Bishop Borys Gudziak was in Toronto for a tour of Ukrainian communities recently. Photo by Michael Swan

Out of the Holodomor rises a stronger Church

  • November 11, 2012

Few Ukrainians are thankful for Josef Stalin. In 1932-33 the Soviet dictator starved about six million Ukrainians to death in a planned genocidal famine known as the Holodomor.

But the new bishop for Ukrainian Catholics in France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands has one good thing to say about Uncle Joe.

“Stalin aided the future missions by deporting people to Siberia, to Kazakhstan, to different corners of the vast expanse of the Soviet Union. There now, through descendants of the political prisoners and deportees, the Greek Catholic Church is slowly developing its mission — which of course is open to all people of good will who might be attracted to the Church,”

Bishop Borys Gudziak said as he passed through Toronto on a tour of Ukrainian communities in North America.
It’s a bit like thanking Satan for making Christ’s incarnation and resurrection necessary.

The Byzantine Rite Catholic Church in Ukraine survived three generations of often horrific martyrdom. For this Church to survive at all is one of the great accomplishments of the 20th century, said the Harvard-educated historian.

“Ukrainians are a post-traumatic people. They’ve had a toxic degree of trauma in the 20th century,” he said. “Seventeen million Ukrainians were killed in the 20th century.”

For three generations Ukraine was under occupation, kept in line by the highest concentration of KGB agents, informants and collaborators in the Soviet Union.

“People lived in fear,” said Gudziak. “Fear is never something that really opens people up. You sort of close in on yourself.”

But a closed-in, self-absorbed, defensive Church is not what the Syracuse, N.Y.-born son of immigrants has found in Ukraine. Within Ukraine, the Greek Catholics have become a beacon on a hill proclaiming openness and democracy, decrying corruption and authoritarianism. Particularly under Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, they have demanded a different future for their country.

“The Greek Catholic Church today is a Church of the martyrs. At the same time it’s a Church that’s favoured by intellectuals, young people, urbane businessmen and women who want Ukrainian society to change — rule of law to become the style of the country,” he said. “Since the Greek Catholic Church did not compromise with the regime, it emerged from the catacombs with incredible, relatively speaking, moral authority.”

As rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv for the past 12 years, Gudziak has built this tiny university into a democratic island of free and open debate. Officers of the SBU, Ukraine’s security service, came visiting in 2010. They asked Gudziak to keep his students away from protesting a newly authoritarian government with ties to Moscow. Gudziak not only refused, he told everybody about the visit.

“The Church is actually quite free in Ukraine, limited only by its imagination. The Ukrainian Catholic University is itself witness to this,” said Ukrainian-Canadian Jesuit Father David Nazar in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

Nazar describes Gudziak as a “high-end dreamer.” For Gudziak, being Christian means sharing those dreams. To follow a God who in Christ seeks the human means offering a fully human experience of God to the world without preconditions.

“Jesus really brings to us a call to a radical openness. It’s a going to the other,” he said. “My hope is that the radical deprivations Christians endured and in many ways still face in the former Soviet Union will be a place where the faith is forged.”

That martyrdom and oppression should be the forge for openness, charity, joy and hope is unexpected, and perhaps too much to ask. But over the past 25 years Gudziak’s Church has been witness to miracles.

“The intoxicating and exhilarating but often overwhelming change in society for the Church is now only in some ways settling, if you can say that any culture has settled in the first decades of the 21st century,” Gudziak said.

Gudziak will be enthroned as Apostolic Exarch at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris Dec. 2.

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