CNEWA
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Men in Black

Lviv Theological Academy plays a seminal role in post-Communist Ukraine’s struggle to forge a new identity.

Sunlight pierces thick clouds of incense, bringing to light the faces of three hundred young men. Squeezed into a hall that serves as a chapel, these men clad in black pray and chant while priests behind a screen of icons celebrate the sacred mysteries of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy. This daily ritual culminates with communion and prayers of thanksgiving, followed by a mass exodus to the dining area for a hearty breakfast of sausages, black bread and tea, all accompanied by breakfast chatter.

These young men attend a new and thriving Ukrainian Greek Catholic seminary, a branch of the Lviv Theological Academy, in the village of Rudno, just outside Lviv in western Ukraine.

Founded in 1928 by Andrey Sheptytsky, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, closed by the Soviet authorities in 1944 and reopened 50 years later, the Lviv Theological Academy answers a need in Ukraine for a center of Christian learning:

“In opening its doors to Catholics of other traditions and to Christians of other confessions, particularly Orthodox,” states the academy prospectus, “the Lviv Theological Academy is committed to transcending narrow concerns, while remaining faithful to its ecclesial tradition. Its mission is both to foster the intellectual life of the church in Ukraine and to articulate a Christian world view in contemporary, post-modern Ukrainian society.”

This is a formidable task in post-Communist, post-modern and, some would say, post-Christian Ukraine. Ukraine is divided between East and West, pro-Russian and pro-Western, pro-Communist and pro-capitalist, atheist and believer, Orthodox and Catholic. Ukraine is a nation in the process of identifying itself. It has a great, yet mixed, inheritance.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which reflects the society from which it developed, shares this patrimony. This includes both its Byzantine expression of the Christian faith, which the church maintained after it entered into full communion with the Church of Rome in 1596, and the legacy of Communism, which suppressed the church in 1946, forcing its leaders and members into hiding or membership in the Orthodox Church. Ukrainian Greek Catholics and Orthodox share similar rites and traditions but differ in regard to full communion with the Church of Rome.

In the late 1980, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine independence, Ukraine burgeoned with religious activity, particularly in the western portion of the country. The Greek Catholic Church, though outlawed, moved above ground; miraculous apparitions appeared; people burst into spontaneous prayer and “men in black” were free to spread the faith. Priests were suddenly in demand.

Father Bohdan Prach, a Pole, had always dreamed of working in Ukraine. He teaches Christian history and Old Testament at the Rudno seminary and serves as its rector. Ninety-five percent of the seminarians, he reports, enter the seminary from high school. Yet they are carefully selected.

“There is always the temptation to enter a seminary as an escape from poverty and malnutrition,” Father Prach says. “The goal of many seminarians is to acquire knowledge as soon as possible – they see it as a way out of poverty. But it not always the best motive.

“Future priests have their work cut out for them,” he adds, “with the remodeling of a post-Soviet world with Christian values.”

One of these future priests is Sergei Mykhalyuk. Sergei is 21 years old and a fourth-year seminarian. Along with his studies, he also participates in a seminary music group called Ave Maria. Sergei wants to work with young people after graduation.

“Music is the key to reaching the hearts of our youth,” he asserts. “Young people need to change. After the collapse of the Soviet Union they seek something spiritual, but don know which way to turn.”

As a child Sergei grandmother took him to the church underground liturgies, some of which were held in apartments or in the forests. By the age of 17 he had received a scholarship from the American Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation and had decided to enter the seminary.

At the recording studio where he and three other members of Ave Maria record their religious pop songs, the four young men peeled off their cassocks and, in jeans and T-shirts, strutted their stuff on electric guitars and keyboards.

Yuri Sakvik is a sixth-year student of intense intellect and serious disposition. He first completed a degree in journalism, but decided to enter the seminary after acknowledging his call to the priesthood. As a child he and his family attended liturgy at an Orthodox church; his parents left the Catholic faith out of political expediency. Since then, Yuri has embraced his Greek Catholicism. His ambition is to continue with his postgraduate studies abroad and then return to the seminary to teach.

The drab collection of Soviet buildings once used for a summer camp in Rudno creates a peculiar setting for a seminary. A three-bar cross, unique to the churches of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, and a statue of Markain Shashkevich, Ukrainian poet-monk of the 1830, add an ecclesiastic weight to the quadrangle from which red-scarved children were displaced less than a decade ago.

Today the quad is full of dignified, studious young men. These men, however, are crammed two or three to a dormitory room with only one desk among them. Like so much of Ukraine, the place is in tremendous need of repair.

