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Toward a Golden Age of the Eastern Churches

Combining theology and contemplation at Ottawa’s Sheptytsky Institute.

The study of God is often approached with great hesitation, even fear. Yet in many universities and faculties of theology professors and students are ready to launch into self-assured discussions of doctrine but feel awkward about praying in class.

This is not the case at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, part of the faculty of theology at Saint Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada. Founded in 1986 at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and relocated to Saint Paul’s at the request of the bishops of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada, the Sheptytsky Institute now offers programs in three countries.

The institute’s strength lies in integrating academic work with prayer. While maintaining high standards of critical scholarship, the institute encourages a mystical and liturgical approach to theology. This may seem paradoxical, but that impression only makes the institute’s founder and director, Father Andriy Chirovsky, smile. “All the great truths of the Christian faith are couched in seeming contradictions…why should it be strange that our theology is critically sharp yet mystically prayerful?”

The institute is named after Metropolitan Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky (1865-1944) who, as Archbishop of Lviv, led the Ukrainian Catholic Church from the youthful age of 36. Imprisoned by czarist forces in World War I and paralyzed for the last 15 years of his life, he led his flock through Nazi and Soviet occupations, saved Jews from slaughter, strove for Orthodox-Catholic reconciliation and entreated his flock to pray for the gift of God’s wisdom.

The Sheptytsky Institute began with a unique summer program that is perhaps the only one of its kind. A select group of students – primarily from Ukraine – travel to Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Redwood Valley, California, and stay for a month, sharing in the life of the monks of Mount Tabor and immersing themselves in Eastern Christianity. The students participate in at least five hours of daily worship and three hours of classes. They receive six university credits, but much more remains in their hearts.

“It’s a life-changing experience,” says Ukrainian Sister Renée Khiba from Lesotho, South Africa.

Sister Paraskevia Vakula from Ukraine puts it this way: “After all the devastation of spiritual life in Ukraine under Soviet occupation, it is wonderful to come to this holy mountain.”

“We have to talk about God; more importantly, we have to talk to God through worship,” emphasizes Father Peter Galadza, a professor of Eastern Christian liturgy at the Sheptytsky Institute and site coordinator for a similar monastery-based summer program at the Studite Monastery in the western Ukrainian city of Univ.

At its Ottawa campus, the Sheptytsky Institute strives to emulate the strengths of its monastery-based programs. “Even though we have a full liturgical schedule,” notes Father Andrew Onuferko, “you can never reach the same level of intensity as in the peaceful serenity of the monastery.”

For the last three years, through the generosity of CNEWA’s donors, scholarships have made it possible for students from Ukraine to attend the intensive summer program. “They are the ones who, we hope, will be future professors,” says Father Borys Godziak, the Harvard- and Rome-educated priest whose vision and drive made possible the reopening of the Lviv Theological Academy in 1992. It had been closed, along with everything else Ukrainian Catholic, by the Soviets after World War II.

“I have never experienced such a vital connection between the subject of our studies and the movement of the heart,” says Lviv student Taras Tymo of the Mt. Tabor program.

Once the largest banned religious body in the world, the Ukrainian Catholic Church has resurfaced in large numbers. Some five to six million faithful in a nation of 52 million need well-educated clergy and laypersons. Some who come from Ukraine to the Mount Tabor program are already professors. They may teach Latin, Greek, English or work in the administrative offices at the academy in Lviv. From the Mount Tabor intensive summer program they experience a broad spectrum of ecumenical encounters unavailable to them in Ukraine.

A crucial aspect of the intensive summer program is its ecumenical thrust. In the course of only a few days students are exposed to a variety of Eastern Christian churches in the San Francisco area.

“Where else could you participate in the liturgies of the Antiochene, Armenian, Assyrian, Coptic, Eritrean, Greek, Maronite, Russian, Ukrainian and other churches in such a short span of time, and to have most of these in English, or at least with English translations and explanations?” asks Father Tom Marick. Father Tom has returned for eight summers and, by special arrangement, has used these summer programs as part of his priestly formation to serve the Ukrainian Catholic mission in Hawaii.

Father Andriy Chirovsky has lovingly cultivated relationships with the various churches studied at the institute.

“We Eastern Catholics complain that Western Christians do not know enough about us, but how much do we know of each other? We have to see that there is more that unites us than separates us.” The institute proclaims in its mission statement that it serves all four families of Eastern Christianity: the Byzantine Orthodox churches, the Oriental Orthodox churches, the Eastern Catholic churches and the Assyrian Church of the East.

Father Francois Beyrouti, a Greek Melkite Catholic priest, attended the Sheptytsky Institute’s Mount Tabor program as a seminarian. He decided that he needed to transfer from his seminary in British Columbia to the Sheptytsky Institute in Ottawa, where he could learn about his church and its role within Eastern Christianity. The new Greek Melkite Catholic Bishop for Canada, Bishop Sleiman Hajjar, had also studied with Father Andriy and refers to the Sheptytsky Institute as “our institute.” Other Eastern Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, share his sentiments.

