Rising From the Ashes in Ukraine

COMMENTARY: The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has witnessed a remarkable resurrection, helped considerably by the Ukrainian Catholic diaspora, notably from Canada and the United States.

An icon of the Resurrection from the School of Iconography at Ukrainian Catholic University.
An icon of the Resurrection from the School of Iconography at Ukrainian Catholic University. (photo: National Catholic Register / Courtesy Father Benedict Kiely)

As I crossed the border on foot from Ukraine into Poland a few weeks ago, it had started to rain heavily. Although not refugees, my traveling companion, a journalist from a British national newspaper, and I were rather bedraggled and in need of shelter. Immediately upon entering Poland, many NGOs and other charitable agencies had sent up tents with food, hot drinks and medical expertise to help the thousands of Ukrainian women and children who had been coming over. 

Hearing English being spoken in one of the tents, we were kindly welcomed and offered coffee and pizza. After a few minutes of conversation, one of the young volunteers asked me if I was a Catholic priest. Hearing that I was, he wondered if I had heard of his Catholic school in England, which, in fact, is one of the most famous. Asking his age, I wondered if he knew my goddaughter, who had been a pupil. As St. John Paul II said, in the providence of God “there are no such thing as coincidences”: He knew her well. 

The journey had begun four days before, on Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Holy Thursday, again in the drizzle, crossing with a small number of Ukrainian women and children who were returning for Easter. Talking to one mother in the line at border control, she told us she was returning to see her husband, who was fighting, and to celebrate the holy days with him, but would then return to Poland as it was too dangerous to stay in Ukraine. 

We were headed to Lviv, in western Ukraine, comparatively safe, although hit multiple times by Russian missiles, including just a few days before our arrival, with seven people killed. 

My colleague was writing a piece for his newspaper about “Easter in Ukraine,” but my interest was much more in not only celebrating the liturgies, but showing solidarity and support for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC). 

I had been to Lviv before, in 2017, a time of comparative peace, and was captivated by the city. Charming Habsburg-era buildings predominate in the old city, mercifully surviving World War II. Ruled at times by Poles, Lithuanians, Russians and, of course, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Lviv had also suffered not only the Nazi occupation but, like the whole of Ukraine, decades of repression under the atheistic communism of the Soviets. 

The brutal repression by the communists of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, an Eastern Rite Church in communion with Rome since the 16th century, is not well enough known by most Western Catholics, and certainly not by the media. Sadly, my friend told me he could not write much about the UGCC, because his editors knew little about the history and thought that the readership would not be particularly interested in learning. 

As the largest of the Eastern Rite Churches, the history of the UGCC is a very important component in understanding the current war of aggression by Russia, and what might happen to our Eastern Catholic brethren. 

Forced into a union with the Russian Orthodox Church by Stalin in 1946, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church can truly be called a Church of martyrs, both in the sense that many bishops, priests, religious and laity were indeed killed for their fidelity, but also, just in the sense of their incredible witness over more than four decades of intense persecution.  

As I was speaking to one of the priests at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, he described the Church under communism as a “catacomb Church.” Seminaries were underground, Masses were celebrated in woods and forests, and not one church was allowed to be open. 

In 1989, with the fall of the “evil empire,” as Ronald Reagan accurately described the Soviet regime, the Church emerged from the ashes, like the Risen Christ breaking forth from the tomb. 

It has been a remarkable resurrection, helped considerably by the Ukrainian Catholic diaspora, notably from Canada and the United States. The university itself is a testament to that extraordinary renewal, being built anew since 1989. The beautiful liturgies were packed; on Good Friday, the line to venerate the Holy Icon of the dead Christ, like the Western Veneration of the Cross, went out of the Church and into the street. Priests and people told me there were discussions about what to do if the Church had to return to the catacombs. Already in the east of Ukraine, in the Donbas region and other areas taken by the Russians in 2014, the Ukrainian Catholic Church was experiencing a new form of repression and suppression, a fact barely reported in Western media. 

Many are concerned that, with a naive optimism, or willful ignorance, authorities in Rome have focused for too long on ecumenism with the Russian Orthodox at the expense of supporting powerfully and visibly the UGCC. There is real shock that the Pope has yet to name Russia as the aggressor and a hope he will soon name the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, a cardinal, something that happened to the archbishop’s four predecessors.  

As someone for whom my entire priestly ministry is dedicated to aid and advocacy for persecuted Christians, it was particularly shocking to see the similarities between what is happening in Ukraine and what I have seen in Iraq and Syria during multiple visits since 2015. Once more, a large majority of the population have become “IDPs” (Internally Displaced Persons) — one cannot be a refugee in his own country. The tragedy, and scandal of this war is that it is not Islamist extremists causing this, but fellow Christians. 

Yet, as the Ukrainian Catholic Church emerged from the ashes of communism, Easter Sunday Mass in Lviv, despite the air raid sirens that punctuated our visit, showed, with its joyful chant and full Church, that evil will not have the last word. Visiting the school of iconography at the University of Lviv, I bought a beautiful icon of the Resurrection. It struck me, somehow, as a true symbol of the life of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Christ holds his hands out to Adam and Eve, ready to pull them out of the darkness of hell into the light of His glory. We must pray this is true for all of the Ukrainian people.