Ukrainian University: A Sign That the Catacombs Are Left Behind

Interview with Father Borys Gudziak, Rector of New Institution

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LVIV, Ukraine, AUG. 1, 2002 ( A year after John Paul II’s historic visit to this country, the Ukrainian Catholic University was inaugurated on June 29.

The rector of the university is Father Borys Gudziak. Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1960, he studied theology in Rome in the circle of then Patriarch Josyf Slipyj, who was head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) until 1984.

Father Gudziak earned a doctorate in Slavic and Byzantine cultural history from Harvard University in 1992 and then took up permanent residence in Ukraine and founded the Institute of Church History in Lviv that same year.

The institute was created to document the unwritten history of the Soviet persecution of the UGCC by recording and analyzing oral interviews with eyewitnesses.

Q: What have been the effects of John Paul II’s visit to Ukraine last year?

Father Gudziak: Ukraine today is divided by political, economic, regional and religious differences. Therefore, it was particularly valuable to unite people who are otherwise separated by various factors.

This occurred at an unprecedented level during the papal liturgy in Lviv on June 27, 2001. Over a million people stood and prayed as a community, shoulder to shoulder. This was the largest gathering of Ukrainians in history and the largest Eastern Christian liturgy ever. The enthusiastic participation of so many people at that liturgy and throughout the visit dispelled the myth that the UGCC was an artificial creation.

By beatifying the new martyrs of the Ukrainian nation, Pope John Paul II emphasized the importance of an ethic of service and sacrifice, which is particularly necessary for the Ukrainian people in this challenging period of often-painful transition.

The papal visit brought with it a feeling of extraordinary peace, joy and inspiration, which allowed millions of Ukrainians to rise up above their daily problems.

The international attention it brought was a sign that Ukraine is returning to the world stage. And the fact that the Pope delivered his addresses in Ukrainian was a resounding affirmation of Ukrainian language and culture.

The Holy Father solemnly blessed the grounds of the new Ukrainian Catholic University on June 26, and at the million-strong liturgy on June 27 he blessed the university’s cornerstone, thereby strongly endorsing the university’s development.

Q: What will the new university mean for Ukrainian Catholics, and Eastern Catholics in general?

Father Gudziak: First of all, the new university means that Ukrainian Catholics will not need to leave their country to study theology and similar disciplines. They can study in their homeland, in their own language, and in an institution of their own ecclesiastical tradition, not of the Roman rite or with Protestants or other affiliations.

The university is part of the educational reform movement in Ukraine, an effort to leave behind the abuses of the Communist past, bribery and corruption. We are introducing the best international models of education, combining research and teaching, and emphasizing academic honesty.

The university is proof of the maturity of the Church in Ukraine, its readiness to give competent answers to the challenges posed by contemporary postmodern society and scholarly life. In a country where half of the population is, in fact, unchurched, the UCU will do its part in the Church’s mission of evangelization, in the heart of society and in the halls of culture.

It will enrich academic discourse with the perspective of the Gospel, proclaiming the ethic of service to humanity in the scholarly and educational sphere.

The UCU has the fasting-growing university library in Ukraine, with the country’s largest collection of theology texts. The library and the new university’s publishing house are important resources for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and we hope they will be examples for the other Eastern Catholic churches.

The Ukrainian Catholic University is a clear sign that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has come out of the catacombs and, thanks to the efforts of those who suffered decades of persecution, it has the freedom finally to focus on the education and upbringing of its youth.

3) Have the Orthodox been supportive of the new university? Will the school
help ecumenical relations, and if so, how?

Father Gudziak: The UCU is open to Catholics and to members of the other Christian denominations of Ukraine who are interested in studying and experiencing the intellectual and spiritual riches of Kievan Christianity. We have students and staff of various Christian traditions — Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. We have a Jewish instructor who teaches classical Hebrew.

Our Catechetical-Pedagogical Institute trains Orthodox and Catholics alike so that they can teach catechism in parishes or civic and ethics courses in Ukraine’s public schools.

Wide intellectual circles, including many noted scholars of the Orthodox faith, support the university.

The focus of academic activity will be Eastern Christianity, and this means common sources, methods of theologizing, a common spirituality. That is to say, a common context unites us with the Orthodox churches.

In the greeting that he sent for the UCU’s inauguration, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople blessed our endeavor, which he called a «noble action for the promotion of knowledge, peace and spiritual communion.» We are very grateful for the confidence placed in us by the highest Orthodox authority and we pray that the Ukrainian Catholic University will be worthy of it.

Q: Will the university give Eastern spirituality and thought more weight in
the West? How so?

Father Gudziak: Because of political circumstances that have handicapped Eastern Christianity, from the fall of Constantinople to the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Eastern Churches have fewer schools of higher education than the Churches of the Western tradition. The liberation of Eastern Europe has brought with it a new renaissance. Our goal is that, in 10 years, the UCU will be a pre-eminent institution of Eastern Christian thought.

One reason that Eastern spirituality lacks «weight» is because it is not the subject of research and study. We intend to change that situation. For example: Eight of our students are now doing graduate work in Greek patristics and Byzantine studies. When they return to teach here, we hope the UCU will become a prominent center of Byzantine studies of international importance.

Professor Ihor Sevcenko of Harvard University has pledged his 15,000-volume Byzantine collection, which could make the UCU library the biggest repository of literature on Byzantium in Eastern Europe.

A spiritual identity is a response to certain spiritual experiences, one’s own and that of others. The spirituality of the West in its best examples was formed not in opposition to Eastern spirituality but in dialogue with it, and vice versa.

By studying, helping to develop, and revealing before a greater world the priceless treasures of Eastern Christianity, the UCU hopes to make its contribution to the international ecumenical and cultural dialogue between the Christian East and West. For the fullness of life, East and West need each other. They need vital and open communication, preserving the awareness of otherness while at the same time maintaining the awareness of the need for the other. The UCU is striving to become a place for this kind of communication.

5) Is the expulsion of the Catholic bishop from Siberia a sign that Rome-Moscow relations will worsen? Or is this a darkness-before-the-dawn event?

Father Gudziak: Fortunately, Ukraine, unlike Russia and some other newly independent states, enjoys religious freedom and pluralism. We hope that our cooperation with the Orthodox in Ukraine will continue to foster an atmosphere which makes
events like the expulsion of the bishop in Russia unlikely or impossible.

6) Will the Pope be able to visit Moscow in the near future?

Father Gudziak: Immediately after the Pope’s visit to Ukraine, a sociological survey in Russia showed that almost two-thirds of Russians were in favor of a similar visit to their country. I believe such a visit would be in the interests of all Russians and the Orthodox, also.

Today in a post-Communist, postmodern context, confronted with global issues, dialogue and free encounter are essential for the vitality of any ecclesial community. A nostalgic yearning for a state of confessional hegemony and attempts at creating walls of isolation can hardly be fruitful in an age of instantaneous communication and information exchange.

Self-isolation can lead to complacency, to a lack of self-criticism, and therefore to a lack of any real desire for spiritual and institutional reform and growth. I would never begrudge Russia the graces that the Pope’s visit brought to Ukraine.

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