Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church leader invites U.S. bishops to visit war-torn nation
By Jim Wogan
The leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has experienced the horrible impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine in grotesquely vivid ways. In early April, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk was called to pray before mutilated bodies found in a mass grave in the city of Bucha.
Photos of the carnage believe caused by the Russian army left the world outraged.
On April 27, from the relative security of his home located in a war zone, Archbishop Shevchuk spoke to more than 100 U.S. bishops during a video call. He spoke about the atrocities of the war and the challenges his nation and the Catholic Church in that region face as the fighting continues.
“The very possibility right now, two months after such an invasion, to talk to you, I consider a miracle,” His Beatitude told Bishop Richard F. Stika, Cardinal Justin Rigali, and others in attendance.
Major Archbishop Shevchuk said that before the invasion, he was warned that the Russian military had him listed as a target for assassination.
“I was person No. 2 to be killed in the capital of Ukraine,” he said, leaving the U.S. bishops to presume that he was seen only slightly less important than the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as a potential threat.
“Right now, we are discovering mass graves with so many young people killed there. It is something unseen (since) the end of World War II. People are asking why? Why is this happening? We can be sure that the war in Ukraine, conducted by Russians, is a colonial war. They consider us as a rebel colony of Russia,” the major archbishop said.
The invasion of Ukraine began Feb. 24. Many outside observers were expecting a quick Russian victory and the capitulation of its capital, Kyiv. But fierce and courageous Ukrainian resistance stymied what appeared to be a disorganized and unprepared Russian army. The Russian strategy has since shifted to overpowering other parts of the country, and the war continues to claim lives and disrupt families.
“They issued a special instruction to the Russian troops about how they should treat Ukrainians,” the major archbishop said. “It was horrible to discover that according to the instructions, to be Ukrainian, to declare yourself a Ukrainian is a crime, and because of that crime you are supposed to be executed.
“Many witnesses who survived the Russian presence in the neighborhoods in the capital of Ukraine were telling (horrific) stories. Russian troops would go door by door, asking who you are and what kind of profession you are performing. If you are a teacher, you should be executed because you are educating Ukrainians. If you are the mother of a Ukrainian soldier, you are supposed to be executed because you are a Nazi. If you are an artist, a painter, a cantor, you are supposed to be executed because you are developing the Ukrainian national culture. So, we as a nation are supposed to disappear.”
Major Archbishop Shevchuk told the U.S. bishops that in the eyes of Russia, “the unique crime that Ukrainians committed against Russia is to be Ukrainian.”
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is in full communion with Rome, and with more than 5 million members it is the second largest Catholic Church in the world, behind the Latin Church. Major Archbishop Shevchuk was appointed its spiritual leader in 2011. His appointment was confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI. At 51, he remains one of the youngest prelates in the Catholic Church.
The one-hour video discussion included questions and allowed an opportunity for Bishop Stika and Cardinal Rigali to participate from a conference room at the Chancery while the major archbishop was more than 5,200 miles away in Kyiv.
“Beatitude, greetings from Knoxville, Tennessee,” Bishop Stika said. “I am here with Cardinal Justin Rigali, and I remember a number of years ago that we had dinner together with the committee on Eastern Europe, and I asked a priest who was traveling with you how long (Ukraine) would be free from Russia (after the breakup of the Soviet Union), and he said about 10 years.
“I want you to know that our small diocese, we are about 3 percent Catholic, and we estimate that we have raised about $350,000 to send to you. We are also flying the Ukraine flag in front of our cathedral and Chancery. I just want you to know that in small dioceses like ours here in Tennessee that we are praying for you and supporting you, and we will continue to do so,” Bishop Stika said.
“Your Excellency, I am deeply touched,” replied the major archbishop. “(Your) dimensions may be small in the eyes of humans, but your love and your solidarity is great in the eyes of God. So, on behalf of suffering Ukraine, I take this opportunity to thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Bishop Stika assured the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church that he would extend his gratitude to the faithful of the Diocese of Knoxville for supporting Ukraine through a series of special collections taken at diocesan parishes in March.
Around $94,000 raised by parishioners at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus has already been sent to the St. John Paul II Shrine in Krakow, Poland, for its Ukrainian refugee-relief efforts. A decision on where to forward the rest of the diocesan donations will be determined soon.
“I have a Polish and Bohemian background,” Bishop Stika told the major archbishop. “I hope to visit the Ukraine someday.”
“You are all welcome to Ukraine,” Major Archbishop Shevchuk said.
Bishop Stika is a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops subcommittee on the Church in Central and Eastern Europe and says that discussions are underway to have committee members visit the Ukraine with the guidance of the U.S. State Department.
“It’s all very preliminary, but it would be a good opportunity to see firsthand, the faith of the people of Ukraine and how that has carried them through this tragedy,” Bishop Stika said. “We know war is terrible and that Russia’s aggression, as His Beatitude said, is aimed at claiming the sovereignty and identity of the Ukrainian people.”
“For many years I worked in the holy see, so I have some realization of what is at stake” Cardinal Rigali told Major Archbishop Shevchuk. “I am very happy to be here with Bishop Stika to show our gratitude to you for making this opportunity with the American bishops possible.”
Despite the good will and support, the major archbishop still paints a painful picture of what is taking place in his country.
He told stories of deportations to Russia, and crimes that included the sexual abuse of infants.
“It is beyond sanity,” he said. “The invasion…it is a blasphemy against God.
“Just today, I came back from the southern part of Ukraine, and I saw 2,000 people in line to receive food. I saw the refugees who were coming to the church just for a piece of bread. I would say the major challenge and preoccupation with our Church is how to save human lives,” he added.
“I am very proud of the courage of my bishops and my priests who remain with their flock who have stayed (despite) the bombs. I am very proud of my monks and nuns (in the east) who are under the Russian occupation, experiencing persecution, violence, and all kinds of suffering. Many people are dying, not because of bombs and rockets, but because of hunger,” he continued.
Two days after the video call, on April 29, Russia resumed its attack on Kyiv by firing rockets in a section of the city not far from the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ.