Narratives and Healing in the War on Ukraine

Churches must help give greater voice to Ukrainians in the narrative about the ongoing war in their country, instead of allowing conflicting narratives of world powers to dominate, said a scholar from Boston College, specializing in the intersection of geopolitics, religion and human rights.

Elizabeth H. Prodromou, whose most recent work deals with Russian influence-building through religious soft power, said Ukraine is in the middle of a clash of civilizations that in some ways objectifies Ukraine. Each side — the U.S. and Western powers on one side and Vladimir Putin and Russia on the other — blames the other for the war in Ukraine, and both superpower narratives use language that attempts to “sanctify what they are doing.”

Prodromou was part of a panel discussion held at the University of Chicago on the eve of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The theme discussed was, Ideologies of War and Theologies of Healing: Ukraine One Year Later.” The evening event on 23 February was part of a daylong program in Chicago organized by the Lumen Christi Institute and co-sponsored by CNEWA.

A luncheon at the University Club drew 140 people and the evening program drew about 60 people in person and almost 300 online. A small CNEWA delegation attended the program, including Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, president, Michael J.L. La Civita, communications director, Laura Ieraci, assistant editor of ONE, and Abin Kuriakose and Mariya Kokor, associate board members.

Archbishop Borys Gudziak (center) sat at the CNEWA delegation table during the Lumen Christi luncheon, held at the University Club of Chicago on 23 February. He is flanked by Bishop Venedikt Aleksiychuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of St. Nicholas of Chicago (left) and Michael J.L. La Civita, CNEWA communications director. Second from left, Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, CNEWA president. (photo: courtesy Lumen Christi Institute)

Churches face “an enormous challenge” in how to address the war and the kind of healing that will be needed when the war ends, said Prodromou, who also served under two U.S. administrations.

“It’s very difficult for churches to look to the Gospels and the Gospel message” when people are being killed, she said, using terms that do not seem to fit well in the context: “love, peace, justice, judgment, mercy, forgiveness, repentance.”

Another panel member, Perry Hamalis, a Greek Orthodox deacon and professor of religious studies at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, said the war was an opportunity for Christians to offer authentic witness.

“What is the witness that’s being offered to the world in this moment?” he asked. He then proceeded to answer his own question: Two Christian nations are killing each other, torturing, displacing and destroying. The war offers an opportunity for people who are anti-Christian to reduce Christianity to one more ideology that promotes violence, he said.

Hamalis said to prevent this kind of war and suffering from repeating itself, there “has to be an acknowledgment of responsibility and an act of genuine repentance.” He said there was never such an acknowledgment of the horrors that occurred in the former Soviet Union and “that kind of change of heart doesn’t seem to be on the horizon.” 

Gayle E. Woloschak, associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral affairs at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, said the Ukrainian community in the diaspora has been split by the war and will need healing once the war is over, too.

Ukraine is facing a “very, very Russified version of Orthodoxy,” including statements from Russians that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian. As well, some Orthodox bishops in the United States have not taken a stand on the Russian invasion and “this has split the Orthodox Church in the U.S. very strongly and has been very hurtful.”

Woloschak, a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A., also expressed gratitude for Americans who have reached out to offer prayers and support.

“It’s been so uplifting for Ukrainians to feel this love,” she said.

Metropolitan Borys Gudziak, archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, participated on the panel and earlier in the day at a luncheon, where he was the main speaker. In both sessions, he expressed concern about the “deep, deep trauma” the war will have on future generations of Ukrainians. However, he said events in Ukrainian history have helped them in this war and will continue to help them.

“Ukrainians understand that history is repeating itself before their eyes,” he said during the panel. “Occupation is directly connected with war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Archbishop Borys Gudziak (right) speaks with Bishop Venedikt Aleksiychuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of St. Nicholas of Chicago at the Lumen Christi luncheon, held at the University Club of Chicago on 23 February, to mark the anniversary of the war in Ukraine. (photo: courtesy Lumen Christi Institute)

At the luncheon, he spoke of the nearly 20 years during which he devoted time to interviewing Ukrainian Greek Catholics who had spent much of the 20th century as an underground church.

“This constantly smaller group was animated by a deep faith and almost a prime trust, because it was a long tunnel … you couldn’t see a time when this might end,” he said.

He said those interviews showed him that “there’s no circumstance in which it is impossible to live the life of Christ, to live the spiritual … It might be tough, but it’s not impossible; the Lord is present.”

Those who did not compromise with the communist regime carried into the underground and emerged from it with the tradition of Catholic social teaching: “God-given dignity, solidarity, subsidiarity, the common good.”

He said Major Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky, who led the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, from 1901 to 1944, often spoke of these principles in simple language, and Ukrainians had been formed by Archbishop Sheptytsky’s teaching, whether they realized it or not.

Archbishop Gudziak, who has visited Ukraine six times since the war began, as well as refugees in a dozen countries, noted that 14 million people have been displaced by the war, and he has not seen any of them living on the streets. They were welcomed into people’s homes and institutions, recognizing that humans have dignity and the common good is greater than the individual.

“You can address catastrophe if you do so in the light of Christ,” he told the participants at the luncheon. “It is there that I see hope for peace and a joy that fills the heart of men and women.”

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