On a Sunday afternoon back in mid-January, I sat down at my laptop, waiting for a call from Archbishop Borys Gudziak, the metropolitan of Ukrainian Catholics in the United States. At the time, tens of thousands of Russian troops were amassed along the Ukraine border, and my editor and I wanted to hear from Ukrainian Catholics about the matter. Amid an extremely busy pastoral schedule, Archbishop Gudziak graciously agreed to speak to me.
I don’t think I will ever forget that conversation.
After we exchanged greetings, the archbishop gently pressed past my rather naive interview questions and, in a voice of calm conviction, uttered words that have proven to be prophetic.
While Americans speculated Russian president Vladimir Putin was simply saber-rattling to keep Western leaders off balance, Archbishop Gudziak was direct, stating that the buildup posed “a question of life or death for thousands, who (would) be massacred by an escalated invasion,” with “between three and six million refugees (flooding) into Western Europe.”
And the bloodshed wouldn’t be confined to Ukraine, he said.
“If Russia succeeds in subjugating Ukraine, chances are the process will continue in the Baltic countries, Central Europe and beyond,” said Archbishop Gudziak.
Ukrainians know that likelihood all too well, he said.
For them, “the reality of war … is not a new story,” said Archbishop Gudziak. “Our priests (there) have been burying war dead regularly for over eight years.”
In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, with Russian-backed separatists proclaiming “people’s republics” in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. That move came just 23 years after Ukraine gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, of which it had been a part.
Between 2014 and this latest Russian invasion, clashes, shelling and sniper attacks became common in eastern Ukraine, resulting in an estimated 14,000 to 15,000 deaths and some 1.5 million internally displaced persons.
Ukraine was already well acquainted with such suffering. While subjugated to the Soviet Union, its dead were numbered among the 50 to 60 million slain through “wars, purges, genocides and ideological repression,” said Archbishop Gudziak.
From 1932 to 1933, at least four million Ukrainians (about 13% of the population) died in the Holodomor, a famine deliberately created by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin through farm collectivization to “break the back of the Ukrainian peasantry,” the archbishop said.
In addition, the Orthodox Church — which under communism maintained “some form of existence” — was persecuted, while “the Roman Catholic Church was almost completely annihilated, along with many Protestant communities” in Ukraine, said Archbishop Gudziak. “The Ukrainian Catholic Church became the biggest illegal church in the world from 1946 to 1989.”
And it may become that again.
On Feb. 24, just a month after my interview, Russian troops invaded Ukraine in force. Archbishop Gudziak again spoke with me, this time from Paris, where he was holding emergency meetings with diplomats.
“Ukraine is being crucified,” he said – and, as with Christ, it had first been betrayed.
In 1994, Ukraine voluntarily forfeited its nuclear arsenal – the third largest in the world at the time — as part of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, through which the U.S., Russia and Britain pledged “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders or Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against Ukraine.
Now, said Archbishop Gudziak, “one of the signatories (Russia) is the violator of it.”
For years, Ukrainian officials had warned their counterparts about the ongoing aims and assaults of Russia. In return, insufficient sanctions from the West left Russia with “its hand slapped and not much more,” said the archbishop.
Our “attachment to comfort,” along with our “loss of understanding of human nature and the deep consequences of sin,” had enabled us to “stand by and watch what was occurring in Ukraine over the past eight years,” he said.
Indeed, ensnared by sensuality, consumerism, greed, ideology, polarization and countless other sins, we face an overdue “examination of conscience,” he said. “How did (the West) stand by and watch what was occurring in Ukraine over the past eight years?”
As I write this, thousands – including pregnant women, infants and children – have been killed and maimed by Russian weapons, which are deliberately targeting not only critical infrastructure and nuclear power plants, but schools, maternity hospitals, residential areas, churches, civilian bomb shelters and humanitarian corridors.
Close to four million refugees have fled to neighboring European Union nations. Almost seven million remain displaced within Ukraine; another 12 million are sheltering in place needing humanitarian help.
Several thousand Ukrainians from the besieged yet unvanquished city of Mariupol have, according to Ukrainian authorities, been deported to Russia – whose leader, Vladimir Putin, has over two decades evolved from, as The New York Times recently observed, “statesman to dictator.”
Archbishop Gudziak, along with every Ukrainian and Ukrainian-American I’ve interviewed, knows exactly what is at stake in this war – historically, morally and spiritually.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the worldwide Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, proposes an answer in his daily video message of March 19, the 24th day of the war: “Do not close your hearts before the pain of Ukraine, for one day the Lord God will tell you, ‘I was wounded in Ukraine, and you turned your face away from me.'”
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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