Boris Gudziak (Catholic Press Photo)

Ukraine: Safeguard your heart

His story and that of his martyred land. The tale of a people who live on. In April Traces, Monsignor Borys Gudziak, Metropolitan Archbishop of Philadelphia of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, speaks of a people who live on.
Luca Fiore

“I arrived at the New York Encounter just after returning from my last trip to Ukraine, where I saw the drama of my people. I visited a parish in downtown Lviv where the funerals of three hundred soldiers were held. Imagine what it means for a priest to be close to all these mothers, wives, and daughters. Arriving at the Encounter, by contrast, I was impressed by the atmosphere of joy and friendship with which I was greeted. I met educated, curious people, free from the contemporary factions in which one takes sides even within the church, men and women who seek depth and authenticity, a seeking that generates peace. This is the task of the church.”
Monsignor Borys Gudziak, the metropolitan archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, spoke at the New York event alongside Monsignor Gabriele Caccia, apostolic nuncio to the United Nations, on the theme “Peace on Earth.” On that occasion, Gudziak said, “Peace is really a divine thing. It is the life of the Trinity. War, invasion and imperialism, on the other hand, are the work of the devil. War is a violation of every single commandment. It is a violation of God’s will. The ministry of the church is to remind us of this; it is to help us live according to what God asks of us. Prayer and acknowledging ourselves to be in the presence of the Lord are foundational. Preaching the gospel, attentiveness to God’s word in all circumstances, but especially in the face of war, have great meaning. Moments of prayer, more than protests, leave people with a sense of peace.” Born in 1960 in Syracuse, New York, to Ukrainian parents and the former rector of the Catholic University of Lviv, the archbishop begins with his roots in recounting the last twelve months experienced by his people.

What has your experience been from February 24, 2022 to the present?
I grew up as a child of refugees. My parents fled during World War II (in which seven million inhabitants of Ukrainian lands were killed) and met in New York. One of my mother’s sisters died in the resistance, and my father’s parents buried eight of their ten children. Then there was the great famine caused by Stalin in the 1930s, the genocide of Ukrainian Jews under Nazi occupation, and the persecution of the church under the Soviet Union... These all gave us stories of war and destruction. The large-scale Russian invasion, following eight years of war in the Donbass and the occupation of Crimea,made me think back on all these events of the past in a new and vivid way. I think that many of my fellow citizens have also reflected on these things.

A new wound on a wounded body.
I am a historian and I spent twenty years gathering information about the persecuted church in the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was, from 1946 to 1989, the largest illegal church in the world. In 1945 all of our bishops were arrested. Hundreds of priests, with their families, were sent to Siberia because they refused to break communion with Rome. At that time the Ukrainian Eastern Catholic Church was very deeply rooted in the fabric of society in the western regions of the country. The priest was a community leader and his wife might be an educator, a choir director, or a theater organizer. Their children often became members of the intelligentsia. This church was a reality that, because of its communion with the universal church, had a bond to the outside world, even a canonical one, that made it more difficult to control. That is why Stalin wanted to make it disappear. Today in the occupied eastern regions there is not a single Catholic priest left, and in Crimea those who remain are persecuted.

You have been to Ukraine six times since the invasion began. What have you seen?
A traumatized people confronted by daily bombing, both the actual bombing and that of the headlines. Every Ukrainian checks the news five or more times a day to find out what happened overnight and which areas have affected. They want to find out if family and friends are still alive. There is a smartphone app that reports attacks. All of this causes double the amount of stress. I encourage people to turn off their phones. In the first two months of the invasion, seven million people left the country and another seven million became internally displaced persons. I cannot recall another occasion in history when fourteen million people were forced to leave their homes in such a short period. Many have since returned, but the exodus has not stopped. Inside this drama is the additional one of family separation, because martial law prevents men between the ages of eighteen and sixty from going abroad. Added to this is the trauma of violence against civilians. I do not think you can still doubt what happened in Bucha. I talked to people who were tortured, widows, parents who lost their children, young people who lost their friends, soldiers who were maimed or paralyzed. It amazes me that among the hundreds and hundreds of people I met, no one said, “we have to surrender.” I am not saying that there are no Ukrainians who think that. But it never occurred to me to meet with them.

What is the root of this violence?
Adam seizes the fruit that leads to death. This “grabbing” is the origin of all violence. God has given us everything and said, “Live this gift.” War is “the great grabbing”; it is a violation of all the commandments. It is taking other people’s lives, it is taking other people’s land, it crushes humanity, culture, and creativity. Yet I do not only see violence.

People go on living. They do not talk much, but they do things, they act. The country goes on. We have seen an incredible surge of solidarity. I see principles of the social doctrine of the church in action: the defense of human dignity and solidarity, as well the practice of subsidiarity and the pursuit of the common good. Today seven million people live in other people’s homes or in religious or cultural institutions. It is very significant that, with fourteen million displaced people, there has been no need for refugee camps. There has been a huge mobilization abroad as well, in Europe and also in the United States, Canada, and other countries. When I talk to Ukrainians, they always ask me to thank the people who are helping them.

The pope keeps calling for peace and dialogue.
Peace is the end of war, but it needs justice to be so. And the only person who can stop the war is President Putin. Ukraine has no interest in attacking Russia, but Ukrainians cannot stop defending themselves. If they do, there will be no more Ukraine, with its language and its Eastern Rite Church. The pope always asks for us not to be abstract. For Jesus, the highest commandment is “love God and your neighbor,” and to explain what “love your neighbor” means, the pope recounts the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus loves the one who recognizes and helps the victim. The criterion for peace should be the position of the victim. And here the victim is clear. Ukraine has historically shown its option for peace.

In what sense?
I am referring to the Budapest Memorandum signed in 1994 in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal (then the third largest in the world) on the condition that its security, independence, and territorial integrity be respected. That document was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia. In that year, the Ukrainian army numbered 900,000, but by 2014 the number was down to 150,000. This was an act of trust in humanity, in peace, in the possibility of coexistence between peoples. These steps taken by the Ukrainian state and people are often forgotten. The answer was war.

And what does “loving one’s enemies” mean to you?

First of all, I pray for the conversion of the invaders. A friend, an Italian, counseled me in the aftermath of the invasion to “safeguard your heart.” And I have been working on this every day. It is difficult, especially for those who have lost family members, and in light of torture and war crimes. In a world dominated by individualism and relativism, where everything is treated as something that can be bought and sold, there are those in Ukraine who say, “Yes, my life is important. But there is something even more important: the truth. There is truth and there are lies. There is good and there is evil. And I am willing to risk my life to affirm the good. And I can do it because God is present. Even if I die, I will not fail.”

What can we do for peace?
Pray, become informed, inform others of the facts, and
help where and however you can. There are so many humanitarian needs, even near you.