Allowing Liberty to ‘Live’ in Ukraine

In an exclusive Register interview, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar provides insights about his nation’s spiritual and political challenges as Ukraine prepares for its May 25 presidential election.

Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, major archbishop emeritus of Kiev-Galicia, Ukraine
Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, major archbishop emeritus of Kiev-Galicia, Ukraine (photo: Brett R. McCaw)

His Beatitude Cardinal Lubomyr Husar served as head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest Eastern-rite Church in communion with Rome, from 2001 to 2011. Despite stepping down due to ill health, the cardinal continues to offer wise counsel to his Church and nation, amid a period of political upheaval.

Born in inter-war Lwów, Poland, in 1933, Cardinal Husar fled with his family from the Soviet Union in 1944 to later emigrate to the United States, where he was ordained a priest in 1958. As a bishop, he returned to independent Ukraine in 1991 and was eventually appointed as the Church’s head. Throughout his decade of leadership, Cardinal Husar quickly emerged as a formidable voice of Christian conscience in the post-Soviet country of 45 million — all while leading his Church through an era of dramatic institutional rebirth.

As Ukraine prepares for its much-anticipated presidential election on May 25, Cardinal Husar offered his insights regarding the role of the Church in post-Soviet society, the significance of the Euromaidan movement that led the opposition to Ukraine’s former pro-Russian government and the hope of a renewed and democratic Ukraine.


Throughout the Euromaidan movement, the leadership of your Church was quite visible in their presence and solidarity with the Ukrainian people. How has your Church contributed to the renewal of post-Soviet Ukrainian society?

I think we should begin much further back. Historically, the Church has been very close to the Ukrainian people in their suffering. In a certain sense, there is a very close relationship between the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Ukrainian people, especially in western Ukraine.

During the second part of the last century, the Church was persecuted explicitly as the Church. The Ukrainian people suffered much, as they were exposed to the Soviet regime and its philosophy of education. The Ukrainian Catholic Church was specifically persecuted and “officially” liquidated. Yet the Church survived. This persecution was not limited to the bishops and the clergy, but extended to the entire Catholic people in western Ukraine. We have martyrs on all levels.

In 1989, after Gorbachev’s visit to the Vatican, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was allowed to exist officially. However, it is important to realize that it was not exactly the same society that had re-emerged. Imagine a person who has been convicted of a crime and sent to prison for 25 years. After the 25 years, the same person is released, but changed, for better or worse. Likewise, by Ukrainian independence, the Church and Ukrainian society were the same, but not quite the same. There was a new generation that had come of age and had been educated in the Soviet system.

Yet the people did not lose the faith. In the early 1990s, the churches were bursting with people. I remember, when I returned to Ukraine in 1992, there was one moment that I needed to get to the sacristy of a parish church; however, the nave of the church was so full that I could not get through. I recall other situations when parish churches were full of people who had gathered, often without priests, to sing Easter hymns and other folk-religious songs. People were simply happy to be in church.


In what sense do you mean that the Church and society were not quite the same after the Soviet experience?

So, Monday through Saturday, people believed as they believed on Sunday, but they did not quite “live” their faith, because of the circumstances in which they found themselves. When I came here in the early 1990s, I remember occasions when I was invited to hear confessions. I was surprised that hardly anybody confessed the sin of theft. On the other hand, I was told that, “if you didn’t steal, you couldn’t survive.” I interpreted this as the fact that people had ceased to look upon stealing as a sin.

Up to this day, post-Soviet Ukraine has gained a reputation for corruption. Corruption is a form of stealing. But corruption was an integral part of survival. On the political level, the government has established “commissions” in order, officially, to deal with the situation of corruption, yet it does not disappear. Of course, most of our politicians who are over 40 began their careers in the Soviet Union. While some of those people have managed to change, Ukraine is still in a post-Bolshevik period.

Why do I mention all of this? It is not so easy to change the ways of life. These were not quite the same sort of people as when the persecution first began. Even though the people did not lose their faith, they have been wounded — very much so. Their faith did not cease, but they did not quite live their faith as they should. So the Church’s program over the last 20 years has been to assist in the healing of these wounds —  and these wounds are manifold.

The Church has been able to organize parishes — to secure normal parish existence. In the last two to three years, we have been working on a program for the revitalization of our parishes. Yet these things take time. For one, you need personnel. Today, in Ukraine, we have six seminaries. When I returned to Ukraine in 1991, it would be hard for anyone to recognize these places as seminaries. Numerous men applied, but we were unable to give them normal formation. We had a great shortage of trained teachers in the seminaries. While our professors were good priests, who had survived persecution and resisted the atheistic regime, they were not intellectually prepared to teach in the seminary. It was only when the second generation of educators and priests came that the seminary program became more serious and productive. But 20 years are still not much.

We have another aspect. The Church, for many years, was always at odds with the government, because the government was against the people. Now, all of the sudden, we have our own government. However, the Church does not know how to deal with her own government; and, on the other hand, the government, consisting mostly of people who began their careers in the Soviet era, does not know how to deal with the Church. The government wanted the Church to be at its service as one more department of control for the people. So both sides have to learn how to be real partners in serving the people.

Lastly, I would say that it is necessary to form a genuine Christian intelligentsia. An intelligentsia is very important for the life of a people, and we still do not have enough of those whom we would consider as active members of the Christian intelligentsia in Ukraine. We have a university, a Catholic university here in Ukraine: a very, very important institution. It is the only Catholic university on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, we are only at the beginning of a full-fledged Christian society. We still have much to do.


Regarding the development of a “Christian” intelligentsia in Ukrainian society, would you say that this effort could serve as the basis for further ecumenism with other churches in Ukraine; in particular, with the Orthodox?

Well, not yet. Because we do not have a Catholic intelligentsia sufficiently organized. This is something that has to grow. You see, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which is unfortunately divided into three jurisdictions, has the very same problems that we have. In a certain sense, I think we have been more fortunate than they have been, because we have contacts with the West. So many of our future priests, as well as laypeople, have been able to go to universities and schools in Western Europe. We are, in this sense, much more open to these contacts.

However, I do think that there are groups of Orthodox intellectuals with whom we will be able to sit down and speak, sooner or later.


Do you feel that the Maidan movement has created an opportunity for your Church to show its solidarity for the whole of Ukraine over and against the stereotype that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is a mere western Ukrainian, “Galician” phenomenon?

Well, we [clergy of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church] were there to serve the people who had come of their own will. We did nothing to advise and encourage the people to go. Our priests and religious were at the service of those who were on the Maidan. I myself have addressed the Maidan two or three times, and the main purpose of these short presentations was that the Church welcomed the Maidan and supported what it stood for. To my mind, it was the beginning of a new era for our time. Finally, Ukraine would be able to stand on her own, and the people would seek genuine democracy.

This is why we have our conflict at the moment, because, for Russia, this is a fatal thing. Ukraine is attempting to be independent and truly democratic. This is something that is not welcomed by Russia, particularly by the Kremlin’s nomenklatura. While we did not have intentions of leading this movement, it was also very important for us to help the people on the Maidan, who have witnessed much tragedy there, as well.


In a 2011 interview, conducted just before the celebration of Ukraine’s 20th anniversary of independence, you made the comment that Ukrainians were still "afraid" of freedom. In light of the dedication and the sacrifice of many on the Maidan, has there been a civic maturation within Ukrainian society?

I think so, yes. You see, the Maidan has opened a new era. People have come of their own will. No one forced them to come. They came. It began with the youth, and then it continued with the elders, who followed soon after. What had happened was a “breaking point” of sorts. Everyone was hoping, or at least lead to believe by the government, that Ukraine was to develop closer relations with Europe, and this would help establish an entirely new system for the country. But the government betrayed the people, and this awakened a response from them.

In this sense, we are at the threshold of an entirely new era. We have not accomplished anything yet. But the idea of a new system, of something different, of a normal state, has become a reality — a reality that can be achieved. So, in this sense, I think that this is a blessed moment, despite the terrible sacrifices made. This was the price that was paid in order to be ourselves again, after many, many years of fighting for, hoping for and dreaming of liberty. Now, we have liberty, but we have to allow it to live.

Brett R. McCaw is a freelance writer based in Washington.