Metropolitan Borys Gudziak of Philadelphia says Ukraine is “the wounded victim we stand over today.” (Photo courtesy the Lumen Christi Institute)

Churches must lead path to healing in Ukraine, experts say

By  Laura Ieraci, Catholic Register Special
  • March 3, 2023

Churches must lead the way toward peace and healing in Ukraine and challenge dominant narratives that subjugate Ukraine to an existential battle between good and evil, said a panel of theologians and experts on the eve of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at the University of St. Michael’s College partnered with the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago to co-sponsor two events Feb. 23 to mark the anniversary. 

“It’s part of our mission to host conversations like these,” said Fr. Andrew Summerson, assistant professor at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute. 

Summerson moderated the panel discussion on the theme, “Ideologies of War and Theologies of Healing: Ukraine One Year Later,” held at the University of Chicago. 

Metropolitan Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia opened the discussion, saying the response due to the war is modeled by the Good Samaritan, who acted with “immediate sensitivity” and “moved quickly” to assist the wounded man, whom he paralleled with Ukraine.

He noted that Ukraine relinquished its nuclear arms in 1994 in exchange for a guarantee of “territorial integrity, sovereignty and defensive assistance from any incursion from … Russia.”

“And so we have a lamb of God: a country that gave up its nuclear arsenal, a country that reduced its soldiers from 900,000 in 1991 to 150,000, of which only 15,000 were battle-ready, a country that not only wanted peace; it made itself completely vulnerable for peace,” he said.

“This is the wounded victim over whom we stand today,” he continued. “And the question is: Do we walk by? Do we have theoretical discussions? Or do we touch the wounds, raise or lift the beaten, bound person, give this person comfort and assure justice?”

Gudziak, who recently returned from his sixth trip to Ukraine since the invasion last year, described part of the devastation: 14 million people forced from their homes; more than 400 churches and about 1,000 medical facilities and 2,000 schools damaged or destroyed. 

“Hostilities must stop. Russia must take its military from any occupied territory,” he said.

Elizabeth Prodromou, an expert in geopolitics at Boston College and member of the Greek Orthodox Church, said the two dominant and opposing narratives of the war — presented by Russia on the one hand, the United States and Western nations on the other — objectify Ukraine, take away its agency and suppress its voice.

However, churches “need not be captured by those narratives,” she said. Rather, it is incumbent to acknowledge them, reflect on them and critique them with Gospel language, such as “love, peace, justice, judgment, mercy, forgiveness, repentance,” and to “redirect … secular narratives that are based on either/or, zero-sum, win/lose” ways of thinking. 

“Churches need to speak as church, centred … in love, centred in Christ,” she said. They need to “be stakeholders in the conversations about how to address the war now, and how to bring about the kind of healing that’s going to be necessary” for durable peace.

Perry Hamalis, a Greek Orthodox deacon and religious studies professor at North Central College in Napierville, Illinois, said the war between two predominantly Christian nations has compromised Christian witness and is “an extraordinary opportunity for those who are anti-Christian … to reduce Christianity to just one more ideology that promotes violence.” 

He addressed “Russkiy mir,” a concept promoting a cultural, historical and political worldview that aims to unite territories with historical ties to Russia; it has been adopted by President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church to legitimate the war.

It is “an ideology, it is not a theology,” said Hamalis. “It is an absolute distortion of what it means to think in terms of (being) a Christian. When one is baptized in Christ, one’s identity becomes first and foremost that of a Christian,” not identified with a nation, a race or political agenda.

Gayle E. Woloschak, a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, said Russia’s invasion was a shock to her church community. To add to the hurt, the refusal of some Orthodox bishops in the U.S. to speak against the war led several faithful to leave one diocese for another.

“This split the Orthodox Church in the U.S.,” said the associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral affairs at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Woloschak disputed the notion that Ukraine is an Orthodox nation, arguing instead that it is religiously pluralistic. 

“There are philosophical differences in how Ukrainians view freedom of religion, which they are open to, and that’s not the case in Russia,” she said, adding that these differences are behind religion-related issues in the war.

Gudziak noted Russia’s lack of respect for religious freedom. Since the 18th century, he said, “every time there’s a Russian occupation in Ukrainian territory,” the Ukrainian Catholic Church “is extinguished,” adding in Russian-occupied regions “there’s not a single functioning Catholic priest, Eastern or Western. There are some in Crimea, but the Church is being strangled there.” 

Gudziak spoke about the Russian persecution of the Ukrainian Catholic Church during communism and how the Church survived underground for decades until it achieved legal recognition again in 1989.

Summerson said the day’s events added new insights into the relationship between religion, history and geopolitics in this war.

 “We can’t understand the war in Ukraine without understanding the religious culture that undergirds its rhetoric,” he said. “And we can’t come to a peaceful resolution in this war unless we are willing as churches to witness to the peace that comes from the resurrected Christ.”

(Laura Ieraci, a former Montreal journalist, now writes for the Catholic press from Chicago.)

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