Ukraine's Catholic university victim of old Soviet ways

  • November 20, 2011

TORONTO - Canadians' support for the only Catholic university in the former Soviet Union — which was recently backed up by a $1.2 million donation from businessman James Temerty — sends a strong message that promotes democracy and religious freedom in Ukraine, said Fr. Borys Gudziak.

“After the Orange Revolution hit, we had very high hopes for fully democratic prospects of an independent Ukraine,” the rector at Ukrainian Catholic University told The Catholic Register while in Toronto as part of a six-week tour of Canada, the United States and some European countries.

“We have (since) turned towards authoritarianism and some politically motivated trials.”

That authoritarianism can be seen at the university itself. The university is under the watchful eye of Ukraine's secret police, said Gudziak.

Last year, he received a call on his private cellphone from an agent of  the Security Service of Ukraine. The agent sought Gudziak's co-operation in “spying on student activists and to rat out the names of student protest organizers,” said Borys Wrzesnewskj, a former Ontario MP. Gudziak's phone has also been tapped.

“Not since the days of the Soviet Union has the Ukrainian Catholic Church, its institutions, priests and students been menaced in this way,” Wrzenewskj said. 

Gudziak explained that “fear, inculcated by decades of persecution, is now coming back (in Ukraine).” He said youth are afraid to write in blogs for fear that they might be monitored or their parents harassed.

On the monitoring of the university, Gudziak said the secret police “have continued on a regular basis to call some of the faculty and inquire about international conferences, who is doing what, staying where.” Despite the monitoring, Gudziak said the university continues to be one of two universities in Ukraine to have “consistently spoken out on poignant social and political issues of the day.”

Gudziak said the key to facing this challenge is “to overcome the fear and be yourself, not to step back from it.”

“That is needed to change post-Soviet society,” he said. “Our faith as a Ukrainian Catholic university is really a source of our strength (during) that struggle.” 

Supporting the university, he said, “gives many people cause for hope.”

“I hope our university is a place where people would follow the martyrs of the 20th century who can overcome authoritarianism,” he said.

The Ukrainian Catholic University opened in 1994. Its annual operating budget is $2.5 million. This year, two university residences are set for construction. Jean Vanier's L'Arche community has been invited to live in one of the residences.

“We're trying to reconsider what a university is or can be in the 21st century,” he said.

Temerty's donation will fund three endowed professorships to promote Ukrainian-Jewish interfaith relations at the Ukrainian Catholic University, which is based in Lviv, western Ukraine.

In addition to this donation, the family of Wrzesnewskyj donated $100,000. Last year, Wrzenewskyj spoke up at House of Commons against state-sanctioned attempts to muzzle Ukraine's media and opposition leaders, and also condemned the “intimidation” of Gudziak.

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