Ukrainian Bishop: ‘Blood Is a Serious Thing’

Bishop Borys Gudziak says the ouster of President Yanukovych was a step towards a freer country and could lead to a new spiritual reality, but Ukraine’s journey from ‘fear to dignity’ is not over.

Bishop Borys Gudziak, eparch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Paris
Bishop Borys Gudziak, eparch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Paris (photo: Courtesy of Bishop Borys Gudziak)

Bishop Borys Gudziak, 53, is eparch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Paris, a diocesan bishop serving Ukrainian Catholics in five European countries. The eparchy is an Eastern rite, in union with the Bishop of Rome. Bishop Gudziak’s parents emigrated from western Ukraine to the United States; he grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., where he attended a Ukrainian Catholic parish. He moved to western Ukraine in the 1990s and founded the Lviv Theological Academy, which later became Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU). In 2012, he was ordained a bishop, and, today, he resides in Paris. He remains president of UCU, however, and still regularly travels to the Ukraine.

He spoke March 5 with the Register about his experiences growing up in an Ukrainian emigré family and how this led to his discernment of his priestly vocation, the historical background to the current crisis in Ukraine and the dramatic recent developments there.

Why did your family leave Ukraine in the 1950s?
They observed the first brutal occupation of Ukraine by the Soviet Union in the 1920s and ’30s, during which time thousands were arrested and imprisoned and killed. Germany invaded the country in 1941, but then was forced out by the Soviet Union. My family knew what to expect with the second Soviet occupation: They would face the same persecution.

Did anyone influence your decision to become a priest?
Cardinal Josyf Slipyj (1892-1984) did. He was head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and spent 18 years in the Soviet gulag. He was released in 1963, due to the efforts of Pope John XXIII.

In 1968, he visited the United States. His visit drew great media attention because, at that time, no one had left the gulag alive. I was 7 years old. I wore a Ukrainian costume as I greeted the bishop when he arrived at the airport. I met him a few more times as a teenager. I found him to be a scholar, a great Church leader and a [dry] martyr for the Church, who fought the biggest battle of the era.

Although my father opposed my becoming a priest, I became a seminarian in Rome under Cardinal Slipyj. He had a compelling spiritual vision and predicted that the Soviet Union would not last forever. As a young man, I found it energizing to challenge the Soviet Union.

What has been the state of religion in Ukraine in recent years?
In the past 25 years, it has been in a state of revival, after a long period of devastating destruction. In 1918, there were 100 bishops in the country; by 1989, there were four. We had had 3,000 priests; by 1989, we had 300 priests, average age 70, who lived “in the catacombs.”

The 1920s and ’30s saw the Soviet Union destroy the Church in the eastern part of the country. After World War II, the Soviets moved to make the Church completely illegal throughout Ukraine. Cardinal Slipyj was imprisoned, along with many other Catholics. From 1945-89, we were the biggest illegal Church in the world and the largest body of social opposition to the Soviet Union. The Church operated underground and never collaborated with the regime. Our members were hounded ferociously, however. Ukrainian Catholics were always at risk of losing their jobs or being thrown into prison.

In the past 25 years, we’re back to 3,000 priests, average age 40, and 47 bishops. We have over 4 million members, or about 10% of the country. But, even though we’re a minority Church, we have majority moral authority. We did not play by the Soviet rules, and the people recognize this.

Has Ukrainian Catholic University suffered persecution from the government?

Yes. We were under pressure in 2012, and the regime tried to close us down. But we survived and have remained a major social voice for social change in the country. There are 180 universities in Ukraine. But they’re like McDonald’s hamburgers: They have to be the same everywhere. With one exception, we were the only university to challenge the government.

Has the economic situation been a challenge in Ukraine?

Yes. Millions have left, looking for work. In 1991, our population was 52 million; today, we’re at 45 million. The problem is that Ukraine has had a Soviet-style command economy. Once the closed Soviet system opened up, Ukraine was incapable of competing in the world economy.

Also, corruption is rampant. The state’s property has been accumulated by a small group of instant billionaires that we call oligarchs. A few got rich, while millions were dispossessed. The Yanukovych regime, which was recently ousted, supported the oligarchs.

Is there a lot of fear in Ukraine today due to the recent violence?

