One of the more jarring transitions in the liturgical year is the rapid switch from the beautiful pastoral exhortations of the First Letter of Peter, which the Office of Readings prescribes for Easter Week, to the high drama of the Book of Revelation, read during the next four weeks of the Easter season. I was particularly struck this year by a passage from the sixth chapter of St. John’s vision:
“When the Lamb broke open the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the spirits of those who had been martyred because of the witness they bore to the word of God. They cried out at the top of their voices, ‘How long will it be, O Master, holy and true, before you judge our cause and avenge our blood among the inhabitants of the earth?’ Each of the martyrs was given a long white robe, and they were told to be patient a little while longer until the quota was filled of their fellow servants and brothers to be slain, as they had been.”
No Christian community in the 20th century had to exercise such heroic patience amidst martyrdom as the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. Bitterly persecuted by Stalin and his NKVD henchmen, the Greek Catholics of Ukraine – Byzantine in liturgical and theological practice and sensibility while in full communion with the Bishop of Rome – became the world’s largest outlawed religious community, forced to worship and catechize underground for decades. That the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church survived the Soviet Union was a miracle of heroism, empowered by grace.
Throughout those difficult years, the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine was blessed by two remarkable leaders: Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, a man of culture and vision and a pioneer ecumenist, and Cardinal Iosyf Slipyi, who survived years in the Gulag to become the model for “Pope Kyril I” in The Shoes of the Fisherman. Both Sheptytsky and Slipyi dreamed of building a Catholic university in Ukraine. Now, under the current head of the Greek Catholic Church, the equally remarkable Cardinal Lubomir Husar, that dream is becoming a vibrant reality. And the Greek Catholics of Ukraine are becoming a cultural force to be reckoned with in one of the world’s most strategically important countries.
The Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in L’viv is led by a Ukrainian-American, Father Borys Gudziak, who brings to his work a Harvard doctorate in church history, indefatigable energy, organizational skill, and spiritual vision. I am a suspect witness in the case of Father Gudziak, as we’ve been friends for years. But I will risk special pleading by saying publicly what I’ve said privately: if I had to name the 50 Catholics whose present work is most important for the future of the world Church, Father Gudziak’s name would easily make the cut. What he has built in a decade in L’viv, starting from scratch, is breathtaking.
L’viv is a university town, home to some 100,000 students. Only 1 percent of those students attend UCU, but they generate half the public discussion in town. Books published by the UCU press win prestigious awards; UCU’s theology department broke through the secularist bias in post-communist Ukraine and got theology recognized as an academic discipline. Of the university’s 500 graduates to date, almost 40 percent have gone on for graduate studies, and all but one of those students has come back to Ukraine. UCU forms its students for a mission: building the free and virtuous society from under the rubble of communism. And the students respond.
During the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in defense of Ukrainian democracy, UCU students were among the leaders of nonviolent protests against a stolen election that threatened to undo the gains of the post-communist period; they were also leaders in seeking reconciliation and cooperation with Orthodox and secular students. If Ukraine has thus far escaped reincorporation into a Russian imperial system, UCU can claim some measure of the credit – and that’s good both for Ukraine and for the world.
You can learn more about this remarkable enterprise, and how to share in its work, by contacting the Chicago-based Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation: www.ucef.org.