Ukraine’s Catholic University Is ‘the Right Institution at the Right Time’

Weekend Education Feature

Ukrainian Catholic University students in traditional Ukrainian dress.
Ukrainian Catholic University students in traditional Ukrainian dress. (photo: Courtesy Ukrainian Catholic University)

LVIV, Ukraine — Just 20 years ago, in Moscow, some 200 Ukrainian Catholics initiated a hunger strike to dramatize their demand that the Soviet government legalize the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest Eastern-rite Catholic Church, which had been banned and persecuted by the Communists for 45 years.

The bravery of these faithful — and the Vatican’s swift engagement — led to Soviet recognition of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in December 1989, announced during President Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic visit with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic community, geographically centered in western Ukraine around the city of Lviv, began rebuilding with gusto.

The obstacles were immense: The Soviet regime had confiscated all Church property, and the Church had few clergy, since most had been imprisoned, murdered or forced into exile. The number of believers had dwindled, since they had been punished or intimidated into worshipping elsewhere.

But the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, operating underground, also had remarkable resources, including a dedicated diaspora that had protected the faith abroad and strong support from Rome.

And from the start, the Ukrainian Church had a vision of the centrality of education to its revival.

It’s that vision that has brought about the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, the only Catholic university in the former Soviet Union and the first university founded by an Eastern-rite Church in full communion with the Holy See.

Founded eight years ago and built on a cornerstone blessed by Pope John Paul II when he visited in 2001, the Ukrainian Catholic University has been cited by many Roman Catholic leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI, as a portentous sign of a Catholic renaissance in the former Soviet republics, where political progress is fitful — and religious tolerance still not perfectly assured.

The roots of the university date to an 18th-century seminary, closed by the Soviets in 1944. The seminary reopened just outside Lviv, in the middle of a forest, in 1992, one year after Ukraine regained its independence.

“To replace the Lviv seminary confiscated by the Soviets, the Ukrainian government offered the Church an abandoned summer camp, without even heating for winter,” said Matthew Matuszak, 44, an American who taught English and Latin at the school in the 1990s. In exchange, the Church had to give up claims for the seminary’s original buildings.

“Things were difficult, but the students were very flexible and enthusiastic. It was a pioneering atmosphere,” Matuszak recalled. “Not always comfortable, but exciting.”

The seminary, renamed the Lviv Theological Academy, expanded. It had begun offering programs in theology to laypeople as well as seminarians in 1928. The classes were continued in exile by Patriarch Josyf Slipyj, who led the Ukrainian Church from 1944 to 1984.

Patriarch Slipyj was arrested and deported to Siberia by the Communist regime with nine other bishops. He survived 18 years in work camps and was exiled from Ukraine in 1963, but eventually made it to Rome. He was made a cardinal and spent the rest of his life forming and encouraging Ukrainian Catholics at the school he founded in the Eternal City: the Ukrainian Catholic University.

Some of the cardinal’s students returned after independence to lead the Lviv Theological Academy.
“I was in one of the first classes to graduate from the Theological Academy in 2000,” remembers Oleh Kindiy, 31, who had two great-grandfathers imprisoned in Siberia for being Greek Catholic priests.

“It was an intense five-year undergraduate program,” said Kindiy. “We had professors from around the world: from Rome and Poland and the U.S. The program was particularly strong in languages: Greek, Latin and English were all required. But there was a sense that the studies should be more systematic.

“And there was a strong desire to enlarge our mission beyond the theological.”

Forming New Leaders
Today, Kindiy, who went on to earn a doctorate in early Christianity at The Catholic University of America, teaches theology at the Ukrainian Catholic University. He’s also in his second year at Holy Spirit Seminary, which is part of the university.

More than 700 seminarians, religious and lay students are enrolled in the university’s humanities, philosophy and theology and pedagogical programs, including about 200 in the five-year seminary. Another 400 are associated with the Lviv Business School.

The Ukrainian Catholic University’s mission is to form new religious and lay leaders in an intellectual and spiritual community demonstrating, in practice, the Church’s relevance in matters ranging from bioethics to modern Ukrainian history, from patristics and icon painting to business and caring for the disabled.

As Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said last year at a fund-raising event for the university in Kiev, “The university educates not only for the Church. It is an institution for all of the Ukrainian people, so we would gladly welcome more teachers, more specialties, in particular economics, law, journalism and other fields whose graduates would be involved in the wide spectrum of society’s life.”

Much of the university’s reputation is due to its specialized schools and institutes.

Its business school, for example, founded in 2008, was recently featured in a Financial Times article titled “Blending Ethics With Expertise.”

The article describes how three top Ukrainian companies, fearing corruption was undermining business growth, approached Father Borys Gudziak, university rector, to propose creating a Church-informed business program for both MBAs and mid-level managers.

