Bridging Old and New Ukraine

text and photographs by Michael J.L. La Civita

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It was a January day not unlike the one I spent in western Ukraine exactly three years earlier. Mounds of sooty snow hugged the curbs. Fog blanketed the city. A raw wind ripped through layers of wool clothing. As my train sped northward from Grand Central Terminal, I restrained myself from reminiscing about that excursion through Ukraine. I had to concentrate on the subject at hand.

The Most Rev. Basil H. Losten, Bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford and a member of CNEWA’s Board of Trustees, had invited me to spend Theophany, the feast of Christ’s Baptism in the river Jordan, with his seminary community at St. Basil College in the southern Connecticut city of Stamford.

Founded by Bishop Constantine Bohachevsky in 1939, St. Basil served as a college seminary for young men discerning a priestly vocation for the Ukrainian Catholic community, a Byzantine Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

Many graduates of St. Basil may be counted among the roster of priests now serving this community. With the general decline of vocations in the United States, however, it appeared that the college seminary had a dismal future. Events in the old country have changed this course of events.

For more than 40 years the Ukrainian Catholic Church operated almost exclusively outside of Ukraine. Historically centered in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, which passed to Poland in 1918, this virulently anticommunist church was dissolved by Stalin after the Soviet occupation of Galicia in 1946. Rather than submit to the Orthodox patriarchate in Moscow, eight bishops were imprisoned, together with 1,400 priests, 800 nuns and thousands of lay people.

Beginning in 1947, more than 85,000 western Ukrainians fled and finally settled in the U.S. There, they joined more than 300,000 Americans of Galician origin. Bolstered by this influx of immigrants, the Ukrainian Catholic Church in exile prospered, while the church in the motherland was driven underground.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) awakened this subjugated community, which before World War II numbered more than four million souls. Thousands jammed the Baroque squares of Lviv, Galicians capital, demanding recognition and legality. More than 200 Orthodox priests and over 300 parishes declared themselves Catholic. Bishops, priests, religious and laity emerged from hiding. Open-air liturgies, which considered nationalist themes as well, attracted thousands of worshippers, as well as the merely curious.

These demonstrations culminated with the official registration of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in December 1989. In just three years, church records counted more than 2,300 churches and communities, 11 bishops, about 1,100 priests, 350 monks, 800 nuns and nearly 1,000 seminarians.

Such rapid and unnaturally accelerated growth – together with the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. and the founding of an independent Ukraine – hampered the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s return to a normal ecclesial life. Catholic-Orthodox relations suffered as conflicts over property restitution arose. Ancient sectarian rivalries and resentment of Russian domination intensified. Strapped for adequate resources, the Ukrainian Church was unable to educate and house adequately the growing number of young men interested in priesthood.

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Tags: Ukraine Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Vocations (religious) Catholic-Orthodox relations