Metropolitan Borys: Praying for Peace in Ukraine
“We heed our baptismal call and suffer with the Ukrainian people,” says Philadelphia’s Ukrainian Catholic Archeparch Borys Gudziak. “We pray that the violence on their doorstep never comes to fruition.”
The present situation in Ukraine grows in intensity with every passing minute. The buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border has presented a clear and present danger for weeks now, and recent statements from the White House seem to have emboldened the Putin regime. With the wick of war lit, it seems a matter of time for the explosion of violence. However, for people of faith, we pray for the cooling breath of the Holy Spirit to extinguish the violent hearts of men. Indeed, this is what Pope Francis hopes yesterday’s day of prayer for peace in Ukraine will accomplish.
To assess this present situation, I turned to several of my Ukrainian friends. You see, I have a great love for Ukraine. My faith has been forever impacted by the witness of Ukrainian Catholicism. I count many Ukrainian Catholics among my dearest friends and colleagues. My particular Church, the Ruthenian Catholic Church, counts Ukrainian Catholics as family members. Our traditions are the same, handed down from Sts. Cyril and Methodius and countless generations of faithful.
Our Churches encountered the same kind of suffering under the Nazi and Soviet regimes. We were outlawed and our bishops, priests and nuns were martyred, tortured or imprisoned. There is something about suffering together that forges unbreakable bonds. To see a similar threat at your doorstep rallies familial hearts. So I asked my family in the Faith to provide some perspective on the situation and to offer an invitation to the rest of Christendom to suffer with the Ukrainian people and deepen those familial bonds of solidarity.
I was honored to meet Metropolitan Borys Gudziak in 2019 when he visited EWTN and appeared on EWTN Live. (The episode is well worth re-watching.) Though born in the United States, Metropolitan Borys spent many years in Ukraine as a priest and rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University. He served as the bishop for Ukrainian Catholics in France and Switzerland before becoming the Metropolitan Archbishop of Philadelphia. He was pleased to field a few of my questions with a written response:
Ukraine has had some very significant political and religious events within the past 10 years, several of which have been excellent for Ukrainian independence. Obviously, a more autonomous Ukraine incites the ire of Russia but the timing of this current threat is curious. Why do you think Russia has escalated its threat recently?
Archbishop Borys: There is one fundamental reason that is more important than all others as to why Russia is escalating its threat of invasion: Over the past 30-year period Ukraine has been demonstrating a progressive development of a democratic, inclusive society. Six different presidents have been elected, there is freedom of the press and of religion.
Ukraine welcomed back Crimean Tatars — a Muslim community whom Stalin deported from Crimea in 1946 in an ethnic cleansing. The country has a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and has had a Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman. There is a vibrant civil society with countless NGOs that supplement and challenge government authorities, providing the checks and balances needed to safeguard the civil rights of all citizens, not only those in power. The country has some 100 religious confessions all with equal civic rights. The public discourse is replete with all possible opinion. It is a country with growing transparency. This is what autocracies and totalitarian regimes fear most — that their dictatorial control will be lost, that too many free forces emerge in society.
The example of Ukraine, which is just next door, is a threat to Belarus, Kazakhstan and most of all to Russia. That’s why Russia reacted so strongly against the forging of a free and democratic Ukraine and Georgia. That is why Russia supports repression in Belarus and Kazakhstan. In post-Soviet Russia, no president has ever lost an election. The system of rule is a dictatorial kleptocracy without authentic freedoms of the press, religion or political activity.
Darkness fears light. People, especially young people, in Ukraine want to go forward. They do not want to go back to the kind of dictatorial rule which in the 20th century Russia imposed and which contributed to the killing of 15 million people on Ukrainian soil. Ukrainians are fostering their own self-determination, their own creativity, their God-given dignity and freedom.
Russian rulers fear that this social consciousness might spread across the border. They find Ukraine to be a dangerous precedent and real threat to the prospects of rebuilding authoritarian Russian hegemony inside their country and in the near abroad.
Many of us are aware of the politics surrounding the current situation in Ukraine, but what are the underlying spiritual issues at play? And do those issues play into the right of religious freedom in Ukraine?
The underlying spiritual issue is that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and each person has an unalienable human dignity. This dignity is impaired when freedom is curtailed. Authoritarian regimes like that in Russia do this across the board in a regular manner. In Ukraine, this freedom has been flourishing, and this is the fundamental spiritual conflict. It is a different view of the human being, a fundamentally different anthropology. For followers of Jesus, respect for human dignity and freedom is clearly of the highest priority. Controlling people, subjugating cultures, languages, and countries is in diametric opposition to the will of God.
