Last August, things were very different in the Ukraine, when Archbishop Stefan Soroka, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia for Ukrainians, and Very Rev. Archpriest Michael Hutsko traveled to Kiev and around the country.
Today, as the situation in Ukraine grows ominous, Archbishop Soroka, who is also Metropolitan of all Ukrainian Catholics in the United States, just issued a major statement and prayer being sent to all the parishes in the Philadelphia Archeparchy for services this weekend.
At the same time, Father Hutsko shared what he saw and experienced while in the Ukraine during a conversation with me after the latest violence. He is the pastor of both Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Pa., and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church in Centralia., Pa.; he is also dean of the South Anthracite Protopresbytery (deanery).
Since this was Father Hutsko’s first trip to Ukraine, he told me he had no expectations of what he would see either in the country as a whole or in the people.
“I had a completely open mind and a clean slate,” he said. “What I found immediately was an overwhelming warmth, no matter where we traveled throughout the entire country. People there are welcoming and very warm. They very much wanted to share their lives and homes with visitors and are very proud of being Ukrainians.”
The purpose for his visit was to join in the celebration of the 1025 anniversary of the "Baptism of Ukraine” and for the blessing of the new patriarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection.
Father Hutsko found Ukraine “to be a very vibrant country. Kiev, especially, is a very cosmopolitan city the size of Chicago. We stayed in the Hotel Ukraina, right at the head of the Maidan Square. That area is filled with an underground shopping arcade that has all the stores you’d find on Fifth Avenue or in Paris.
“There were outdoor cafes with people enjoying the atmosphere and the conversation. It was very much a place where anyone would feel at home.”
Nothing was out of the ordinary. “At that point, negotiations were in progress for membership in the European Union, but they had not progressed”; so by November, the Ukrainian president rejected those and turned to Russia for financial assistance.
“They suffered tremendously under communist domination, especially under Russian domination,” Father Hutsko explained. Then “their human dignity was taken from them.” That recent memory prompted the desire for freedom, independence and dignity.
“The emphasis is the yearning to be free and for a freedom that we’re blessed to experience here in the United States,” Father Hutsko says. “The people there are yearning for that opportunity, but the freedoms that were promised after independence in 1994 were not being provided for them. In November, the people thought, 'We have to stand up and speak up for that innate desire to be free.'"
“Because the Ukrainian people are warm, friendly, hospitable and peace-loving,” Father Hutsko believes they have been forced into this situation. They want “to be free, to have their dignity, to practice their faith and to raise their children, in hope for better opportunities with each succeeding generation.”
Things are no longer like they were in August in Maidan, meaning "Independence", Square and the four-star hotel.
“At that same square, the hotel has turned into a makeshift hospital for the wounded and dying. They are dying in the lobby,” said Father Hutsko. “A good deal of the square has been torched, and several buildings have been engulfed in flames. What was once a vibrant and bustling area of the city has become a place of suffering, torment and death.”
Where is the priest to stand in all this? There are answers from Archbishop Soroka and in the Ukraine itself from Metropolitan Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC).
Father Hutsko also explained that “all the priests are called to be representatives of Christ to the people and are not supposed to represent a political philosophy on one side or the other."
“In this particular case,” he reflected, we need to bring the message of Christ to both the government and to the people fighting for freedom and independence.”
The message: “We all are created equal, and we all have rights not given to us by the government, but by being children of God; and among them are the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
“And above anything else,” he said, “we’re all called to pray — prayers for peace and reconciliation among all the people involved in the conflict in the Ukraine.
The archbishop looks to the words of peace from the Psalms and from the New Testament as he counsels everyone in these troubling times. He cites Jesus Christ’s teachings on peace, from the Sermon on the Mount to the greetings and gifts of peace before and after his resurrection.
He reminds parish families that they “begin the Divine Liturgy with the words, ‘In peace, let us pray to the Lord’ and continue with prayerful petitions for peace. And several times during the Divine Liturgy the celebrant blesses the faithful with the words of Our Lord, ‘Peace be with all.’ And as we leave our churches, we hear the words, ‘Let us go forth in peace.’”
The Philadelphia Archeparchy also shares the directives from Metropolitan Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk in Ukraine, who is the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, regarding the priests in the present situation in Ukraine.
Among several numbered points, Metropolitan Shevchuk directs that the “primary task of the priest is to preach the word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to administer the sacraments and to lead the people in prayer, fasting and serving the needy.”
“The priest, under all circumstances of life, is to be a peacemaker," he notes, "and especially in a civil conflict. Therefore, it is strictly forbidden to proclaim calls to violence.”
“The calling of each priest, in all frightening circumstances, is not to abandon his flock and to be with them,” he says, referencing, "The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).”
Archbishop Soroka calls for the Lord to “strengthen his people in Ukraine and guide them to a peaceful resolution of this conflict and open their minds to dialogue and reconciliation” and “end the divisive violence and restore tranquility to their nation.”
He ends by imploring Mary’s help: “My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, as we raise our voices in fervent prayer, may the Most Holy Mother of God extend her protective mantle over the people of Ukraine. And may the Lord bless Ukraine and the whole world with his peace.”