The Lenten lunch at Lviv’s Holy Spirit Seminary was sacrificially bland—and Ukrainian cuisine ain’t exactly Cajun to begin with—but I wouldn’t have traded it for a feast. For it served up a unique and surprising encounter with the living past.
“Do you see the priest at the end of the table?” asked the rector, Fr. Sviotoslav Shevchuk. Clearly the priest he nodded toward was the oldest man in the seminary’s airy new refectory, where over 200 seminarians ate silently as one of them read a prayer book. But the elderly priest was hale, perfectly postured, and ate just as fast and heartily as everyone else. “Father Mikola is 97 years old.”
He certainly aged well, I thought. Clearly the ascetic life has its benefits.
“He also spent forty years in Siberia.”
An ascetic life, indeed. I definitely had to meet this man before leaving Lviv.
As I soon would learn, Fr. Mikola Prystay is one of the oldest living clergymen—certainly in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church—to have survived the worst period of Christian persecution since Diocletian. And in comparison to the Reds, Diocletian was a frolic in the Forum.
Hate can keep a person alive in times of persecution, but it risks damaging the soul, ironically causing self-ruination even after the shackles drop. But there is no hate in the kindly and inquisitive eyes of Father Mikola, who refuses to complain about the crosses he was forced to carry by the communists—perhaps because many of his fellow priests were crucified upon their own crosses, some literally, dying as martyrs for the Faith.
I interviewed Father Mikola, the seminary’s librarian, via my interpreter and cameraman Petro Didula, who works at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) and edits a prominent Catholic journal in Ukraine.
At first we conversed in German, but only briefly: Father Mikola’s German remains fluent, but mine, gone rusty, is schrecklich. Several times I asked him what life was like when the Nazis and Soviets competed for the gold in their satanic version of the Olympics. I especially wanted to know what he remembered of those atrocities committed by the Soviets in Lviv in 1941.
But he would indulge no bitterness by resuscitating dead monsters, and gently sidestepped those questions. Speaking in a creaky but confident voice, he even put a hopeful gloss on one particularly bad situation.
Father Mikola was prefect of Lviv’s Greek Catholic seminary before World War II through the Soviet “liberation,” after which its doors were locked for the next four decades. Shortly after the war, he and fellow priests were packed into cattle cars bound for Siberia. The trip took two weeks. None of them had any idea where they were when the doors finally opened somewhere in the arctic wasteland. They were filed into a big empty building with one room: their new home. There was no running water, of course.
“But I was lucky,” he told me. “Quite lucky! There was only one axe in camp. And my name was at the top of the list to use that axe so I could chop a block of ice to boil for water.” He washed for the first time in over two weeks. The littlest blessings can assume the greatest proportions in the worst of times.
As I have discovered in my time here, Father Mikola’s hopeful attitude predominates in the native Greek Catholic Church in general, and the Ukrainian Catholic University in particular, the only Catholic institution of higher learning in the former USSR.
There surely is cause for bitterness, but that would be a sin against hope.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholics were crushed extra hard under the communist boot. They were doubly oppressed: All Ukrainians were persecuted on account of their ethnic patriotism; the Ukrainian Greek Catholics, on account of their religion, too, for they are in communion with Rome. (Unlike Hitler and the Nazis, Stalin and the communists made no effort to hide their particular hatred for the Catholic Church.) All but one of their bishops perished in the gulag. Only Josyf Cardinal Slipyj survived.
His prison writings managed to circulate to the West, alerting Pope Pius XII that the leader of the Greek Catholics was still alive. After continued diplomatic pressure, President Kennedy and Pope John XXIII finally convinced Nikita Krushchev to release Cardinal Slipyj (pronounced “Slee-pay”) in 1963 as a goodwill gesture, or, as Krushchev called it, “a gift.” It’s doubtful that the shoe slammer would have been so gracious had he known that the old cardinal would not gather dust and fade away. Until his death in Rome in 1984, aged 91, he enthusiastically laid the groundwork for the restoration of his Church after communism inevitably perished.
When the Soviets lifted the ban on Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church in 1989, all outsiders—the KGB, CIA, even the Vatican—were surprised that decades of oppression had not dampened the ardor of the faithful nor significantly diminished their numbers. Immediately they began the task of visibly restoring the Church after its long existence underground as a “Church of the Catacombs.”
