Catholic Church in Ukraine is under heavy pressure

"The danger of repression of the Greek-Catholic Church exists in whatever part of Ukraine Russia might establish its predominance or continue through acts of terrorism to push forward with its aggression."

By Archbishop Thomas Edward Gullickson

"The danger of repression of the Greek-Catholic Church exists in whatever part of Ukraine Russia might establish its predominance or continue through acts of terrorism to push forward with its aggression."

Which or what is the Church in need? I become ever more convinced that I must not per force designate and judge/condemn the cause of the Church’s need, but rather clarify the question of need, as to whether we are dealing with the limits of our human condition, with challenges we must simply take on as part of life, or if indeed we are not talking about factors, controllable or not, which work to the detriment of the spread of the Gospel or of the pastoral care we owe to our people, in that, be it persons or climactic conditions like a drought or a tsunami, they have destabilized the life of the Church in a given country or region and call for intervention from those outside able to lend a helping hand.Gullickson, Thomas Abp Nuncio in Ukraine.2.jpg

Certain dramatic situations cry out for intervention and support from the greater Church, their suffering and distress in this sense differ from the lot which is commonly ours in this valley of tears. The chronic destabilization, for example, which afflicts Christians in the Middle East is something out of the ordinary, as is the situation in Ukraine today. This is the concept I hope to address briefly, offering you the possibility to enter into my thought processes and help me refine my analysis of the present situation in Ukraine, which now after three years has become for me an adopted homeland.

            The undeclared war which the Russian Federation is waging against Ukraine has in effect destabilized a country already sorely tried by the depredation of homegrown and foreign profiteers (not only from Russia), who have torn its economic and social fabric limb from limb especially in the period since independence in 1991. Above and beyond this, Ukraine is just now coming around to playing catch-up in addressing the repair or removal of structures of servitude from its Soviet Communist past, which other countries in Central and Eastern Europe were able to address and at least begin to change almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ukraine’s people are still today to some extent deprived of their history, limited to a propagandistic caricature which has managed to outlive the school texts and history books from the Soviet period.

To cite one crucial example: the country is still playing catch-up on recovering words of the spirit, excised from common dictionaries and lost to the folk vocabulary for generations in some parts of the country. As was the case for both Lithuania and Finland, still today there are attempts to deny Ukrainians their language and specific identity as a people, unique and hence different from others around them.

Starting with this last notion of linguistic or cultural deprivation through discrimination and denial by others, I suppose that for different reasons you could say that Ukrainians are no worse off, when it comes to matters spiritual, than the last two generations in the West, who on account of secularization and the dictatorship of relativism have also been deprived of a vocabulary of the spirit to express adequately their baptismal birthright. Obviously, it is more than just a question of dictionary vocabulary; the songs, dances, poetry and special usages which have accompanied the greater and lesser feasts of the Christian calendar, developing over the course of the millennium since Ukraine’s baptism and enriched by contact with Western Catholicism, are an integral part of this vocabulary.

I will concentrate not on this aspect but rather on the question of destabilization, much of it attributable to the depredation carried out and still continuing at the hands of Ukraine’s own criminal oligarchy, exacerbated by Russian aggression against its territorial integrity and sovereignty. I told Vatican Radio not that long ago that I am very much worried that Russian interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine prolongs and intensifies the destabilization of Ukraine to the detriment of the Catholic Church in both its Greek and Latin expressions.

I. Crimea

In Crimea, as near as we can tell from Sunday Mass counts of the number of faithful attending, the Roman Catholic Church had and seemingly still has a stronger presence than the Greek-Catholic, albeit always a minority presence on the peninsula. Nearly all the Latin clergy are Polish, with Bishop Jacek Pyl, OMI, Auxiliary of Odessa-Simferopol, at the head. By some estimates there were and perhaps are more practicing Catholics in Crimea than in the Diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia. Since Crimea’s annexation by Russia, in violation of international law, life is harder for everyone, but especially for non-Orthodox, and the authorities have continually menaced some if not all of the Catholic priests serving there.            

II. The Donbas

            At present, I have no news of Catholic priests or religious women either Greek or Latin serving in those parts of the warzone of Luhansk and Donetsk still under terrorist or Russian control. The Latin presence in that area was the most important in Eastern Ukraine. It served the international university student community in the various population centers of the region. This apostolate, with the help of financial and personal subsidies from outside and the offerings from the students themselves, rendered possible the maintenance of several of the little Catholic chapels in that area. Insecurity here and elsewhere might effectively put an end to foreign students in Ukraine and further weaken the Roman Catholic Church’s possibilities for service to its own little flock.


