Feasts and Famines

How a look Eastward can make Americans more thankful — and vigilant

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk (photo: Mariangeles Burger)

Here we are at another Thanksgiving, that most American of feast days. For so many of us, it has come to mean food, family and football.

Oh, and phenomenal savings — the next day, anyway.

We are reminded to thank God for our many blessings. And then we indulge.

I’ve never really thought about it much, but Archbishop Timothy Dolan made a lot of sense the other day when he pointed to the basic thing for which we must be grateful: the religious liberty we enjoy in this country, settled in large part by those whose religious freedom had been curtailed in the Old World.

In speaking of that “first freedom,” the archbishop of New York found himself in an interesting setting. He had just finished leading an important meeting of the 300 or so bishops of the United States in which a major topic of discussion was the erosion of religious liberty in our republic. It was Archbishop Dolan, as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who established an ad hoc committee on religious freedom, in response to growing threats to religious liberty. There’s the proposed mandate, for example, from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department that all employer healthcare plans cover contraception and sterilization — with a very narrow religious exemption. And there have been several Catholic Charities agencies that have gotten out of adoption and foster care because same-sex “marriage” laws require them to place children with homosexual households.

Religious freedom is a concern that, I dare say, is not yet on the radar screens of most Americans. They may have heard of Christians in other countries who cannot practice as they wishe, but not here, not in the good-old U.S.A.

If Archbishop Dolan has his way, however, it will be an issue in the 2012 elections.

The audience he addressed Sunday at Fordham University could well relate to his concerns. Fordham’s University Church was packed to the rafters with hundreds of Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans, whose Church and homeland had suffered bitterly for decades in the century lately ended.

They were there to honor the longtime major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, who retired this year at the age of 77. Fordham erected the cardinal’s coat of arms in the sanctuary of the church, boasting that this alumnus (he earned a graduate degree there in 1966) was one of eight cardinals associated with the Jesuit university. Cardinal Avery Dulles is another.

The institution also bestowed an honorary doctorate on Cardinal Husar’s successor, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk.

More remarkable than his name, perhaps, is his age. He was 40 when he was elected in March to lead the world’s largest Eastern-rite Church in communion with Rome, with its 5.5 million members in Ukraine and the “Diaspora” around the world.

In his introductory remarks, Archbishop Dolan said that on Thanksgiving, “we thank God for the freedom and liberty we enjoy. We’ll have another reason for gratitude this week: that we’ve been privileged to be part of an occasion in which we honor you for the bravery, fortitude, integrity, fidelity and tenacity of you and Cardinal Husar and your beloved Ukrainian Catholics, who exhibited those virtues in a land that did not have religious liberty and freedom.

“Please accept our love and gratitude for you witness,” he said. “We need it more than ever.”

Archbishop Sviatoslav said he accepted the honor for the “martyr Church” he has been called to carry on his shoulders. Days earlier, as a guest at the U.S. bishops conference meeting in Baltimore, he expanded a bit more on that martyr Church, its resurrection since the fall of communism and its new challenges.

“I would like to express our solidarity with the USCCB as it prepares to defend religious freedom and liberty more vocally in the public square, not only in the United States but worldwide,” he said. “The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has a special understanding of religious liberty and what its absence entails. It’s evidenced by the martyrdom experienced by our Church during the totalitarian communist regime in eastern Europe…. Basic Church structures [were] totally destroyed by the communist regime.”

The Church in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was forcibly subsumed into the Russian Orthodox Church, and ecclesiastical properties were confiscated. The faithful continued to practice their religion underground.

Now, however, though the Church enjoys freedom, “society is facing strong secularizing influences,” which brings its own problems.

The Nov. 20 tribute to these two Ukrainian Catholic leaders, planned over a year ago, took place in a month in which one of Pope Benedict XVI’s prayer intentions was for the Eastern Churches, “that their venerable tradition may be known and appreciated as a spiritual treasure for the entire Church.” Coincidentally, I also had the opportunity to attend two other Ukrainian-related events in New York in November: a one-man play by Father Edward Evanko on the 1932-32 famine caused by the disastrous policies of Stalin, which left an estimated 7-10 million dead, and the premiere of a setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, by Roman Hurko — a veritable feast for the ears and spirit.

Here’s one Roman Catholic who, this Thanksgiving, is grateful for the faith and fidelity, fortitude, witness and wisdom of our Eastern Christian brothers and sisters.