Ukrainian Archbishop Borys Gudziak on Catholic Faith, Children and Truth
As Ukrainian Catholics brace for another Christmas in the midst of war, Archbishop Gudziak reminds us all, ‘Your prayers deflect bullets...’
Archbishop Borys Gudziak, the Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, has been intimately involved with Ukrainian and American affairs, especially after the outbreak of Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2022. Archbishop Borys, 63, was the founding rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in that city. Ordained a bishop in 2012, he was given responsibility for Ukrainian Catholics in France, as well as Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In 2019, he became Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Archeparchy. He spoke to the Register on the current situation in Ukraine and his ministry to Ukrainian Catholics in a war-torn landscape.
You are the Ukrainian Metropolitan Archbishop of Philadelphia but also very involved in the situation of the Byzantine Rite Church in Ukraine. That Church has traditionally been persecuted by the Russian Orthodox, leading even to its repression during Soviet times. What is its situation in Ukraine today?
The situation in Ukraine today, as earlier in Soviet times, was already presaged in the 18th century. Whenever there is a Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory, the Ukrainian Eastern Rite Catholic Church is endangered. Putin's public statements and the position of the leading ideologues of this war, who include the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, are clear: there will be no Ukrainian state, there will be no independent Ukrainian nation. If the Russians succeed, there will be no independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church and no Ukrainian Catholic Church at all. There will be no Ukraine.
If anybody doubted the brutality of their intentions, the discovery of war crimes in Bucha, Irpin, Izium and elsewhere removed that doubt. That is why Ukrainians — Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Jews and Muslims — all of whom fear genocide, are united in a unique solidarity to defend their land, their people, their religion and their very conscience.
You joined a 16-man ecumenical and interfaith delegation of the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations in Washington Oct. 31 to speak to the needs of Ukraine today. How has the situation of the Byzantine Church changed for the better in today’s Ukraine?
From 1946-89, the Ukrainian Catholic Church was the biggest illegal church in the world. It was simply liquidated as a visible structure by the Soviet regime. Its leadership and faithful were imprisoned, persecuted and killed. Today Ukrainian Catholics are free. All confessions are free. So, for sure, the situation is better in an independent Ukraine.
During the visit to Washington of the delegation that you referred to, many observers were positively stunned. They saw an Orthodox rabbi sitting next to a Muslim mufti. Where else, other than in Ukraine, would you see, after Oct. 7, Muslim and Jewish leaders together in solidarity, speaking in unison to defend God-given human dignity?
The war Russia thrust upon Ukraine is an existential struggle for that country. Yet some Americans are growing tired of the fight, asking why the United States should have any interest in this conflict “in a faraway land of which we know very little,” to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain. What do you say to them? Why stick with Ukraine?
There are, of course, many reasons, but I will name the most practical ones. The full-scale invasion in February 2022, preceded by eight years of lower-scale Russian military aggression, led to the displacement of 15 million people, of which 8 million ended up abroad. If Russia is allowed to advance there will be 10 more million who will be forced to flee. This will produce further global destabilization.
Russian aggression has already cost every single American and every single person on this earth very dearly. Because Russia invaded Ukraine, everybody's gas, electricity and food prices went up. If 10 million more people are forced to flee into Europe, European society and its economy will be profoundly shaken. It is also worth remembering that up to 40% of the American economy is somehow tied to Europe’s.
Those who think that we can somehow isolate ourselves from global affairs simply do not remember history and do not understand the real world of today. If Ukraine falls, not only will there be the above-mentioned social, societal and economic shifts, but there will be a great expense, including boots on the ground, to defend America's NATO Allies: Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. It is best if the genocidal evil that Russia is propagating stops at the reconstituted Ukrainian border.
As a Catholic bishop, what have you been hearing about the pastoral challenges of the Greek Catholic and Latin Churches in Ukraine to conducting their pastoral ministry in the middle of a war?
The pastoral challenges of Catholics in Ukraine are overwhelming. A pastor is called to feed the sheep and, as Pope Francis stated, to have the smell of the sheep. In Ukraine, the sheep smell of the hardships of war and so do the pastors. Priests are close to those who have shed their blood. They are in the hospitals. They are providing food and shelter. They are accompanying refugees.
It is precisely because of the solidarity of Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Jews and Muslims, and all people of goodwill, that despite these great dislocations, you do not see big refugee camps in Ukraine, even though 5 million people are internally displaced there.
Last winter Putin tried to freeze Ukrainians. He succeeded in degrading Ukraine's energy grid, the electricity and heating systems, by more than 40%. Yet no one froze. The situation is arduous yet no one is dying of hunger. He’s trying the same again this year.
Returning to New York from Ukraine on one of my trips, I suddenly realized that the image of New York's homeless people was not one that I saw on the streets of cities and towns in Ukraine. There has been incredible solidarity. I am firmly convinced that Catholics in Ukraine who, not only explicitly enunciated but practically modeled the principles of Catholic social doctrine, have helped create the matrix for this solidarity.
One needs to come up close to see a society that, although diverse, comes together around the basic principles that Jesus proposes. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Heal the sick. Give comfort to those who weep and mourn.
Russia wages a constant disinformation campaign against Ukraine. How does it use religion to push its claims that Ukraine is not a nation nor Ukrainians a separate people?
