Letter from Ukraine
A Church of martyrs confronts the cultural iron curtain.

Bishop Borys Gudziak


George Weigel

Slipyj was determined to keep Sheptytsky’s vision alive by every means at his disposal. He maintained a vigorous presence in Rome during his exile, often aggravating those Vatican officials whose realpolitik view of the Ukrainian situation led them to put more stock in ecumenical relations with Russian Orthodoxy (which they seemed not to recognize as being under the thumb of the KGB) than in solidarity with their own persecuted and underground fellow Catholics. Slipyj’s tough example of independence also kept alive, throughout the Ukrainian diaspora, the idea of a free Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in a free Ukraine, with a Ukrainian Catholic University as one of its cultural centerpieces. And in the last years of his life, he found and helped form an instrument for that purpose.

Borys Gudziak, born in Syracuse of emigre Ukrainian parents, once imagined himself an NBA star. When it became clear to him that six-foot-tall Ukrainian Americans of slight build were not being avidly sought by NBA general managers, he altered his adolescent ambitions and became immersed in the life, thought, and history of the Church of his ancestors, finishing a Harvard doctorate in history with a groundbreaking study of the 1596 Union of Brest, which brought today’s Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine back into full communion with Rome. Gudziak’s studies took him to Rome, where he met Josyf Slipyj; there, his own imagination was seized by Slipyj’s hope to build a Ukrainian Catholic University on the foundations of the L’viv Theological Academy, which the exiled leader had reestablished in Rome.

Now, that vision is being realized in L’viv in the only Catholic university in the former Soviet space, a remarkable enterprise whose 2013 commencement address I was privileged to deliver on July 6. Handsome new university buildings are being erected on the edge of Stryisky Park in central L’viv; they will include, within three years, a magnificent university church that honors both Holy Wisdom and Pope St. Clement I, the pope who died in Crimean exile. The university’s press wins awards for its Ukrainian-language publications and translations; its business programs are recognized by the honest entrepreneurs of the country as the best available; its theology and philosophy departments are staffed by scholars with degrees from major universities throughout the world; its new journalism school is a direct response to the corruption of the Ukrainian media by the Yanukovych regime and the oligarchy.

Perhaps most crucially, the Ukrainian Catholic University is built around an idea that is crucial to the country’s future: Education must include formation — human formation, spiritual formation, and cultural formation. Student life in the university’s residential colleges (the first of which is now open) includes worship, service opportunities, and regular interaction with special-needs adults, on the model of Jean Vanier’s L’Arche communities around the world.

And all of this is being led not just by Gudziak (who is now Bishop Gudziak, having been named head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s Paris eparchy last year) but by a remarkable team of men and women that has gathered around him. Most of them grew up in the underground Church; several of them are graduates of the Gulag’s distinctive educational system; all of them are living economically sacrificial lives, at salaries far below what their advanced degrees could command elsewhere, out of commitment to the Sheptytsky–Slipyj vision of an intellectually first-rate university that provides a solid cultural foundation for Ukrainian public life while taking its inspiration from the rich spiritual heritage of eastern Christianity — and from Ukraine’s new martyrs.

The challenges are endless: Four-fifths of the university’s budget comes from donors, not from tuition and fees; the Yanukovych regime’s education ministry continues to look askance at what is afoot at UCU, although under various international pressures it has backed off from a threat to decertify the university; the initial master plan for the campus remains to be completed, and if that can be achieved, there are ambitious plans to expand the campus further so that UCU becomes a place of intellectual and spiritual encounter for the entire country. The university’s youth is an advantage, in that UCU missed the silly season that corrupted so much of Catholic higher education in the West in the late 20th century. Thus, even as it opens regular lines of communication and exchange with Catholic institutions of higher learning in the West, UCU’s challenge will be to avoid the mistakes that have rendered schools like Georgetown and Fordham largely supine in the face of the anti-culture of the imperial autonomous Self.

So a lot is at stake in L’viv these days. If Ukraine is to shed the self-destructive moral and mental habits of its colonial and totalitarian past, its civic culture must be re-formed and reconnected to the cultural sources of its national identity. Those sources are eastern Christian, and the most lively and forward-looking embodiment of the eastern Christian tradition in contemporary Ukraine is the Greek Catholic Church — a point conceded, if roughly, even by some Ukrainian Orthodox observers. The Greek Catholic Church of martyrs is now a Church in mission. The success of that mission, in which the Ukrainian Catholic University will play a key role, will have much to do with answering the question of whether Ukraine enters Europe, or is reabsorbed into a new form of Putinesque Russian imperium.

And the answer to that question touches the future of the entire West.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His most recent book is Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.


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