There is hope, however, for Lviv Theological Academy. If sponsorship targets are met, a new seminary may be built. And it will be just in time: This year, the academy graduated its seventh batch of seminarians, and the numbers continue to grow. About 80 new students are admitted yearly; by the year 2000 there will be roughly 500 undergraduate students. There are also plans to build a liturgical music school by the new millennium. A graduate program is also in the works for later this year.

The faculty of the academy consists of about 70 full- and part-time professors who travel between the seminary and academy campuses. This dedicated group includes native Ukrainians, many of whom completed doctoral studies abroad, as well as Ukrainians returning from exile. The academy also hosts several English-speaking professors. Many graduate students from the Archdiocese of Lviv are studying theology and philosophy abroad and will take teaching posts after their return.

A significant component of the Lviv Theological Academy, with its 300 students, is the seminary, housed in the beautiful old city of Lviv. An additional 215 lay students are enrolled in an intensely academic, five-year course including study in Eastern Christian liturgy and sacred scripture. Pastoral theology, church history, canon law, Byzantine history, art history and archaeology are studied in depth. A language program is offered for full-time students with a focus on Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Church Slavonic, as well as English, in which all students must be proficient by their second year.

Among the academy students I met during my stay were Oleh Kindiy, a fourth-year student and polyglot with eight languages under his belt. Oleh received a scholarship to study at Harvard summer program last year; the year before he received a grant from CNEWA to participate in a program at the Ukrainian Catholic Monastery of Mt. Tabor in California. One day he hopes to complete his postgraduate studies abroad and return to the academy to teach.

Father Mykhailo Dymyd, rector of the academy and a Ukrainian-Belgian priest, is married and has three children. (Greek Catholic priests, like priests in the Orthodox Church, may marry before ordination.) He elaborated on the demoralization of post-Soviet Ukrainian society:

“People were empty inside, ideologically damaged, with no moral code. The average woman has seven abortions during her lifetime. Crime is soaring, along with unemployment and alcoholism. Half a million Ukrainian prostitutes survive hazardously in Western Europe.

“People have no work ethic,” he adds, “and no sense of responsibility. There is desperation everywhere.”

To add to this struggling society problems, the Communist Party is regaining influence in many regions. Forty percent of the population favors reunification with Russia, while others will do anything to leave, even paying $3,000 for a black-market visa to the United States.

“The clergy alone are just not equipped to address these issues,” says Father Mykhailo.

“It is necessary to train a whole new generation of laypeople to get involved with the moral restructuring of society, as laid out in Vatican II. That is how we see the Holy Spirit and a way toward the 21st century.”

Ukraine newly legalized Greek Catholic Church appears to be taking the lead in society with Lviv Theological Academy at the intellectual epicenter. Its corridors buzz with excitement. Occasionally it opens its doors to the outside world and shares that excitement and learning with events such as a Bible study seminar. About 50 people of all ages and walks of life gather for two days to study the Bible and discuss spirituality under the guidance of senior seminarians. The excitement of the event builds to something extraordinary and often ends in a hugging circle. By taking photos I missed the hugs, but a young woman passed me a slip of paper on which she had written, “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.” (John 1: 3,4)

In its five years of existence, the academy has accumulated an impressive 35,000-volume library of diverse materials in numerous languages, including priceless collections on Byzantine history. This extensive library started more or less from scratch; many books were donated from institutions and individuals all over the world.

In addition, the academy publishes its own books and translations in Ukrainian. The library is a vital resource for the people of Ukraine – it is the only theological research institute in a country of 52 million people.

Ukrainian-American Father Borys Gudziak received a grant to record the oral history of the underground church. What began as a lengthy research project, however, has become the Institute of Church History, whose momentum, thanks in large part to Father Borys participation, led to the official reopening of Lviv Theological Academy by Myroslav Ivan Cardinal Lubachivsky, Metropolitan Archbishop of Lviv, on 1 September 1994.

Father Borys was appointed Vice Rector of the reestablished academy and was ordained priest in November 1998.

Like Father Borys, many second-generation Ukrainians are returning to help restore what the Communists destroyed. It a difficult role to play, but vital for western Ukraine normalization, which needs wisdom from both East and West. Perhaps that is the vocation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church: to serve as a bridge joining East and West – ecumenism in action.

What was once the world largest outlawed religious community today ferments with exuberance and spirituality. Men in black are now above ground, discovering freedom of worship for the first time in 45 years. And, as Ukraine reinvents itself, Lviv Theological Academy stands as one bright beacon pointing the way.

Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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