Ukraine’s Struggle: Where Heaven and Earth Have Met
Like countless others both in Ukraine and around the world, I have been transfixed by events as they have unfolded over these last weeks and months. The world’s cameras and spotlights have been fixed on Kyiv and Ukraine as a whole in a way that they have not been in living memory, and perhaps ever. And as the world has watched, things have happened that I never in my wildest dreams would have thought possible. By this, I do not necessarily mean the obvious: the country’s liberation from a criminal Yanukovych and his thuggish rule by sheer force of the people’s will, or the ultimate exposing of Putin as a malevolent puppet master and military aggressor. Both scenarios have been breath-taking for what they imply, and yet for all that, they do not sufficiently reflect the utterly inspiring reality behind all that has happened.
As a priest living in a country where the biggest political threat is socially-enervating legislation, and where one of the biggest religious challenges may be overcoming the sheepishness that can accompany wearing a cassock in public, the testimony of faith in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis is simultaneously shaming and uplifting. By the word ‘faith’, it is not only the overt work of the Church to which I refer, although it is this I will shortly come to focus on; it is the incredible manifestation of human virtue on the part of those who have been caught up in events across the country, and have managed to stay the course. Watching the sheer bravery of those involved in Euromaidan, the actions of someone like Colonel Yuri Mamchur and his men at Belbek airbase in Crimea, the arrest of Father Mykola Kvych, and the ultimate sacrifice made by those such as Professor Bohdan Solchanyk of the Ukrainian Catholic University – whether in Kyiv or anywhere else in the country – is a testament to the eternal value of human virtue in the face of tyranny and oppression. This is a lesson the whole world can stand to hear, and especially those of us seeking to minister faithfully in less threatening contexts.
In the midst of everything, though, what has attracted my attention in a particular way is the example of the Church’s clerics on the frontlines since the dawn of Euromaidan. Many of the photos have received wide circulation: priests standing in the middle of a projectile-strewn square with the Cross, the Gospels, and a holy Icon; priests hearing confessions on the pavement; priests blessing; priests praying over the fallen. That these images should be in circulation is of tantamount importance because of what they say about the role of the Church, the nature of Ukrainian society, and the legitimacy of the protests, the aspirations of the people, and the current Ukrainian government, and it is heartening to know that they have given rise to as much discussion as they have.
In terms of the latter – that is, the legitimacy of the protests, the aspirations of the people, and the current Ukrainian government – that the Churches, Catholic and Orthodox, should have stood alongside the people as theyhave over the course of the protests, and continue to do in Crimea and around the country – praying not only for peace, but actively workingto alleviate suffering, comforting the people, and standing prophetically for justice – should signal to all people that what is going on is no mere violent coup d’état or neo-Nazi power-grab. Rather, like the Ark of the Covenant among the ancient Israelites, the active contribution of the Churches to the cause of truth in the face of repressive internal politics and aggressive external politics, suggests that God’s favour rests on those who look to a more open future for Ukraine.
What seems evident about Ukrainian society in light of Church involvement, meanwhile, at least to those with eyes to see and ears to hear, is how profoundly influenced by faith it actually is, and the degree to which the people are sustained by it. At one point, a Western news agency described scenes from Maidan as ‘medieval’, and it was not referring to the tactics being deployed by protesters. It was, rather, expressing incredulity at the number of priests moving freely about the protest zone, as if a sequence from the Bayeux Tapestry had come to life. Indeed, the Church and her priests became ubiquitous in ministering on Maidan, and the Ukrainian people mystifying (to Western minds at least) in their assent to that ministry. As much as Poland or Ireland have, until recently at least, represented societies that have not wholeheartedly conceded to contemporary forms of secularism, Ukraine manifested in Maidan, and continues to show forth, a society that draws nourishment and strength from the Church.
Related to this, finally, yet with slightly different implications, is what the images of those Ukrainian priests might contribute to our understanding about the role of the Church – not just in Ukraine, but in terms of her global mission. Pope Francis has recently been quoted as saying that priests need to ‘take on the smell of the sheep’, meaning, of course, that they need to be where there people are, and know intimately their trials and tribulations. This is profoundly helpful advice, except that in order to do so effectively, it is important that the priests remember their priesthood in the midst of it. And this is not so easy as it may seem. We might cast our minds, by way of example, to those priests in Latin America who, under the influence of liberation theology,and in their fervour for social and economic justice, wound up becoming mere foot soldiers alongside every other foot soldier, even to the point of taking up arms. At some point, it is possible to forget that the role of the priest must always be one of blessing and reconciliation; not of becoming so absorbed in the concerns of the flock that they can no longer effect the Mysteries of Christ that give them their faculty in the first place. To this end, it wasnoteworthy to see, in every photo, priests not only in their cassocks, but wearing the epitrachelion: a liturgical symbol of their sacramental authority. There could be no doubt that theirs was a particular role, and however much they might have stood on the side of the Ukrainian people against Yanukovych and now the Kremlin, it was still a role that transcended political division in favour of Divine Truth.
Patriarch Svyatoslav and, happily, other Ukrainian hierarchs – both Catholic and Orthodox – have made it clear what the role of the Church was to be during the course of the Maidan movement and beyond, but it is not difficult to understand how their advice might translate beyond Ukraine’s borders. The Church’s vocation, wherever she finds herself, is to look for what is true and good and to proclaim and uphold it; to tend to those in need and to proclaim God’s blessing on all those who desire it; to pray, even when circumstances make it virtually impossible; to serve as an icon to all people of the reality of the union between heaven and earth – between divinity and humanity – and to do so in as bold a way as the colours of the Pantokrator.
The Church is set a hard task, but if the witness of the clergy of Ukraine is anything to go by – not to mention that of the countless brave souls who have faced down persecution and death for the sake of their friends, relatives, and neighbours – it is by no means impossible. May their work be our inspiration.