “everything our community teaches is how to conduct this dialogue to help make you feel loved, both at the time of your family’s beginnings, and 20, 30 and 40 years after that,” Martha Svystun says.

This dialogue is based on four basic principles: first, “share more than argue … listen more than to speak … understand more than judge, and the last is to forgive,” she says.

Helping and inspiring others helps the Svystuns as a couple, strengthening their marriage. Since its beginnings, more than 500 couples have attended marriage encounter weekends in Kyiv, and the movement in Ukraine alone includes more than 2,500 active couples.

Last year, the Kyiv community launched a series of premarital meetings to help young couples get to know themselves better in preparation for their future.

“We help our children create the field of love on which they grow,” says Mrs. Svystun. “This will help them in the future with families they create.”

According to her husband, everything in society begins with the family, but the family as an institution is now in crisis. He recalls the words of the major archbishop, who once said that in the “times of the underground, the family saved the church. Now it is the duty of the church to pay attention to the family.”

Nowadays, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church recognizes that it is both a local and a global church. It is concerned with both Ukrainian national issues, and communicates with the worldwide family of Christians. No longer confined to Central Europe, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church includes more than five million believers spread throughout Europe, Asia, the Americas and Oceania. Of its 33 eparchies and exarchates, 18 are located outside Ukraine, making this church the largest Eastern church in full communion with the bishop of Rome.

“Today our church is local and global, Ukrainian and international, traditional and modern,” concludes Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk.

“We are not just an exclusive church for Ukrainians only,” adds Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski. “We have many members who are of various ethnic backgrounds.”

Populism, which is trending in Ukraine and in many countries around the world, grows as politicians promise instant and easy change, says the Rev. Volodymyr Malchyn.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, however, understands that positive change cannot be imposed nor can it be rushed. He notes the church advocates the necessity of democratic principles so the church may assist in building a healthy civil Ukraine that also allows its Christians to embody Christian values.

A nun plays outside with a crowd of children.
A sister of the Order of St. Basil the Great plays with kindergarteners in Lviv. (photo: Ivan Chernichkin)

Father Oleksa Petriv compares the church to the keel of a ship that holds the course for society:

“In these storms today, the church, with its timeless dogmas, helps us to withstand our tumultuous times.

“The storms will pass and the ocean will calm down, but the direction of motion remains unchanged.”

Anna Nekrasova is a Kyiv-based journalist and producer from Ukraine, working with international media such as USA TODAY, Die Zeit and The Wall Street Journal.

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