Rebuilding the Church - and the Culture - in Ukraine

Myroslav Marynovich is a Ukrainian Catholic who spent 10 years in the gulag for promoting human and religious rights in the Soviet Union.

Among his books is The Gospel According to God's Fool, written in a labor camp. Today, he works for the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, directs the Institute of Religion and Society, and is an adviser on ecumenism for Ukrainian Catholic Church leader Cardinal Lubomyr Husar.

Marynovich was in Connecticut recently, where he spoke with Register correspondent Stephen Vincent.

Tell me about your upbringing.

I was born in 1949 and was raised in a Soviet environment. I lived in western

Ukraine, a part of the former Soviet Union that had a clear opposition to the communist ideology. There was a strong feeling of religious tradition that gave a special dimension to my youth.

Were you able to practice your faith openly?

The Greek or Eastern Catholic Church [which is in communion with Rome] was banned, so only the Russian Orthodox Church was allowed to exist officially. My grandfather was a Greek Catholic priest who was arrested in 1945 and forced to change his

affiliation to the Russian Orthodox Church. So I was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church. When democratization took place during the Gorbachev era, my family and I immediately changed our affiliation back to the Greek Catholic Church, because it was our Church.

So we didn't practice the underground liturgy, but we kept the memory of our Church. I'm an example of many Ukrainians who were formerly Orthodox but changed affiliation as soon as it was possible to express our identity freely and openly. The Ukrainian Catholic Church is the largest of the Eastern Catholic churches. There are about 5 million Catholics out of a population of 48 million people in Ukraine.

Why you were sent to the gulag?

I joined the human-rights group Ukraine Helsinki Watch, formed after the 1976 Helsinki Accords on human rights. We tried to defend the rights of the people of art, of literature, of poetry, people of conscience and also the religious communities. We stood for religious freedom in the Soviet Union.

I was arrested in 1977, when I was 28. I had the possibility to avoid this arrest, but because we acted openly, it meant the KGB had to do something with us. We announced our names and addresses.

We collected data about people who were arrested in violation of the Helsinki Accords. So we were arrested; practically all 10 members of the Ukraine Helsinki group were arrested sooner or later. The interrogation and court trial were very unjust, sometimes in a funny way. When I tried to refer to a famous Lenin phrase in my defense at court, the judge stopped me and said, “Look, don't pronounce the name of Lenin because it sounds like a blasphemy in your mouth.”

Because I didn't repent for my activities, I was sentenced to the maximum: seven years of imprisonment and five years of exile.

Where were you sent?

To the Perm region, a labor camp in the Ural Mountains. I have to say that I became a practicing Christian in prison. It was the best place to check your Christian convictions. Do you love your enemy in the prison? Do you love your administration, which persecutes you all the time?

I served the full seven years. In exile I was allowed to live more or less freely, in a remote village. I was not allowed to leave the place without permission. People in the village were very close to nature and very far from politics. Still, I had to work and report twice a week to the police station. I served only three years of exile. It was 1987 and Gorbachev released about 200 political prisoners, including me.

What is the present religious situation in Ukraine?

Half of the Ukrainian population is not affiliated with religion. We have suffered a great devastation because of the Soviet era. In fact, Christians are a minority. When people ask me what kind of country Ukraine is, my response is that we are mostly atheistic.

In my eyes, all Christians are in the minority, so we have to be partners, across all affiliations, for the New Evangelization. The Ukrainian Catholic Church is often blamed for proselytizing. The [Orthodox] Moscow Patriarchate, which is very powerful, doesn't want any Catholics to enter Ukraine. But it is a challenge for Eastern Catholics.

How free is the Catholic Church to operate?

We have a good practice of religious freedom in Ukraine now. We have a much better situation than there is in Russia. We have rather good legislation. There are some limits put in place by pressure from Russia on how foreign missionaries can come into the country, but these limits are not as strong as in Russia.

Some sort of American denomi-nationalism is being developed in Ukraine. We have no one strong church. We have many branches, many confessions. Some Orthodox Church leaders claim to be the official church, but they are not so strong to assert this.

Tell me about your work with the Ukrainian Catholic University.

It is very important to bring good theological education to Ukraine. Sometimes especially Protestants from America have the idea to bring the good news to Ukraine as a totally de-Christianized world. We say that we do not have to bring good news but to remind our people about the good news we have heard already in our history. It's a question of education and reviving that Christian heritage.

The Ukrainian Catholic University seeks to bring the good standards of education in the Catholic tradition. We also want to secure the spiritual dimension of Catholic education; not just the knowledge but the liturgical background and the spiritual foundation and wisdom. We want to witness to what we preach. We have to be and we are a corruption-free zone in a severely corrupted society. We do not allow any kind of bribes by the students [in return for passing grades].

What are your plans?

As a Church educational body, we would like to restore the normal tradition, the normal Christian culture of the nation. Through the New Evangelization, we are engaged in a process of religious revival and renewal within the Church itself. We often feel that we have such a difficult situation in Ukraine. Sometimes we have to find extraordinary means to meet the needs of our society.

Is there competition with the Orthodox Church?

The tradition of non-tolerance is widely spread in Ukraine. Sometimes it is very difficult to convince Christians of a different confession, that to hold the truth doesn't mean to be hostile toward the “heretics.” What does it mean to hold the truth, to be proud of this truth? Truth is in revelation, but it is revealed also in history. We all are constantly searching for truth. In this way, all Christians are partners in searching for the truth.

Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.