Jaroslav Skira

Dean pitches theology for our times

By 
  • June 16, 2022

The first ever dean of a combined Regis College-University of St. Michael’s graduate faculty of theology is the first Eastern-rite Catholic in charge of theology at either school and the first lay person who does not belong to a religious order to hold the top academic job at the Jesuits’ Regis College.

Jaroslav Skira, a veteran academic who was once the founding director of the Graduate Centre for Theological Studies at the Toronto School of Theology, will take the reins July 1, the same day the newly federated Regis-St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology is formally launched.

As a Ukrainian-Canadian watching the war Russia has pursued against Ukraine, Skira finds himself uninterested in abstract academic theology safely cut off from the real concerns of ordinary people. When he thinks of theology, he thinks of Ukrainians living underground while bombs drop on their homes and cities.

“It is reminiscent of what was happening in the early Church of the catacombs,” said Skira. “You literally had people worshipping or being preached to who are in subway shelters or bomb shelters. Those bomb shelters are really today’s catacombs.”

He describes Ukrainians living and praying through the war as “witnesses.”

“Those witnesses — not only the primates of those two churches (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Constantinople and the Ukrainian Catholic Church), but also the clergy who are ministering to those people — it’s really the same type of ministry that was occurring in  the early Church, when Christians were being persecuted.”

What makes it worse for the dedicated ecumenist is that one Christian church is justifying an attack on fellow Christians.

“What’s more scandalous today is that the war is justified on religious grounds through the Russian Orthodox,” he said.

Skira once taught at the Lviv Theological Academy just before it became the Ukrainian Catholic University. He has a wide circle of friends and family in Ukraine. He continues to guide graduate students at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (MASI). Some of his students are Ukrainian, studying in Canada and unable to return home.

“Being a Ukrainian, in that Ukrainian tradition, this war is very close,” he said.

The business of theology in a world full of sorrow, pain and sin is well illustrated by Pope Francis, who has brought an authentically Christian voice to bear on the conflict in Ukraine, according to Skira.

“It’s not just condemning the Ukraine war. It’s condemning all violence and the indignities that come with that,” he said. “He uses very strong language about the war in Ukraine, calling it abhorrent. He’s attempted to dialogue with others in the conflict.”

Of course theology can speak to the many crises and obstacles in the life of the Church beyond just the war in Ukraine. Skira cites all of Pope Francis’ encyclicals and exhortations — Amoris Laetitia, Laudato Si’, Fratelli Tutti and others — as examples of how contemporary theology engages the world. In Canada, reconciliation with Indigenous people, an exodus of women and young people from regular practice of the faith, the Church’s response to the climate crisis and the scandal of poverty demand a theological response.

“Obviously, any theology we do has to really address some of the needs and concerns of all the faithful,” said Skira. “You want to address and speak to people’s joys and hopes. That’s Gaudium et Spes, right?”

Gaudium et Spes is the Pastoral Constitution of the Church proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Skira’s academic interests include the theology of the Council.

Theology that tackles the troubles of our times isn’t unmoored or fadish.

“Theology shouldn’t be reactionary to problems,” Skira said. “It should be actually prophetic… That prophetic voice also includes things like what’s happening in the war in Ukraine right now.”

The newest venture in Catholic theology is betting on the prophetic.

“These are exciting times for Regis and St. Michael’s. With Professor Skira as its dean, our federation can now move ahead,” Regis president Fr. Thomas Worcester said in a release.

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