Big challenges for the Church in Ukraine
As a result of deep political and economic crises, the Christian Churches in Ukraine are facing serious challenges. These challenges are being met, according to a local Catholic bishop, "with faith and a great deal of initiative."
Among Ukraine’s political and economic problems, the forces seeking to reform the East European state and steer it into the European Union are divided among themselves. In addition, conflicts with those who seek closer ties with Russia are further paralyzing the country. Important reforms are not being carried out and the already disastrous state of the economy has deteriorated as a result, while the political tensions continue to grow.
In an interview with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Auxiliary Bishop Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk of the Diocese of Kiev said that he believes that the Church is being affected by these problems, but, he said, "We can do a great deal. The spiritual hunger is immense, and after decades of oppression we can at last work freely." He added that many adults are today receiving baptism and many intellectuals are discovering the Church anew.
In his view, relations with other Christian Churches and with the faithful of other religions are good. One factor that has undoubtedly contributed to this has been the years of persecution under the Soviet Union, which all the religious communities suffered up until the end of the 1980s. This has brought them closer together. Today, however, the policy of the state is more open to the various different religions, and numerous properties and buildings confiscated in communist times have been returned to their original owners. Currently there is a drive to explore ways of offering Christian ethics as a subject in the schools.
According to Bishop Stanislav, Catholics are tackling the country’s new challenges and responsibilities "with faith and a great deal of initiative." While their means are limited, they are making the best of them, he says. "The Church is poor, the parishes are poor. The priests live on whatever they are given," says 53-year-old Bishop Stanislav. In Ukraine, it is traditional for the faithful to bring an offering for the priests when they attend the Sacred Liturgy.
The bishop said that there is a strong sense of solidarity in the Church, which also extends to friends abroad. ACN continues to support many pastoral projects both for the Eastern-rite and the Latin-rite Catholics in Ukraine, including the establishment of parish structures, the publication and printing of books and other educational materials for teaching the Faith, and help for the Catholic radio station Radio Voskresinnya. Another priority is the basic and ongoing training of priests, religious and catechists.
Bishop Szyrokoradiuk underlined the importance of the training of priests. "Under the Soviet Union, many priests were deported to Siberia. Only six returned after Stalin's death." After Stalin’s death, those who wanted to become priests were subjected to all kinds of obstruction. Bishop Stanislav himself had to wait many years before the state finally permitted him to enter the seminary in 1979 and even then not in his own home country but in the Latvian capital Riga. Today, the Latin-rite Catholics alone have three seminaries in Ukraine.
Another central task for the Church, according to Bishop Szyrokoradiuk, is the family and youth apostolate. For although religious practice is very strong, particularly among young people, there are also many who hold a purely materialistic outlook, he acknowledges. "That is undoubtedly a growing factor, but I have faith in young people, because they have profound Christian roots."
The majority of Ukrainians belong to one or other of the two Orthodox denominations the Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate while around 10% of Ukraine's population of 46 million belongs to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and 5% to the Latin Rite Catholic Church. A further 2.7% are Protestants, while Muslims account for around 4%. Additionally, there are over 100,000 Jews in Ukraine.