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The High Cost of Fidelity

The reborn Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, uncertain of its post-Communist role, searches for its place in society.

After decades of Communist persecution, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is free. But freedom has brought tremendous challenges, opportunities and responsibilities. This church is forced to confront its destiny at the crossroads of East and West and decide its future direction.

Ukraine is a divided country. In the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, the language and customs are Ukrainian. The population comprises mostly Ukrainians with a minority of Russians and Poles. Western Ukrainians are mostly Greek Catholic in faith and western European in outlook.

The further east you travel in Ukraine, the less likely you will hear Ukrainian. For example, the capital of Kiev is located in central Ukraine. But the common language is not Ukrainian – it’s Russian.

If you travel further east to the city of Kharkiv, the only language spoken is Russian and the people do not distinguish between Ukrainian and Russian ethnic identities.

The overwhelming majority of believers in the central and eastern parts of the country are Orthodox or claim no religious affiliation at all.

Historical Perspective. During the Early Middle Ages, the territory encompassing modern Ukraine was part of a vast kingdom called Rus’, which had its center in the city of Kiev. In 988 Grand Prince Volodymyr (“Vladimir” in Russian) converted the people of Rus’ to Byzantine Christianity, the faith of the Byzantine Empire.

In the 12th century, the Mongols invaded Rus’, destroying Kiev and displacing the population. The surviving nobles of Rus’ migrated to portions of Muscovy in western Russia. Throughout the centuries, the territory of present-day Ukraine was part of Poland, Lithuania and Russia.

Byzantine Christianity in Ukraine nevertheless developed into a sincere expression of the people’s most profound spiritual aspirations. Threatened by the Latin Catholicism of the Poles and Lithuanians, Ukrainians equated their expression of the Christian faith with their national identity: To be a Ukrainian meant to be a Byzantine, or Greek, Christian.

“The heritage of the Christian ethos is a dominant theme in Ukrainian history,” says Father Borys Gudziak, Vice Rector of the Lviv Theological Academy.

“Virtually no aspect of Ukrainian cultural, political and even economic life,” he continues, “is comprehensible without attention to the import of the Christian churches.”

Division in the Ukrainian Church. In 1596, through the Union of Brest, most of the hierarchy of the Kievan Church, which was Orthodox, recognized the primacy of the pope and entered into formal communion with the Church of Rome.

The drafters of the union had highly complex motives. Intellectual trends of the Renaissance, the invention of the printing press and the spread of the Reformation were just some of the dramatic changes sweeping through Europe. Pressured from Poland to the West and Moscow to the East, the Kievan Church faced a serious crisis. The hierarchs turned to the Church of Constantinople, from which it received the faith, for spiritual guidance. But the ecumenical patriarch, isolated by the Ottoman Turks, could offer no assistance.

To safeguard its ecclesial identity, the Kievan Church turned to the Church of Rome, which allowed the Kievan Church to maintain its Byzantine rites, traditions and disciplines. However, by entering into union with Rome, the Kievan bishops effectively split the country by confessional allegiance: those who followed the bishops – Greek Catholics – and those who did not – the Orthodox. This confessional division continues to the present day.

The Polish king did not accept the provisions of the Council of Brest.

“Polish Roman Catholics did not understand the union and preferred to see it as a tool of conversion to Roman Catholicism,” comments Ukrainian historian Vasyl Markus.

The Poles looked down on the Ukrainian Greek Catholics as heretics. They suppressed the activities of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and imposed “Latinizations” on the liturgical and spiritual life of the Greek Catholic faithful.

For the next three centuries, the Greek Catholic Church took on the role of the repository of a Ukrainian identity. In Lviv and the rest of western Ukraine, being Ukrainian now meant being Greek Catholic.

The 20th century began with promise. Andrey Sheptytsky, a young bishop from an aristocratic family, was appointed Metropolitan Archbishop of Lviv in 1901. Against great odds he skillfully guided the Greek Catholic faithful through the labyrinths of Austrian, Russian, Polish, Nazi and Soviet rule.

Archbishop Sheptytsky was an ecumenical pioneer. He was one of the few religious leaders who openly spoke out against the Nazi atrocities. Risking his own life, he harbored hundreds of Jews in his own residence and in Greek Catholic monasteries during World War II.

A man of extraordinary charisms, the Archbishop developed modern methods of ministry, founded the Studite and Ukrainian Redemptorist monastic orders, a hospital, the Lviv Theological Academy and the National Museum. His legacy continues to inspire the church today.

Metropolitan Sheptytsky died in 1944. On his deathbed, the Archbishop predicted the flourishing of the Ukrainian Church but only after great suffering. He was succeeded by Father Josyf Slipyj, Rector of the Lviv Theological Academy.