During the last academic year, the Lviv Business School trained about 1,000 people from these companies in short courses.

Father Gudziak, 49, explained, “We want businesses to be ethical and managers to be ethical, and we want those who control firms to love our land and be patriots.”

Born in Syracuse, N.Y., Father Gudziak holds a Ph.D. in Slavic and Byzantine history from Harvard. He was one of Patriarch Slipyj’s students in Rome in the 1980s who returned to Ukraine to help revive the Lviv Theological Academy.

He also founded the Ukrainian Catholic University’s Institute of Church History, which initiated an oral history project to document the Ukrainian Church’s martyrdom under Soviet Communism and its survival as a “catacomb” Church. The institute uses this knowledge to help guide contemporary evangelization and faith development.

Another influential center of research and activism is the Institute of Marriage and Family Life, whose researchers advise the Ministry of Health on strategies for reducing abortion in Ukraine.

2-Way Street

University graduates help the Church in the West, and every summer, students from the West participate in its 15 summer programs.

Last year more than 500 students from North America, Europe and Ukraine studied English, German, Italian, Ukrainian, iconography, sacred music, religious education and contemporary philosophy.

The Chicago-based Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation, whose primary mission is to help sustain the university, enlists volunteers to travel to Lviv for the month of July to teach students, especially seminarians, English-language skills. (Room and board is provided if the volunteer can finance travel. See the website for more information).

But the foundation has a larger vision. As its website declares, “We foster the communion of Ukrainian Americans with the Ukrainian nation and of Roman Catholics in the West with the largest Eastern Catholic Church.”

Besides summer volunteers, supporters in the West, especially North America, have sent the university lifeblood in the form of money.

“The [Ukrainian] diaspora has been very, very supportive,” said the foundation’s development director, Daniel Szymanski Jr. “Without them, the university would not have been possible.” Millions of dollars have been raised by the foundation and steered to the university since the foundation’s founding in 1997.

Dr. Maria Fischer-Slysh, a retired pediatrician living in Toronto, donated $1 million to the Ukrainian Catholic University last year through the foundation.

“The task of this institution is to form good priests, conscious Ukrainian patriots, professionals who are honest, hard-working and dedicated to the Church and the people,” she said. “Without such dedication and an appropriate upbringing, Ukraine will not achieve anything. Thank God that in Ukraine, though they lived through Bolshevism, people are not as degraded as here by atheism and indifference.”

For Szymanski, it is the right institution at the right time in terms of moral relevance and a virtuous circle of giving that has led to success.

“First, the leadership of Father Borys Gudziak has been monumental,” Szymanski said. “Others, too, have devoted their working lives to this university, but he moves brilliantly between East and West and is both an intellectual and spiritual beacon.

“Then, the university has a moral voice that is listened to by leaders in Ukraine. The university is right there, in the middle of things, with a clear vision and deep grounding based on Catholic truth.”

Roman Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and papal biographer George Weigel serve on the foundation’s advisory board. As Weigel said, “Ukraine is very fertile soil for an ongoing religious rebirth that will yield a very rich harvest thanks in large part to UCU.”

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington and travels frequently to former communist countries, including Ukraine.

Latest Election Has Ukrainian Catholics Worried

Five years ago, the world was captivated by a Ukrainian presidential election decided in the streets. The “Orange Revolution” (named for the opposition’s campaign color) brought a new generation of pro-Western reformers to power — leaders who also supported greater religious liberty and dialogue.

Last year, for example, pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko visited the Ukrainian Catholic University.

But with the recent defeat of an Orange Revolution leader, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko,  in the presidential election, Ukraine’s Greek Catholic community is concerned about the future.

Said one Ukrainian diplomat, who happens to be Catholic and wished to remain anonymous, “The long-fought-for religious freedom and recognition gained 20 years ago could be threatened by Russian imperial designs and Western self-interest.”

Since World War I, Ukraine declared its independence six times and succeeded, finally, in 1991, as the Soviet empire disintegrated.

Following the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, Ukraine tried to join the North Atlantic Alliance and the European Community. But a combination of interests — staunch Russian threats and French, British and German opposition — hindered President George W. Bush’s strong recommendation, at the 2008 NATO Summit, that Ukraine and Georgia be invited to join.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s frame of mind was revealed when he told President Bush at the summit: “You don’t understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us,” according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant.

“There were a lot of positive changes for religious freedom and dialogue in the last five years. We are concerned that given the newly elected party’s pro-Russian background, our Church might suffer,” said a professor at UCU, who did not wish his name to be used.

Said the Ukrainian Catholic diplomat, “We Ukrainians hope the U.S. and the Western Alliance will not trade us this time for other deals. The drive to isolate Iran might lead the U.S. into Putin’s arms at our expense.”

— Victor Gaetan