First, churches and monasteries had to be reclaimed. Some had been abandoned or destroyed. Others had been converted to secular uses, such as the medieval country monastery I visited: turned into a psychiatric hospital for women, the chapel’s famous frescoes whitewashed to add insult to injury. Churches also were reclaimed from the Orthodox, which caused some disputes that were deliberately exaggerated for political ends by the Russian Orthodox Church: that less than friendly bear to the north, led by a KGB informant, fed by the state, and pawing into territory far below her political borders.
(The Patriarch of Moscow, Alexiy II, refuses to apologize for the so-called “Council of Lviv,” convened by Stalin in 1946 to abolish the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The Russian Orthodox Church helped in the proceedings and shared in the spoils. The party line was that the Greek Catholic faithful had “agreed” to “return” to the Russian Orthodox Church. Not that it mattered that they never were Russian Orthodox. And they didn’t exactly agree, either: Her bishops had no seats at Uncle Joe’s show council, having been murdered or sent to Siberia. For the record, the Greek Catholics re-entered into communion with Rome at the Union of Brest in 1596—thus closing their section of the Great Schism of 1054—as members of the Kievan Church, not the Moscuvite Church. This is an important point to make, and it does sound tedious. Church history is terribly convoluted due to the errors, misunderstandings, and, occasionally, outright wickedness of her flock. Disunity doesn’t come from Christ.)
Second, seminaries were re-founded and soon swarmed with eager young men. Many, however, were merely caught up in the enthusiasm; and lacking true vocations, eventually left. Holy Spirit Seminary, for example, had about 700 seminarians in the early 1990s. Today, the Rite’s largest seminary has about 250 young men from Ukraine and abroad.
Once the Church was up and running again, it was time to found an institution of higher learning for laymen. At the Ukrainian Catholic University, a broken culture is being pieced together with the glue of a humane Christian education.
“We are bringing something wholly new to the academic environment of [post-communist] Ukraine,” said Volodomyr Turchynovskyy, chairman of UCU’s philosophy department.
A tall, bespectacled man in his mid-30s with a serious demeanor, Professor Turchynovskyy has worked at UCU since its founding in 2003. (Previously he taught at UCU’s predecessor, the Lviv Theological Academy, whose focus was purely religious.) Like the other faculty and administrators I interviewed over the course of two months, his enthusiasm is infectious but tempered with a realistic perspective. Like America’s pioneers, they see a land full of opportunity, yet recognize that they must overcome their own hostile Indians and tough terrain before achieving manifest destiny.
“The Soviets wreaked havoc on the humanities,” he continued in flawless English. “There were no professors of theology, for example, but there were professors of atheism! We’re very young, and one of my desires is to found a school of philosophy here with a Christian flavor … one that promotes Ukraine’s unique place in Europe, especially European Christian culture.”
Ukraine means “the borderland” between East and West. From a historical perspective, it is at the crossroads of the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) Christian traditions, each of which has its own strong suit. If these traditions are divorced from one another, however, each runs the risk of turning its strong suit into a liability. The Eastern devotion to faith runs the risk of sliding into mysticism; the Western proclivity for reason, into reducing religion to an arid rationality (Scholasticism gone awry, for example). Pope Benedict XVI constantly stresses that “the Church must breathe with both lungs”—her Eastern and Western traditions—to attain a harmonious balance between faith and reason.
This harmony is present to a unique degree in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which bridges East and West: identifying with Orthodoxy while constantly re-affirming her communion with Rome. And in early February the pontiff applauded UCU for its role in ecumenism, that striving for reconciliation among Christians with the goal of reunifying Christendom. He also donated 100,000 euros from Peter’s Pence toward the construction of UCU’s new, additional campus, opposite the Ukrainian Military Academy and just up the street from the hulking Soviet war memorial. (“Where’s the neighborhood going?!”)
All of the administrators and professors with whom I spoke gave variations on Professor Turchynovskyy’s main theme: the need for an education which introduces students to the best of the various schools of thought (philosophy, theology, history, literature) necessary to lead a balanced life. And all of these schools of thought must be leavened with the Christian perspective assiduously rooted out from the educational system during the communist dictatorship.
That attempt to destroy Christianity from the common life of the people helps explain the awful spectacle I recounted in the previous piece. It must be viewed within the context of what one professor, Myroslav Marynovych, calls the “weak civic culture” caused by communism. He speaks from experience. A gently gregarious 60-year old with a bushy mustache, he founded the Ukrainian branch of Human Rights Watch in the late 1970s. But the KGB were watching him, too, and he quickly wound up in the gulag from 1977-87. There he rediscovered Christ, and now he views the world from a Christ-centered focus. “The distance between social and political problems and religion is very short,” he said of Ukraine.