Having spent many years in Ukraine, you know many people who live and work there. What are you hearing from them? How are they responding to the present crisis?
Having been responsible for a university for 20 years I know countless people in Ukraine and have abundant sources on the present situation. In fact, I am responding to these questions from the airplane and I am flying to London and then to Ukraine on Monday.
My friends and colleagues, bishops and priests, professors and students, and family members are anxious but their fortitude has been forged by the difficult and devastating Soviet decades. They have been under the cloud of a hot war for the past eight years. They are not panicking; they are not falling apart. They are praying, they trust in the Lord. They are also preparing. There are more than 100,000 active troops, there are 400,000 veterans from the past eight years of this war, and Ukrainians have a strong resolve to defend themselves, to secure their freedom.
Over the past 200 years, every time any Russian regime — whether it was tsarist, communist, Soviet or post-Soviet Putinist — has taken over a part of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church on that territory has been persecuted and then eliminated. People know that history and they do not want it to be repeated.
There has been a wonderful response to the present crisis both from Pope Francis and from Major-Archbishop Shevchuk. How have you been personally encouraged by their spiritual leadership during this time?
Of course, we are encouraged by the Holy Father’s appeal to all Catholics and all people of goodwill to pray for peace in Ukraine. The head of our Church, Patriarch Sviatoslav, is a cheerful leader, a man of profound faith, a leader who gives hope to all of us. We are strengthened by praying together and being in solidarity.
The Holy Father designated Jan. 26 as a day of prayer for peace in Ukraine. How can we as Christians best act for peace?
Jan. 26 was a day of prayer for peace in Ukraine and it is very important to ask God to send His Holy Spirit into this situation. The Soviet Union — an empire, a superpower armed to its teeth with nuclear weapons — fell apart in a peaceful manner. The demise of the USSR was something that was not predicted. Few thought that it could happen. It was, in fact, a miracle. It was the work of the Lord.
What can Christians do? As we, the Ukrainian Catholic bishops in the United States, have written in our appeal, all Catholics and people of goodwill can pray and should stay informed and look for the possibilities to help, as the humanitarian situation in Ukraine is difficult and might become worse.
Jan. 26 was a day of special attention, and these days, the Ukrainian events are in the global news, but I would like to ask people in the U.S. and around the globe to continue keeping Ukraine and Ukrainians in their prayers and front of mind for the long haul. This war is one that has been ongoing for eight years — 14,000 people, including thousands of civilians, died. Ukraine has 1.5 million internally displaced people and has lost a substantial part of its territory in the east as well as Crimea.
Moving forward, what concrete steps do you envision to build a lasting peace between Russia and Ukraine? And what role does the Church have as an intercessor in the peace-building process?
Reconciliation and peace require justice. It is important for the leadership and the population of Russia to come to the realization that they have no right to colonize any country or any people. At different levels, Russians need to take stock of their imperial legacy. As long as the conviction and ambition of empire and reflex of domination is there, we can expect continued difficulties. Ukrainians can help convince Russians that being a strong democracy, living responsibly, and joyfully fostering a free society, respecting neighbors is attractive and life-giving.
There is no guarantee that this will happen. There is evil in the world. History demonstrates that the idea of “empire” is strongly enticing, that empire-builders have repeatedly enslaved and slaughtered millions to realize their ambitions. We try to pray and speak the truth; we are helping those most in need.
We also encourage the Russian Orthodox Church to start speaking prophetically on this issue in Russian society. So far, we have not heard a voice of peace, which is critical of Russian imperial history and present colonial ambitions. In the 21st century, most Christian Churches repent of any role that they have played in empire-building and enslaving other cultures. It is time for the Russian Orthodox Church to consider its role in historic imperialism and in the events that are occurring. Is hegemony over a landmass extending for 11 time zones not enough?
It can be difficult to understand and empathize with the problems of a nation half the world away. We Americans have so many problems of our own, so many concerns and worries. What makes it different is our common Baptism. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Ukraine has been suffering for a long time. It was a nation bruised and beaten during the period of WWII. It suffered the Holodomor under Stalin. It continued to languish under the Soviet yoke. Freedom for Ukraine brings healing. Without freedom, the healing process becomes indefinitely stalled. Any incursions into Ukraine would cause untold human suffering.
We heed our baptismal call and suffer with the Ukrainian people. We pray that the violence on their doorstep never comes to fruition. We pray for peace.
To follow the statements of Metropolitan Borys and the Ukrainian Catholic Church, visit UkrArcheparchy.us. Also, for a more in-depth look, take a look at Metropolitan Borys’ 2019 appearance on EWTN Live: