Russia’s Perilous Presence

Ukrainian Catholic Priest Discusses His Country and Ongoing Crisis in the Region

Father Yuriy Sakvuk, 38, is a priest in the Ukrainian Greek (Byzantine rite) Catholic Church, an eastern Church in communion with Rome. Father Sakvuk is a professor of ecclesiology and ecumenism and the director of the Department of Spiritual Guidance and Pastoral Care at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine. He arrived in the United States for a prescheduled trip on Feb. 24, days after Ukraine’s former president, the Moscow-allied Viktor Yanukovych, fled the capital amid widening anti-government demonstrations.

On March 4, Father Sakvuk spoke with the Register about the harrowing political developments that led to the killing of an estimated 90 people, the majority of them protesters, including one of his students. Today, he believes his homeland is on a "pilgrimage from the ‘empire of fear’ to the ‘kingdom of dignity,’" but he acknowledged that there is great peril ahead, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin responded to Ukraine’s political crisis by ordering Russian troops into the Crimean Peninsula.

Father Sakvuk called on Americans to support the Ukrainian people’s struggle for political and religious freedom. And on March 4, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement that expressed support for the people of Ukraine. "Together with my brother bishops, I ask U.S. Catholic communities, gathering for the beginning of Lent on Wednesday, to pray for a peaceful resolution of this crisis, one that secures the just and fundamental human rights of a long-suffering, oppressed people."


Father Sakvuk, were you in Maidan Square at the time the snipers began to fire on the demonstrations?

I am from the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. It is the only Catholic university in the territory of the former Soviet Union. Lviv is about 400 miles from Kiev, closer to the Polish border, more Catholic and oriented to the West. The eastern part of Ukraine is Orthodox and oriented to Russia.

I was on the square in the early stage of the revolution. And just a week ago, I participated in the burial of one of our doctoral students, who was just 28 years old. He was about to get married and also defend his doctoral dissertation on elections in Ukraine. He was shot by government snipers, though he was a peaceful man and in no way aggressive. At the time he was killed, he was trying to help another man who had been shot.

It was terrible to see his fiancée standing beside his parents in front of his grave. About 10,000 people participated in his funeral. As with other funerals of those who had been killed during the protests, the people shouted out during the service, "Heroes do not die."


What does the killing of this man, and others like him, mean for Ukraine?

My own message to our parishioners in Lviv and to Americans is this: Something terrible happened in Ukraine, but also something very positive. There is no resurrection without the cross. We cannot receive our freedom without sacrifice.

When we became independent in 1991, it was without sacrifices. We didn’t use our freedom responsibly. We needed sacrifice in order to cherish our freedom.

Now, people understand that. We don’t want just a change of personalities, but a change of system. And the future does not depend only on certain persons in government, but on all of us.

When the demonstrations began last November, the leaders of Poland’s Solidarity movement made a video message, saying that what is happening in Ukraine is the same process Poland went through over 20 years ago. They said, "We advise you to be patient, consistent and stand up for your freedom. We support you with all our heart."

Now, we have this external threat — Russia — and the problem is even more difficult than before. But if there would be no threat from Russia, I would say what is happening in Ukraine is positive.


What key issues prompted the massive demonstrations in Maidan?

People were disappointed with President Yanukovych for a long time. Politics and business have been entangled in Ukraine, and they need to be separated.

Last November, after the president decided not to sign an agreement with the European Union, it became obvious that he wanted to move the country closer to Russia. Young people were the first to revolt — they wanted to be part of the free world.

Ukrainian Catholics in the western part of the country want to be closer to Europe because we want freedom of religion and speech to be defended by law. We want open borders and the ability to travel throughout Europe and not be closed off. When some students were severely beaten, 1 million people came to Maidan the next day. It became a revolution, not only of students, but of the whole nation.


When did the revolution take a decisive turn?

For two months, nothing important happened. Then, on Jan. 19, the police killed several demonstrators in the square, triggering a month-long struggle between the people and the police. Ninety-three people were killed on one day, prompting more people to come to Kiev. Many decided to stay on the square defending their rights.

When the president saw he could not settle this problem down, he had to escape. After that, Russian troops were deployed. Putin fears that the flames of this revolution of dignity could jump to Russia and Belorussia [Belarus]. So Russia is trying to defend itself.

Yanukovych has said that he is still the legitimate leader of Ukraine, and he said the revolution was made by a bunch of bandits and hooligans.

But if you know [those] who were shot, you will see that they were people with great education — doctors, painters, students. The hooligans and bandits stayed at home; they don’t care. In fact, if the country is not ruled by law, it is better for them.


What was happening at your university during the political crisis?

Several days after the revolution began in November, representatives of the secret police came to the rector of the university to ask him to give a list of students participating in the demonstrations. We made this public, and, of course, they did not receive the names. But it gives you an example of the kind of country we were in.

[During the crisis] we held liturgies, and we prayed and fasted, as the leaders of our Church, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, directed us to do.

There is a passage in the Bible that says evil can only be expelled by prayer and fasting. Our bishops asked us to pray and fast. Each diocese had one day of strict fasting. My archdiocese had to fast on Tuesdays; and Kiev on Wednesdays — only water or bread if necessary.

Our bishops asked all of the faithful, including every family, to come together for prayer at 9pm in this difficult period. Even those who had not prayed for a long time would kneel and pray. People are praying right now for the Maidan [demonstrators] and our real independence.


Was the Catholic Church threatened by the government as the crisis worsened?

At one point during the revolution, the head of our Church, Major Archbishop Stanislav Shevchuk, received a letter from the ministry of culture. The letter said that we could no longer participate in the revolutionary activities, such as offering liturgies in the square. If we continued, they might refuse our official government registration — a requirement for every church in Ukraine.

The next day, our patriarch [Major Archbishop Shevchuk] organized a press conference, and he made the letter, which was supposed to remain secret, public.

Our patriarch said that priests should not be political and make political statements, but they should be among the people, giving the Eucharist and supporting them.

Throughout the revolution, our priests were on the Maidan, and the Catholic and Orthodox had a great sense of communion. They did not concelebrate the liturgy, but they felt they were brothers in Christ. In terms of ecumenism, it was a great gain. We understood we were part of one church in Christ and one nation.


How would you describe your own emotions during a time of upheaval and great apprehension in Ukraine?

I have worked as a priest for 12 years. I have seen death, and I can see these events as providential. God is constantly with us, and he is leading us in the right direction.

During the revolution, those who did not believe have received the gift of faith. Many priests heard confessions, one after the other, and celebrated daily liturgies. On the square, there was a powerful sense of God’s presence. They prayed and thanked God, even as they heard the sound of shooting.


What do people fear about Putin’s intentions?

When I came here, Putin was only about to invade.

We always knew there was a threat from Russia — that is why the revolution started. If we get closer to Russia, we would have even less freedom — and that is why people are trying to defend this revolution. The whole world can see the real face of Russia. Now, the question is: How will democratic societies act?

The head of our Church, Major Archbishop Stanislav Shevchuk, made an official visit to the U.S. just a few weeks ago. In one speech, he said, "Sooner or later, the situation in Ukraine will touch every American."

Today, Americans can see the situation in Ukraine could actually touch them.

This is not only the problem of Ukraine, but the problem of democracy in the world, which the U.S. had promised to defend.

Ukraine used to have nuclear weapons. And in the early stage of our independence, we were asked to get rid of the weapons; and we did this because Russia and the U.S. promised to defend our independence and safeguard our borders.

Now, Russia has invaded. We don’t want to start a war, but we want all kinds of involvement from the free world so it can influence Russia to step back.