That suffering came quickly. At the conclusion of World War II, the Soviets occupied western Ukraine. To gain control of Ukrainian society, Stalin moved to abolish the Greek Catholic Church. On 11 April 1946, all the bishops were arrested; all subsequently died in captivity with the exception of Archbishop Slipyj, who was released from a camp in Siberia in 1963.

Failing to force any of the bishops to renounce communion with the Church at Rome, the Soviet authorities convened at gunpoint 216 priests for the “Synod of Lviv.” The participants of this non-canonical synod abolished the Union of Brest and “freed” the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to “rejoin” the Russian Orthodox Church.

From 1946 to 1989, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was the largest outlawed church in the world.

“Everything was very clandestine,” says Father Gudziak. “The faithful always had to anticipate searches at home, interrogations at work, threats, physical and psychological harassment, as well as imprisonment. Under Stalin [and during the 70’s and 80’s] there were deportations to labor camps and executions. The cost of fidelity was high.”

The Soviet authorities constantly watched suspected Ukrainian Catholics. The KGB targeted priests, forcing them to work low-paying jobs as janitors, watchmen and construction workers. Masses were held secretly in forests, cemetery chapels or in people’s homes.

A dualism between private and religious life and public and secular life was forced on the society at large. On St. Nicholas’ Day, for example, teachers would ask their students if they had received any gifts. If it were discovered that they had, their parents would be harassed or even arrested for propagating religious customs. From an early age children had to be taught how to answer such questions.

The Post-Soviet Church. Only with Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign of perestroika in the 1980’s did a window open for religious freedom. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 Ukraine achieved independence. Myroslav Ivan Cardinal Lubachivsky, the leader in exile of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, returned to Lviv. The church, whose existence was vehemently denied by Soviet authorities, quickly re-emerged as a community numbering five million strong. Its strength was most vividly witnessed by the crowd of 200,000 that lined Lviv streets in 1992 for the return of Metropolitan Slipyj’s remains.

But Ukrainian society has experienced great difficulties in overcoming the Soviet legacy. Unemployment is as high as 50 percent. Frequently workers are owed up to a year in back wages. Alcoholism, prostitution and abortion are large problems throughout the country.

Illya Labunka, a religious educational administrator living in Lviv, relates that, “decades of intensive atheist propaganda have created a spiritual catastrophe in Ukraine. People have already become disillusioned with the various Ukrainian churches. They are looking for spiritual fulfillment, but often in the wrong places.”

Although about 80 percent of the nation’s population call themselves Catholic or Orthodox, less than 15 percent actually practice their faith. Foreign religious groups have moved into Ukraine and have capitalized on the spiritual crisis.

Forced to rebuild its social infrastructure, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church must overcome complete marginalization and regain its place as a principal structure of western Ukrainian society. All this is hampered by political instability, social flux and economic crisis.

According to Bishop Ihor Isichenko of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, one of three distinct Ukrainian Orthodox churches operating today, “the treatment of the faith and the faithful of the Ukrainian Church has, in general, not changed since Soviet times. Tax concessions and the encouragement of charitable activities remain an empty dream; there has been no compensation for parishes and religious associations that were deprived of their churches and property. Many church buildings are still used as museums, concert halls and cinemas.”

Transcending Borders. Today there are three basic movements in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church: the older generation, shaped by its experience in the underground church; the intellectuals, who turn to the monastic and patristic traditions for spiritual guidance; and the younger generation, who will lead the church into the 21st century.

The survivors of religious persecution struggled for decades, risking their lives to maintain a Catholic identity. To them the word “Orthodox” is synonymous with Soviet oppression. They look with suspicion on attempts to harmonize relations between Catholics and Orthodox.

The main impetus behind the return of the Greek Catholic Church to its Byzantine origins has come from the intellectual movement. Paradoxically most of these “Easternizers” were born and educated in the West. They have been heavily influenced by Vatican II and recent papal documents like Orientale Lumen, which call on the Eastern churches to rediscover their spiritual and ecclesial origins.

But the future lies in the hands of those young Greek Catholics who are coming of age today. They want to move beyond historical divisions. Their concern is practical: how to heal the wounds in Ukrainian society. They are creating a new vision for their church.

“We must learn to transcend these borders of East and West,” says theology student Oleh Kindiy, “and rebuild our church in the true spirit of the Risen Lord, synthesizing all that’s best from every tradition.”

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is more than just a bridge between East and West. It is a church with a unique identity and destiny in the community of Catholic churches. It is a church, in the words of Pope John Paul II, with a “rich heritage of faith, prayer and witness, matured over centuries, confirmed by suffering and sealed with blood.”

Bryon Lee Brindel is Associate Director of the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation.

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