Thoughts of a Pastor in the Midst of War

Reconstructing the religious foundations of society would have been work enough

Ukraine’s ongoing attack from Russia is now entering its seventeenth month. Russia continues its aggression, in part because it knows Western attention spans can be short and eager to “move on.” There’s nothing Moscow would like better.

As a Polish American, let me tell you: the Central European perspective is different. Poland was continually under Russian occupation for 123 years (1795-1918). It was arguably occupied — with a 21 year exception — for 173 years (until 1989, but for independence from 1918-39). That’s anywhere from six to nine generations of subjugation.

Yet Poles didn’t stop fighting or resisting. Sometimes it was by force (uprisings in 1830, 1863). Sometimes it was non-violently (the Young Poland Movement, Solidarity). Sometimes it took the form of conspiracy (the World War II Polish Underground Army and State). Freedom has staying power with Slavs. I expect that of the Ukrainians.

So, if we are to understand what may be a long struggle, it’s imperative to see the bigger picture. There are political dimensions to the current conflict, but there are also religious ones.

John Burger, a Catholic journalist, has done us a great service in helping explain the religious situation in Ukraine. He is author of a book-length interview with Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk called At the Foot of the Cross: Lessons from Ukraine (published by Our Sunday Visitor Press; here).

Archbishop Shevchuk is the Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Galicia, an office he has held since 2011. He heads the Ukrainian Greek Catholics, one of the rites in the Catholic Church which is in union with the Pope but maintains its own liturgical heritage. Ukrainian Greek Catholics celebrate the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, but they are under the Pope.

Historically, the rite came about through a series of “unions,” primarily in the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 17th and 18th centuries. Because of their fidelity to the Pope, they have often been the victims of Orthodox — especially Russian Orthodox — animosity. After World War II, for example, Stalin forced a “Synod” that dissolved the Greek Catholic Church, forcing it into Russian Orthodoxy. It did not recover its independence until Ukraine itself became an independent state.

During Shevchuk’s tenure, Russia’s interference in Ukraine has grown. He’s seen Russia’s seizure of Crimea, its stoking of separatism in eastern Ukraine, and the latest full-scale attack of 2022. But he also sees events against the broader backdrop of history, including the fact that the Christianity Russia embraced came to it from Kyiv at a time when Kyiv was already a cultural center and Moscow did not exist. Kyiv was baptized in AD 988. Moscow’s first historical mention is in 1147.

Shevchuk has maintained good relations with the various Orthodox entities represented in Ukraine, as well as with the minority Roman Catholic Church, largely in western Ukraine. He is also aware that, after seven-plus decades of communism, much of what passes as “Christianity” on the territory of the old USSR is superficial. Homo sovieticus, with well-honed instincts for survival in a system built on lies, had very much deformed the religious and moral sensibilities of much of the population. The work of reconstructing the religious foundations of society would be daunting enough even if war — overt or covert — was not being prosecuted through much of his episcopal tenure.

Still, Shevchuk has confidence in God and the designs of Divine Providence. If we take Providence seriously, then God picks the man he selects to be what God needs at a given historical moment. In that light, what a pastor like Sviatoslav Shevchuk has to say when he must lead a flock in the middle of war and death deserves our attention. Looking for some worthwhile reading this summer? Pick up this book.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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