A Ukrainian Paradox

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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A few years ago, an elderly Ukrainian woman explained to me the importance to all Ukrainians, Catholic and Orthodox, of pysanky, the intricate Easter eggs embellished with national and religious imagery.

“The tradition of painting pysanky is passed from mother to daughter,” she said. “If this Ukrainian tradition dies, evil will be loosed upon the world.”

History has not been kind to Ukrainians. They have endured dispersion, invasion, persecution and religious and geographical division. Yet they continue to practice the delicate art of pysanky.

Ukrainians, like their Eastern European neighbors, are today in the limelight of political change. The successes of glasnost and failures of communism have witnessed the rebirth of suppressed ethnic, political and religious identities. But these identities threaten to fracture Ukrainian society.

Ideally, the Ukraine’s rich Christian heritage could unify a country whose historical truths are difficult to discern from political prejudices. But Christianity itself is divided. The majority of the Ukraine’s Christians are Byzantine in tradition. They share the same faith, the same deep attachment to the Divine Liturgy and veneration of Mary and the saints. But their loyalties are torn among the Russian patriarch, the pope and an independent Ukraine – graphic reminders of painful historical realities.

Paradoxically, in the attempt to unify the Ukraine, Josef Stalin wiped out every form of Ukrainian nationalism. In the 1930’s, Stalin abolished the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a powerful eastern Ukrainian body whose hierarchy advocated independence from Russian Orthodoxy and ultimately the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union’s annexation of the western Ukraine from Poland in 1946, Stalin eliminated the Ukrainian (Byzantine) Catholic Church, spiritually Orthodox yet loyal to Rome. Ukrainians nonetheless clung to these institutions.

The Ukrainian Orthodox set up their own hierarchy in exile while the faithful attended liturgies in Russian Orthodox parishes. Ukrainian Catholics, though persecuted as a church, clandestinely practiced their faith while outwardly appearing Orthodox. Things are not always what they seem in the Ukraine.

The Ukraine’s history is a myriad of invasions and partitions (See Fact Sheet: Ukraine, this issue). Stalin’s attempt to forcibly unite a partitioned people proved disastrous. Today tensions between the Orthodox and the renewed Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic communities are escalating. The renaissance of Ukrainian Christianity has its perils.

The heart of these heightened tensions is St. George Cathedral in Lvov, in the western Ukraine. This baroque edifice was built in the 18th century to serve as the cathedral for Lvov’s Byzantine Catholics. The use of Baroque architecture, one of the Roman Catholic Church’s main instruments in propagating the faith during the Catholic Reformation, contradicts Orthodox spirituality.

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Tags: Ukraine Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Easter Catholic-Orthodox relations