US Ukrainian Catholics Grieve for Their Former Homeland

Ukrainian Catholics gathered at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Philadelphia to pray and hope.

Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia Borys Gudziak is enthroned at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Philadelphia, June 4, 2019. Since Russia's attack on Ukraine, the cathedral has become a place to pray for their friends and relatives in their former homeland and an end to hostilities.
Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia Borys Gudziak is enthroned at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Philadelphia, June 4, 2019. Since Russia's attack on Ukraine, the cathedral has become a place to pray for their friends and relatives in their former homeland and an end to hostilities. (photo: Matt Rourke / AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

PHILADELPHIA — Just minutes before the bells above the Ukrainian Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Philadelphia rang to call Catholics to Sunday Mass, some gathered on the steps despite the brutal freezing temperatures, sharing updates they had seen on the news or whispers of rumors they had heard from a relative who heard from a friend in Ukraine about some new development concerning the Russian invasion. 

Others simply walked up the stairs, heads down and hands thrust into the pockets on their way to do the only thing they could think to do — pray.

“We came to pray,” said Peter and Terry Sikora, a married couple in Philadelphia. “That is what we can do.”

Nora Little, also of Philadelphia, said she didn’t even belong to that Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish but felt called to return there as a show of support. “I just felt I had to be here today,” she said. “This was my grandparents’ parish.” 

She spoke briefly about her grandparents and became choked up that it was all happening again. “Evil has just taken over,” she said. “The only thing I’m capable of doing is pray. That’s how I fight the evil.”

Inside the church, some lit candles in prayer for relatives and friends, others for absolute strangers. In each pew a blue sheet of paper was placed; it was titled, “Prayer for Ukraine.” 

The congregation read it out loud. It said, in part: “Our brothers and sisters, Lord, are once again threatened by aggressors who see them only as simple obstacles blocking the path to the complete domination of the precious land and resources of the country of Ukraine. Strengthen the people as they face this great danger, turning to you in the immeasurably deep faith, trust and love they have placed in you all their lives. Send your heavenly legions, O Lord, commanded by the patron of Kyiv, Archangel Michael, to crush the desires of the aggressor whose desire is to eradicate your people.”


Archbishop Gudziak’s Message

At the conclusion of the Mass attended by more than 150 people, the Archeparch Borys Gudziak, of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, called on everyone to pray. He asked those gathered to include a prayer for the conversion of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

He urged the Catholics and non-Catholics attending Mass in support of Ukrainians that they must believe miracles happen. He asked them who really believed that the Soviet Union would crumble when it did, in the way it did. “Freedom came like a miracle without a war,” he reminded them. 

He said, now, Putin is partaking in a “cynical and diabolical war” in an attempt “to rebuild the empire.” He pointedly added that Ukraine was attacked precisely because it was a democracy that offered an “alternate model to the Soviet past.”

He urged everyone to stand against such aggression but cautioned against hate. “Let it not enter your heart,” he warned. 

On the cusp of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s Great Lent, Archbishop Gudziak reminded everyone that the greatest story ever told began with Adam taking something he shouldn’t have but ended with Jesus entering into death to give us eternal life. “That’s how the story ends,” he said. 

He pointed to past invasions and occupations that sought to “strangle” the Ukrainian Catholic Church — but in the end, they were all turned away eventually, even sometimes when the Church seemed on the precipice of disappearing forever. 


Memories of Other Invasions

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has survived the Nazis and multiple invasions by the Russians. 

Alexandra Stasiuk, 81, remembers those days well. On Sunday she stared up at the golden cross at the top of the cathedral and recalled escaping Ukraine 78 years ago. She choked up many times recounting her family’s story. Her father had been a doctor who fought against both the Russians and the Germans. He was eventually captured and sent to a concentration camp. Alexandra was 3 and her little brother was just a few months old when he mother snuck them out of the city gates of Drohobych in the dead of night. 

They trekked day and night as her little baby brother slowly wasted away from malnutrition. They walked for miles, rode in buses and boarded trains. When bombings occurred, her mother would cover them in a feather comforter. Stasiuk laughed in the telling that a comforter would provide protection from bombs and bullets; but years later, when her mother took the old comforter out to repair, there were pieces of bullets and artillery fragments still in it.

The family eventually made their way to Germany, where Alexandra’s mother brought her baby son to the hospital only to be denied care. They told her the child was all but dead. Day after day her mother cared for her little brother, squeezing grapes in her hand above the baby’s mouth. He eventually recovered.