In the 20th century, under Soviet domination, 17 million Ukrainians were murdered. The NKVD/KGB [Soviet law enforcement agencies] kept the population under constant surveillance. Ukrainians saw much violence, and religion was persecuted. This has led to a culture of fear in Ukraine. It’s in the people’s DNA. With the revolution, the people are moving from fear to dignity. They’re claiming a voice and a role in determining their destiny.

Is there a concern that the country will be partitioned?

This has been the desire of Russian propagandists for years. With the invasion of Crimea, the Russians are trying to bite off pieces of a sovereign country. We have not seen this kind of aggression since World War II. The Russian presence in Ukraine has caused a great deal of tension.

During the anti-government protests in Independence Square in the capital city of Kiev, we’ve seen photographs of priests ministering to the people. What role do you see for the Church in this conflict?

The religious leaders in the country have declared their support for four principles: One, the regime should listen to the people; two, there should be no violence, particularly on the government side; three, the ideology of the division of the country should be stopped; and, four, dialogue, however difficult, should begin.

As Pope Francis has said, pastors should have the smell of their sheep. There are hundreds of thousands of people in the square, and the Church should be there, too. The Eucharist should be celebrated, and confessions should be heard. This has led to hundreds of conversions since this conflict began.

On Feb. 20, Ukrainian Catholic University professor of modern history Bohdan Solchanyk was shot dead by a sniper in Kiev. What do you know of his death?

It’s tragic. The government snipers first used rubber bullets. But they’d still aim at eyes and kneecaps to cause permanent injuries. I, in fact, had the opportunity to visit an ophthalmology clinic during the midst of the violence. There were eight men there with eye injuries. At least three were going to lose eyes. And, of course, they were also concerned that the government would come arrest them in the hospital.

On Feb. 18, the government stepped up the violence. Snipers began using regular bullets. The unimaginable happened. In a European capital, in broad daylight, with the cameras rolling, snipers began picking off unarmed protesters. The snipers were expert shots. In the first group of 15 killed, eight were by shots in the left eye. They were playing with their victims. The protesters wore bulletproof vests and helmets for protection. But the bullets from the high-powered rifles shot right through them.

The professor you mention, who was only 28 years old, was a victim. He was a rather liberal fellow — he wore an earring — and he had a beautiful fiancée. He was erudite, completing his doctoral dissertation, and was respected by our students. He liked soccer. It was his fourth visit to Kiev; he arrived about 6 in the morning. He was killed. I officiated at his funeral. It was heartrending. It’s been devastating for the school. We’ve had post-traumatic shock. I can’t sleep myself. I think of these beautiful, young curly heads being perforated by bullets.

Russia besmirches the victims’ memory by calling them “nationalistic extremists.” They were confronting corruption, immoral government rule and lethal military force with their bodies. This violence started on a Tuesday. By Saturday, it brought down the president. There were about a 100 killed; we call them the “heavenly hundred” martyrs. Also, more than 1,000 were injured.

Do you consider the previous government of the ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, cruel and sadistic?

The Yanukovych government comes out of a mafia world, shooting at kneecaps and eyes. Killing your opponent is a way to get things done. But the ways of the wicked ultimately fail. The oppressed, unfortunately, can pay a terrible price.

Blood is a serious thing. The people are doing some soul-searching. They’re asking, “How can this happen?” “What kind of neighbor is Russia?” They’re realizing, “Our country is being led by a cruel and corrupt dictator, who tortures, maims and kills innocent young people.” In the face of such evil, people are coming to a new spiritual realization. I would not be surprised if this leads to more conversions and vocations. When we’re soft and comfortable, we tend to serve mammon. God works when we are weak, when we’ve been humbled. He speaks in a special way to the poor, oppressed, marginalized and beaten. He reaches out to those who sacrifice their lives for their fellow man.

What would you like to see the United States do?
The country should use all means to show Russia that military aggression and invasion, and the support of a deposed and corrupt government that had led the country to a political crisis and the brink of economic default, will not be tolerated. We’re grateful for the solidarity of Catholics in the United States and the support of the U.S. bishops, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis and Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane [Wash.] They’ve been very good to us.

We ask this support to continue. Our pilgrimage from fear to dignity is not over. We still have miles to go, and there is no going back.

Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.