The High Cost of Fidelity

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, a bridge between East and West, must secure its place in post-Soviet Ukraine.

by Bryon Lee Brindel

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After decades of Communist persecution, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is free. But freedom has brought tremendous challenges, opportunities and responsibilities. This church is forced to confront its destiny at the crossroads of East and West and decide its future direction.

Ukraine is a divided country. In the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, the language and customs are Ukrainian. The population comprises mostly Ukrainians with a minority of Russians and Poles. Western Ukrainians are mostly Greek Catholic in faith and western European in outlook.

The further east you travel in Ukraine, the less likely you will hear Ukrainian. For example, the capital of Kiev is located in central Ukraine. But the common language is not Ukrainian – it’s Russian.

If you travel further east to the city of Kharkiv, the only language spoken is Russian and the people do not distinguish between Ukrainian and Russian ethnic identities.

The overwhelming majority of believers in the central and eastern parts of the country are Orthodox or claim no religious affiliation at all.

Historical Perspective. During the Early Middle Ages, the territory encompassing modern Ukraine was part of a vast kingdom called Rus’, which had its center in the city of Kiev. In 988 Grand Prince Volodymyr (“Vladimir” in Russian) converted the people of Rus’ to Byzantine Christianity, the faith of the Byzantine Empire.

In the 12th century, the Mongols invaded Rus’, destroying Kiev and displacing the population. The surviving nobles of Rus’ migrated to portions of Muscovy in western Russia. Throughout the centuries, the territory of present-day Ukraine was part of Poland, Lithuania and Russia.

Byzantine Christianity in Ukraine nevertheless developed into a sincere expression of the people’s most profound spiritual aspirations. Threatened by the Latin Catholicism of the Poles and Lithuanians, Ukrainians equated their expression of the Christian faith with their national identity: To be a Ukrainian meant to be a Byzantine, or Greek, Christian.

“The heritage of the Christian ethos is a dominant theme in Ukrainian history,” says Father Borys Gudziak, Vice Rector of the Lviv Theological Academy.

“Virtually no aspect of Ukrainian cultural, political and even economic life,” he continues, “is comprehensible without attention to the import of the Christian churches.”

Division in the Ukrainian Church. In 1596, through the Union of Brest, most of the hierarchy of the Kievan Church, which was Orthodox, recognized the primacy of the pope and entered into formal communion with the Church of Rome.

The drafters of the union had highly complex motives. Intellectual trends of the Renaissance, the invention of the printing press and the spread of the Reformation were just some of the dramatic changes sweeping through Europe. Pressured from Poland to the West and Moscow to the East, the Kievan Church faced a serious crisis. The hierarchs turned to the Church of Constantinople, from which it received the faith, for spiritual guidance. But the ecumenical patriarch, isolated by the Ottoman Turks, could offer no assistance.

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Tags: Ukraine Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Church history Soviet Union