The family fled to Czechoslovakia until the Russians invaded there, too, and they fled yet again by foot. One night the little 3-year-old boy, who had been saved years earlier, saved the entire family from falling into a trench filled with spikes that had been built precisely to prevent people from crossing the border. She said the family was lucky to finally come to America. “America was wonderful,” she said.

Asked about what she sees going on today in the Ukraine, she said matter-of-factly, “Putin is another Stalin.” 

Stasiuk said she prays daily for Ukraine. “We should all pray,” she said. “It is all happening again.”


Independence Mall Gathering

At 4pm on Sunday hundreds gathered at Independence Mall near the Liberty Bell, in support of Ukraine’s freedom. Many waved the distant country’s blue and yellow flag and held signs urging prayer and action. 

Archbishop Gudziak called for prayers along with the donation of 10,000 helmets and bulletproof vests. “The U.S. has been slow,” he told the crowd. “It is important to move now.”

Ukrainian Catholic priest Father Roman Pitula, who was born in Ukraine, said he was grateful for the overwhelming support from Catholics and non-Catholics. He said, “the whole world is amazed” by the support. “May God bless us, God bless the Ukraine, and bless the U.S,” he said. 

Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson Perez asked for peace while leading prayer at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul on Sunday.

The morning’s 11am Mass was celebrated for the intention of peace in the Ukraine, the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian community in Philadelphia.

“At this grave moment in history, here in the Archdiocese of Phila,delphia we continue to answer the call of Pope Francis to pray fervently for the people of Ukraine and for an end to this military conflict now. May God pour his mercy on all those who are suffering, and may Our Blessed Mother, the Queen of Peace, wrap them in her comforting mantle,” he said. 


The Catholic-Christian Perspective

Father Peter Galadza, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest who was Kule Family Professor of Liturgy at the Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at the University of Toronto and now is a visiting professor at The Catholic University of America, told the Register that, for many Ukrainians, there is a sense of “intergenerational trauma” from past horrors. 

“For years, the fear among many was that it could happen again,” he said. “Many are now in a state of real despair … because the unimaginable has happened.”

“The key thing at this point for me and every other Westerner able to act is that we can’t let the devil win by paralyzing us with fear,” he said. “We need to act immediately and intensely.”

He said that while many people may have written members of Congress or participated in a rally, he would like to see that concern pointed toward volunteering to work with organizations providing humanitarian aid. “We need to get the message out from a Catholic-Christian perspective.” 

He said all-day vigils, praying and fasting are necessary, along with specific forms of action, such as taking part in humanitarian aid. 

Father Galadza said despite the fact that “these people in the Kremlin are addicted to power,” we must “pray, work hard and expect a miracle.”

Miracles have happened before, he said, pointing to a battle that took place just over 100 years ago when, in the face of Soviet aggression, Catholic Poland stood alone and with the help of Our Lady improbably pushed back the Bolsheviks on the battlefield in 1920. It came to be called the “Miracle of the Vistula,” named after the nearby river.

“The communists were miraculously turned back,” he said. 

He advocated praying for Putin’s entourage to realize how counterproductive his actions are and convince him to hold back from taking Kyiv. He said he has also been praying that sanctions would be more pronounced and effective.

In fact, sanctions were stiffened after the original announcement by the White House. The world seems to be increasingly coalescing behind Ukraine.


‘Ludicrous’ Russian Claims

Father Galadza had no time for Putin’s rationalizations for invading Ukraine, such as claiming that it is in order to stem the rise of Nazis in the country or liberating the country to return it to its Christian roots.

“Sadly, there are some Catholics who actually believe Putin’s rhetoric that his country, along with the Moscow Patriarchate, are bolstering traditional Christian values, and this is what they’re worried about when they see Ukraine gravitate towards the West,” he said. “People who are able to speak freely laugh at the idea that Russia and Moscow Patriarchate could be an example of moral revival for the West. As bad as it may be in the west, in Russia itself there is a whole series of moral failures that outweigh anything the West can be guilty of.”

“This is not a gray area of social justice,” he said. “This is an out and out violation of every principle of international law and a violation of the fundamental rights of the downtrodden.”

Standing on the steps of the cathedral in North Philadelphia, Janet Raucheisien bluntly said, “Putin is the devil.”

Alexandra Stasiuk laughed about Putin’s claim of a rising Nazi presence in the country. She pointed to the fact that the president of the country, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish. “You have to laugh sometimes,” she said. “It’s just so ludicrous.”

Inside, the people prayed, “Lord Our God, Great and Almighty, we your sinful children turn to you with humility in our hearts and bow our heads low before you. We beseech your loving kindness and abundant blessings upon the nation — the people — of Ukraine during these days of great danger to their safety and well-being.”