            In a best-case scenario, if the present ceasefire holds and people return, one will have to see how many faithful remain and which Greek-Catholic church buildings can be repaired or rebuilt. If Russia remains in control of the region, it is hard to imagine that Catholic life, whether Greek or Latin, would be allowed to return (the Crimean precedents are not reassuring). With so much of the infrastructure (water, electricity, heat, transportation) of Luhansk and Donetsk destroyed by war and given the depressed nature of Luhansk anyway, I would not hazard a guess as to how many of the almost one million displaced persons might wish to return (250,000 in Ukraine and over 700,000 in Russia).


III. The Country as a Whole

Continued Russian aggression could also put an end to the presence of foreign university students elsewhere in Ukraine and bring the closing of Latin parishes not only in the Donbas but also, perhaps, even of the national center for this foreign student apostolate, the parish of St. Vincent de Paul in Kharkiv, presently served by Vincentian Fathers from Slovakia, Nigeria and India, and serving the needs of the very international Catholic community in that city.

Destabilization! For the Latin Church, which is basically made up of middle aged and older people, further discouragement could lead young parents unable to emigrate themselves to Poland, Slovakia or Hungary to urge their children to seek their fortune elsewhere. Most of the over 60 Latin congregations of religious women presently operating in Ukraine are not ministering to Catholics but looking after social orphans (Orthodox or unbaptized) or running kindergarten and daycare setups that serve Orthodox and unbaptized, prohibiting the sisters from sharing so much as a little prayer with the children entrusted to their care. Without “home-grown” Catholics and given its strong ethnic ties to Poland and Hungary, it is hard to say how the Latin Church will survive in Ukraine. The Armenian Catholic presence had already disappeared during communist times.

            Up until the recent death of Metropolitan Volodymyr, the position of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate concerning the presence of Greek-Catholic structures in Eastern and Southern Ukraine was clear. The Orthodox recognized the right of the Church to care for its own faithful there, many of them forced to settle there in Communist times on their return from exile farther east, as they were prohibited by the Soviet regime from returning home to Western Ukraine. Others have since come from Western Ukraine for work in the industrial complex of the nation, both prior to and at the time of independence or even more recently. Years prior, Greek-Catholics were settled in the rural parts of the Odessa region for farming.

            Propaganda from Moscow notwithstanding, these tiny minority communities outside of Galicia are menaced with extinction. The danger of repression of the Greek-Catholic Church exists in whatever part of Ukraine Russia might establish its predominance or continue through acts of terrorism to push forward with its aggression. Any number of statements coming out the the Kremlin of late leave little doubt of Russian Orthodox hostility and intolerance toward Ukrainian Greek-Catholics, often slandered as a sort of Roman Catholic “Trojan horse” under the pejorative label “uniates.” The lessons of ISIS and the so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria would seem to deflate any possibility of protesting that such a tragedy is not possible in our day and age. There is no reason for excluding the possibility of another wholesale repression of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church as came about in 1946 with the complicity of the Orthodox brethren and the blessing of Moscow.

            If Russian aggression ended tomorrow, apart from rebuilding the east, Ukraine would still have enormous challenges to meet in order to root out corruption and establish a just society. As parts of the European Union find themselves in dire financial straits these days, so figure out the kinds of challenges facing Ukraine, where the criminal oligarchy which picked up the country on the rebound from the Soviets has left little to salvage of the country’s industrial patrimony, carrying off for foreign investment billions in currency and valuables, leaving the country’s coffers empty, piling up both internal and external debts, and all of this before the Russian invasion.

            Personally, the plight of religious women of the apostolic life, both Greek and Latin, concerns me. They are not paid enough by parishes where they help out to be able to cover the costs of educating younger sisters or of caring for their own elderly sisters. The maintenance of their convents and other buildings is exceedingly haphazard also because most aid agencies require a bishop’s signature for projects from the sisters. The bishops are slow to put the sisters’ projects ahead of diocesan, eparchial or even parish projects.

            The priesthood, priestly ministry and vocations form a very important part of this story. Salaries for priests are still a novelty in big parts of our world, except perhaps in Germany. In Poland you are considered an unfortunate priest if you haven’t landed a job teaching religion in the public school system. In Ukraine priests generally live from the Mass stipends in hard currency which come to them from abroad.

            Since 1989, the number of Greek-Catholic priests in Ukraine has climbed from around 300 to over 3,000, mostly married with wife and children. A family cannot live on a Mass stipend of $5 or $10 dollars a day. Many of the wives work outside the home and many of the priests have a sideline to help support their family. With the need for a family home, close to the wife’s place of work and to the couple’s choice of schools for their children, it is not uncommon for priests to have homes in Lviv and an hour commute to their parishes or curial jobs in another eparchy. Vice versa, you might find a family from the Archeparchy of Lviv that can live more economically in the country and dad must commute into the city to his priestly job each day.

Archbishop Thomas Edward Gullickson is an American prelate who serves as the Roman Catholic nuncio to Ukraine. This text was adapted from a presentation he gave Sept. 23, 2014 to an international meeting of Aid to the Church in Need.


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