Through their educational efforts, the people at UCU are striving to correct such problems, not only by instructing minds but ennobling hearts.
There is a strong emphasis on the corporal works of mercy, such as Sister Lukia’s ministry to the mentally handicapped; and the student pro-life group’s community initiatives, such as praying
insideabortuaries with medical staff and prospective “patients.” UCU also has various institutes which address societal problems, particularly those related to religion in public and family life. The latter is especially important because Ukraine is experiencing a demographic crisis.
Two notes about the students. First, the young women.
The rawest sewage of Western “culture” is pumped into Ukraine like Russian gas, but without threats of being cut off. Some of the imported sewage is, in turn, further contaminated. If seeing an American rap “music” video makes you want to shoot the TV, watching Ukrainian rap “music” videos makes you want to shoot yourself.
And the hyper-sexualized character of this cultural infusion is embraced by so many young women that Lviv can seem like one giant red-light district. Their dress tends to run from the tacky to the outright skanky: fish-net stockings, hot pants, mini-skirts, shiny patent-leather go-go boots with spiked heals. The female students at UCU thankfully dress modestly. I distinctly remember one bright young woman, the daughter of a country Greek Catholic priest, who was dressed in a simple traditional Ukrainian dress. Her long blond hair was braided, and her face was so beautiful that make-up would have made a mockery of it.
Second, the young men. Although the ones I spoke with tended to be earnest scholars, men are in the minority at UCU, which has about 500 full-time students, a thousand counting the part-timers from the large state universities who come to UCU for its unique course offerings. (For example, UCU is the only university in Ukraine—outside of the seminaries—to offer a program in theology.) Why? Because it’s a challenge to “sell” a humane education in a country still in the grip of the technology-obsessed, strictly functional system of education promoted in the Soviet era. And practically speaking, Ukraine lacks the huge educational and non-profit sector present in America that makes it easier for American liberal arts graduates to get jobs. If it’s hard for a philosophy major to get a job back in the USA, it’s nearly impossible for one here to get a good job. And in Ukraine, men are expected to be the bread winners.
As a practical response to this practical problem, UCU just founded a business school to cater to those who did not receive humane educations. Why at UCU? Because there is a dire need in Ukraine for a business school with an ethical foundation. Ethical businessmen who understand not only the innate value of ethics, but their long-term commercial efficacy, can help counteract what everybody here acknowledges as reality, but the more prescient recognize as a problem for both Ukrainians and those seeking to do business in Ukraine: the “culture of corruption,” another byproduct of communism’s perversion of morals.
Want to gain entrance to a state university, which is technically free? You pay money under the table. Want to get a good grade? Many professors accept bribes. (Initially, UCU’s emphasis on its policy of academic honesty struck me as odd. But in Ukraine it’s an aberration in an objectively aberrant milieu.) Want to obtain building permits? Most officials expect bribes, and there’s always one more who wants a cut. As a rule of thumb, the rule of law is the exception to the rule of corruption.
One administrator told me it would be easy to accept the status quo, but that it would be a sin to continue weaving this cultural fabric of lies and deception. The loom, after all, was constructed by the communists, master weavers of lies. Hatchet time is long overdue.
The week before I left Ukraine marked the beginning of the Orthodox Lent. On the evening of Monday, March 10, a Lenten ceremony of forgiveness took place in the university’s main chapel, where the Divine Liturgy is celebrated daily. The chapel overflowed into the hallway with students, professors, nuns, even custodians and security guards.
Accompanied by a choir that sang in the most engagingly lyrical manner, the penitents continually prostrated themselves in atonement for their sins. (“God be merciful unto me, a sinner,” they chanted with each of the many, many prostrations. The chapel might have been mistaken for a mosque.) And then the top professors and administrators filed to the altar, knelt facing the congregation, and begged them pardon for their sins. Finally, the priest welcomed all the penitents to ask one another for forgiveness. And throughout the long service, the choir—composed of students, faculty, and staff I’ve come to know—so beautifully sang God’s praises that I felt that the reality of heaven became a reality on earth, if only for a little while.
Penitence, forgiveness, atonement: the Godly trinity for the sanctification of the soul of an individual, as well as a nation.
Ukraine has known much darkness. And the long, sinister night of the twentieth century continues to cast shadows deep and wide. At this unique university, however, God’s light shines brightly, showing how wonderful that culture is where minds and hearts are formed in Christ.
I arrived not knowing what to expect, and left the Ukrainian Catholic University realizing why so many people love this place so well. Count me in.
Matthew Rarey, an independent journalist, and can be reached at MatthewRarey00@yahoo.com
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