“Not being a credulous person, I do not easily believe in miracles,” writes the noted canonist Archimandrite Victor Pospishil. “But the development of the Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in Ottawa is, in my eyes, a true miracle.”

A typical day at the institute’s summer program varies, but a field visit always includes fellowship. Father Matthias Wahba of St. Antonios Coptic Orthodox Church in Hayward, California, always provides a meal following the Divine Liturgy for Sheptytsky Institute students. Then it is back to church as Father Matthias shares with the students about Coptic Christianity and Father Andriy gives a spiritual talk to the parish youth.

“High-level dialogues are important for ecumenism,” notes one young Copt, “but the bottom line is that we have to get to know each other, and be able to pray together and trust each other.”

At the local Maronite church, too, the faithful will not let the Sheptytsky Institute students leave without feeding them. “It’s amazing,” says Vasyl’ Rudeyko, a student from the Lviv Theological Academy, “everywhere we go, we are greeted with such warmth and hospitality. These communities want to share their treasures with others, but so few outsiders come to see what they have. When we come, they shower us with love.”

In an ancient monastery in Univ, Ukraine, some 30 students gather for a month-long intensive summer program offered by the Sheptytsky Institute and the Lviv Theological Academy. Danylo Yanevsky, co-anchor for Ukraine’s top-rated morning TV news program, is among the students. This is his third year at the academy. He puts it bluntly: “All year you wait for these few weeks in the stillness of this holy place, where you have laid out for you what the nation is missing.”

“Now I understand,” says an excited Sister Victoria Luka, “why there is a very subtle but noticeable religious thrust to some of his broadcasts! He is experiencing in Univ some of what I am living through.”

Seminarian Oleh Kindiy echoes Vasyl’ Rudeyko’s sentiment: “This is a wonderful opportunity to see so many Eastern churches and even participate in their liturgies. I will never forget this time in northwest California, my first time in the United States and my first trip outside Ukraine.”

What are these people experiencing? Archimandrite Boniface Luykx, the abbot of Mount Tabor, does not mince words. “Monasticism means taking the Gospel seriously.” These monasteries are serious, and the life is so demanding that the novitiate at Mount Tabor lasts at least three years so the monks can truly be ready for a lifelong commitment. But the gentle eyes of Father Boniface smile through his white hair and beard.

“We are a family here – God’s family,” he adds. Ascetical ardor and gentle love: another contradiction, another paradox for visitors to digest.

Saint Paul’s University is the only place in the world where students can follow full-degree programs in either Eastern or Western Christian theology with the same faculty of theology. The university also publishes two theological journals: Eglise et Théologie and Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. Father Dale Schlitt, O.M.I., who serves as Rector of the university, is proud of this: “The presence of the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies makes our university more Catholic, more universal.”

Already offering a one-year certificate as well as both civil and pontifical bachelor’s degrees in Eastern Christian theology, the institute will soon offer graduate, licentiate and doctoral programs. If scholarship money is available, students from Ukraine and other countries will join the North Americans studying there. “We want the students from Ukraine or other Eastern countries to return to their homelands armed with knowledge, wisdom and a respected post-graduate degree to become teachers of the next generation,” stresses Father Andriy.

Father Andriy hopes that Eastern Catholics, Orthodox and others, will be able to study side by side and forge lifetime friendships. This would lend a personal face to the ecumenical efforts of the churches worldwide.

Already there are students from various Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches attending the institute and Orthodox professors teach alongside Eastern Catholic colleagues. When necessary, they explain to students the positions of the Catholic and Orthodox churches on which agreement has not yet been reached. But they do this without rancor or polemics.

“It’s hard to be cocky or adversarial when you’ve just started class with the Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem and it includes three prostration to the ground,” smiles Father Andriy.

“A humble search for the Truth is what we are all about. And the Truth is a who, not a what!”

If you ask the professors, administrative staff or students of the Sheptytsky Institute what they would request if granted a wish, not a few would answer like Valeriy Novokhatsky, a seminarian from Lviv: “I wish more of our people could experience what I have experienced. How can I begin to tell people what it is like? You have to live it!”

When His Holiness Karekin I, Supreme Catholicos of all Armenians, visited the Sheptytsky Institute in Ottawa, he expressed his belief in the future of the Eastern churches and their contribution to the world: “The golden age of the Eastern churches is not in some distant past. It is yet to come.”

As programs like those at the Sheptytsky Institute continue to teach and enrich the lives of many with the word of God, the golden age could be just around the corner.

Athanasius Holub, a Ukrainian Catholic, has been involved in Sheptytsky Institute programs in Ottawa and Mount Tabor.

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