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The Witness of a Suffering Church by Fr. Benedict Kiely

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Essay

The Witness of a Suffering Church

28 Ukrainian Catholic Martyrs and Blesseds beatified by Saint John Paul II on June 27, 2001.

That there is a religious dimension to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and that it is an extremely complicated but very important issue is, according to a journalist friend in the United States, just beginning to dawn on the secular media. He reports, however, that they are making a “pig’s ear of it.” Another journalist, this time in the United Kingdom, recounts that not only is the religious dimension little understood by most of the British media—but that there is barely any interest in it, neither in the newsrooms nor from the general public.

That view, if correct, probably says much more about the effect of widespread secularism in Britain, which fails to understand the importance of religion for most of the world, and explains, for example, at least in part, the naive view that Islamist terrorists can be ‘de-radicalised’ by therapy, counseling, and cups of tea—after all, religion is not a serious or important thing; it is more like stamp collecting or bird-watching.

Charles Moore, in a recent edition of The Spectator magazine, reported several parts of a document he had read, published by the official Russian news agency, RIA Novosti. The document was entitled ‘What Russia should do with Ukraine.’ Among other things, he recounted the document saying, that all Ukrainians would need “re-education” through “ideological repression.” More than that, the “nationalist elites”—for that read the Church, media, politicians, and all proponents of Ukrainian culture and independence—must be “liquidated.”  Once again, this was not the wild raving of dark-web Russian nationalists but published by the official Russian news agency.

Ukraine has had experience of liquidation before—in the Holodomor, the Stalin-induced famine in the 1930’s that killed millions of Ukrainians, the murder of thousands by Nazi occupiers in World War Two, and the years of repression under the Communists until 1989.

Speaking just a few days ago, the youthful (he is only 52) and brave leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Metropolitan of Kyiv, who has stayed in his city with his people during the bombings, said that the war was an “ideological war,” and its goal, he believed, was “to eliminate the Ukrainian people.”

One part of this goal of elimination, not only of the people but also of Ukrainian identity, which, of course, Russia does not believe exists, would be the elimination or “liquidation”—through both “re-education” and “ideological” and actual repression—of the UGCC.

It is critical, therefore, for both those in the secular media and also those in the Church to attempt to do better than making a ‘pig’s ear’ of this important component—to see why it is actually important and, if properly presented, of interest to those who wish to be better educated about the war, which is surely one of the duties of journalism.

Although a minority of Ukrainian Christians are members, the history of the UGCC, one of the 23 Eastern Rite Churches in Communion with Rome and, in fact, the second largest church after the Latin Rite, is inevitably tied up with the celebration of Ukrainian nationalism and independence.  Formed in the later part of the 16th century by Russian Orthodox clergy and laity who submitted to the authority of the pope, the UGCC, which in worship and culture closely resembles that of the Orthodox, has suffered from different degrees of persecution from the start.

It would not be impolitic to say that the Russian Orthodox Church despises the UGCC, who they call ‘uniates,’ a term of derision that is not appreciated by UGCC members, particularly when unwisely used by Catholic clergy, including Pope Francis. The difficult history of Ukraine, and its many external rulers, has seen the city of Lviv, for example, called Liviv, Lwow, Lvov, Lemberg, and Leopolis. External occupation saw the UGCC persecuted even by Polish Latin Rite Catholics, but to understand today’s fear of ‘liquidation’ one must look to the period of repression and terror instigated by Stalin at the end of the Second World War.

In 1946, at a synod in Lviv, Stalin forced the UGCC to join the Russian Orthodox Church. Like the show trials, this was an entirely fabricated synod, although many senior members of the current leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, including the infamous Patriarch Kyrill, still claim its validity. However, not one UGCC bishop voted for it. There followed terror and intimidation, with clergy and laity being arrested, martyred, and every single Church forced to become Orthodox. From 1946 to 1963, the great hero of Ukrainian Catholicism, Archbishop Joseph Slipyi, was continuously imprisoned and tortured in Siberia, among other places. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church became a martyr Church, witnessing, not only by the actual martyrdom of many faithful and clergy, but by its steadfastness as a “catacomb Church,” as one priest described it to me when I was recently in Lviv.

For over four decades, that attempt at liquidation, re-education, and ideological and physical repression saw the UGCC entirely ‘underground,’ with secret seminaries, religious Orders, catechesis of children, and masses and liturgies held in private houses, in woods and forests, all with the constant fear of betrayal, imprisonment, or death.

In 1989, with the fall of what Ronald Reagan rightly called the “evil empire,” this magnificent Church of martyrs emerged from the catacombs of communism, not liquidated, not re-educated, but forged like gold in the furnace of persecution. In the 30 or more years since that re-emergence, there has been an incredible renaissance—or better put, resurrection. 

A few weeks ago, staying in the Catholic University in Lviv for Easter (according to the Julian calendar) and attending the liturgies both there and in downtown Lviv, the vast numbers of people attending—stretching at one service on Good Friday out into the street—were sombre yet resilient. Once more, a priest at the university told me, they are discussing what to do if they needed to return to the catacombs. Air raid sirens do not stop the people praying, and anyone doubting both the reality of Ukrainian nationalism and culture, and the importance of the Church in Ukraine, should spend a little time there and abandon for a moment, perhaps, the vacuous secular ideology of the West.

Fr. Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, a charity helping persecuted Christians.

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