The ideological disinformation campaign that Russia conducts against Ukraine uses religion to try to deprive Ukraine of its history. For example, they often invoke the figure of Volodymyr the Great. Some two centuries before Moscow was founded, Christianity was accepted by this ruler of Kyiv, the capital of today's Ukraine. Through convoluted manipulation and contortion of historical facts, Vladimir Putin tries to show that Volodymyr the Great of Kyiv is the initiator of Russian history and Russian Christianity. It is as if Napoleon forcing the pope to crown him in Paris was trying to appropriate the history of Rome for France.
Much of American and global Slavic studies have traditionally accepted the Russian imperial narrative. Slavic studies in most universities, even in the United States, are limited to Russian studies. The intellectual decolonization of Slavic and Ukrainian studies needs to happen not only in Russia but even in America. For that reason, the annual convention of Slavic studies held in Philadelphia this December is taking on decolonization as a central topic.
What are your biggest challenges as a bishop in the United States raising the concerns of Ukraine among your fellow prelates? What, if any, ecumenical or interreligious support have you enjoyed?
I am moved by the singular and virtually monolithic support of the Catholic bishops of the United States for Ukraine. They lead and represent over 70 million Catholics who have been praying for Ukraine, disseminating the true story regarding the injustices committed by the Russian invaders, and offering generous aid. Catholics generally have great clarity in what is happening. We need to work with some of our evangelical brothers.
Not all the North American Orthodox leaders have been clear and consistent in their condemnation of the war. There is a need for internal Orthodox metanoia today in Russia and among many Russian Orthodox globally. The Russian Orthodox Church is a purveyor of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism at a time when all Christian confessions are repenting for their role in such historical phenomena.
We are grateful to the Jewish and Muslim communities for their solidarity. We suffer when we see rising anti-Semitism and expressions of Islamophobia and the frightening expressions of multiplication of anti-Semitic hate acts throughout the country and the world. The terrorism and violence in the Holy Land that affects the innocent — Jews, Muslims and Christians — is appalling. As was pointed out in the October interfaith religious leaders' visit to Washington, a Muslim imam and a Jewish rabbi — both from Ukraine — could sit together and speak in solidarity about the sufferings their faiths are undergoing in that country.
We are very concerned about the rise of fear, fearmongering and Putin's nuclear saber-rattling. We also have great confidence in the Lord's providence. We need to stick to the truth. We need to work for peace, but a peace that is just. And justice and true peace always come at a cost. Freedom is never free.
What is the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the United States doing to support its religious brothers and sisters in Ukraine?
The Ukrainian Catholics in the United States, through various organizations, have raised tens of millions of dollars for humanitarian aid. At every service, many times a day, we pray to beseech the Lord asking that his peace be with us, and that the truth prevails in Ukraine and in the world. We work to explain to, and inform, the good people of the United States what is happening in Ukraine and how Russia's aggression is a danger to the entire world.
The Ukrainian Catholic University is the first Catholic institution to open in the territory of what had been the USSR, and it is the first Greek Catholic-origin university in the world. What was the impetus for its establishment?
The Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) was established on the basis of a century-old vision that could not have been previously realized because of totalitarian rule in Ukraine. It seeks to offer an excellent education and a formation that is holistic, that sees the human being not only as a brain to be programmed, but as an integrated human being with mind, soul, body and spirit.
Today the community atmosphere of the university, its educational programs, and its corporate culture are a model not only for higher education, but for many institutions in Ukraine. President Zelensky came to visit the university last January. A week later he asked Father Bohdan Prach, the university's rector (2013-2023), if he would be willing to be the minister of education for the country, not knowing that a Catholic priest cannot hold an elected or appointed political office.
Today, UCU has the highest average SAT scores of incoming students. It is the university of choice for the future leaders of the country. Catholic education throughout history, on different continents, has given the poor, the downtrodden, the socially marginalized, a chance to flourish in life. In a country where Catholics constitute less than 10%, it is the Christian matrix of the university that has made UCU an attractive model for others to emulate. It is a community of academic pursuit. But that pursuit is tempered by love and marked by the intention to serve. Much effort is expended to make sure that this gospel identity of the Ukrainian Catholic University is continually enhanced.
What would you like to say to American readers?
I would like to express the most profound gratitude of Ukrainians, both Catholics and people of many different faiths, to Americans. Your prayers deflect bullets. Your understanding of the truth in the biblical story of David standing up to Goliath informs our society's support of Ukraine, and that support has been generous and crucial. I ask you to keep it up. Ukrainians won’t give up. Please continue supporting them.
The children of Ukraine will experience their second Christmas at war this year. Apart from wishing them peace from the Prince of Peace, what can Americans do to help the Church in Ukraine this Christmas?
This is the second Christmas of a full-scale war for Ukrainian children. But, actually, it is their 10th, as Russia occupied Crimea and Donbas in 2014.
Today there are 8 million Ukrainian forced migrants throughout the world. About 300,000 have come to the United States, which is a small percentage. We are grateful to Americans who opened their hearts and homes to Ukrainians.
Everybody is trying to do their part. There are different Catholic agencies that support Ukraine. Our Metropolia humanitarian aid fund has distributed almost $8 million of humanitarian aid. Usually, we can respond to requests from Ukraine faster than any other humanitarian aid agency in the U.S. Our response is within two or three weeks because with a network of 3,000 parishes and almost 3,000 priests plus the biggest non-governmental association aid agency, Caritas-Ukraine, the Ukrainian Catholic Church is in a unique position to work quickly and effectively.
To learn more about the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s Metropolia humanitarian aid fund, go to ukrcatholic.org/offices-and-ministries/metropolia-humanitarian-aid-fund
- Archbishop Borys Gudziak
- Catholic church in ukraine
- ukraine crisis
- catholic church in russia