Ukraine: The Mother of God Destroyed the Soviet Empire
Archbishop Schevchuk Reflects on Rebuilding the Church in Ukraine
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ROME, MAY 25, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Marie-Pauline Meyer interviewed Major-Archbishop Swiatoslav Schevchuk, Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine for the weekly program “Where God Weeps,” in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.
Q: I notice that you are not wearing a Crucifix, but rather an image of Our Lady? Can you tell is the tradition here?
Archbishop Schevchuk: This is worn to show the dignity of the Episcopal office of the Eastern Bishops. We always have to wear the icon of the Mother of God and this specific icon, which was handmade, was given to me by my Patriarch on the day of my Episcopal ordination. This icon has a special significance as my Patriarch told me if I am ever sad, my consolation is the Mother of God.
Q: The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was liquidated after the Second World War and you grew up during a period of Soviet persecution. What was this like for you personally?
Archbishop Schevchuk: I grew up in a completely atheistic society where all forms of the transcendental were eliminated. We were taught that there is no God. The family, however, taught a different value and became the vehicle that transmitted the Christian faith. It was during these times that I was able to assist in very specific situations in the manifestation of the Church as a community and as a body of Christ. For example, when a person dies, the Church unites around this person in prayer. This was how, for the first time I met a priest who came in the middle of the night to celebrate the funeral and then would quietly disappear. And, like a small boy I was curious as to who this person – the priest - was and what was he doing. I saw in that person a real witness of the presence of Christ. This priest was imprisoned twice because of his ministry and through this priest, I really found someone and something worth giving one’s life for. This was an alternative, especially for us young people, to the official values that society was teaching us. This is how I discovered the presence of the Church in an atheistic society.
Q: Were you allowed to go the seminary?
Archbishop Schevchuk: The traditional definition of a seminary as a visible structure and a community, of course not, but a seminary as a way to prepare a person for the priesthood yes. This priest I met was also the rector of the secret seminary, the underground seminary. This was a discovery for me of a whole new world.
Q: Did you then study at this seminary at night?
Archbishop Schevchuk: It was not always at night and it was infrequent that I met my professors. My way of studying was rather strange, perhaps. I met my seminary professors at least once every two months and when I met with them, I was always given a book. I would then copy and study the book for two months. This method allowed me to study and have a copy for myself of the Gospel of St. Luke for example. This is how my initial formation began. This kind of formation would have taken years to prepare me properly for the priesthood and I know that it was not enough, but this is how I started my priestly formation.
Q: Were you not afraid of being discovered by the secret police?
Archbishop Schevchuk: As a teenager, at that time I was not aware of the dangers because it was completely a secret and every teenager had his own secret. Neither my mother nor my father were aware of this and this was my personal secret. It was after a year that I understood the dangers that could have resulted had I been discovered by the secret police. My parents: my mother was a music teacher and my father was an engineer. Had I been discovered my parents would have lost their jobs. Many people in Ukraine, in the past, who were discovered were either imprisoned or exiled. At that time, however, I did not fully understand nor was I aware of the dangers and the persecution, which was going on in Ukraine.
Q: So nothing happened to you?
Archbishop Schevchuk: Thanks be to God nothing happened. For me and my own perspective, in order for me to openly become a priest, the Mother of God had to destroy the Soviet Union. I remember praying; it is impossible for humans to destroy the evil of the Soviet empire but for God nothing is impossible.
Q: We have heard or read about the secret masses under Communism. What was your experience?
Archbishop Schevchuk: Without the Eucharist, the Church would not exist. The holy Eucharist was the central point of our life. I remember once a priest I met. He never talked at great length about the sufferings, persecutions and tortures, but he mentioned that even in prison, all the priests would celebrate the liturgy. We were amazed; how could this be possible? Where did you get a Chalice and a Paten? He took off his glasses and said: ‘This is what we used; one lens served as the chalice with a drop of wine and on the other a piece of bread was placed, which served as the paten. This is how they celebrated the liturgy in the prison or around the premises of the concentration camps.
Q: Do you remember your first public mass?
Archbishop Schevchuk: My first public mass was in 1991 when I just came back from military service with the Soviet Army. I was drafted to the Soviet Army. Before my military service, everything was in secret but afterwards everything was suddenly in the open and everything was just exploding. I assisted the Divine Liturgy in the church in my native city of Strait in the Ukraine. It was amazing. I felt like I was in heaven. The Byzantine liturgy is an icon of the heavenly liturgy, the resurrected Christ, who celebrates His Eucharist in heaven. I felt I was in heaven.
Q: Are you able to keep this sense every time you celebrate the liturgy?
Archbishop Schevchuk: Yes, and perhaps the Christian in the free world, very often, never fully appreciates this great gift of the Eucharist. Freedom sometimes is like a persecution, a challenge, which is why it is important for me, and a part of my mission to explain to all Christians in the free world, the greatness of this mystery - the Eucharistic sacrifice - and the great privilege of receiving the Eucharist daily.
Q: How about the Ukrainians who were damaged by Communism?
Archbishop Schevchuk: Communism destroyed our society and one of the wounds in our flesh was the destruction of human dignity. It is quite often difficult to build a real democracy in these states because people are afraid to reveal themselves as a person, and to be free, not only internal but externally from the shackles - the vestiges of repression of their former societies [under Soviet rule]; to be free to take responsibility not only for one’s destiny, one’s own life and perhaps one’s country. I think that only through the grace of the Holy Spirit can the Church can heal these wounds. The grace of the Holy Spirit is a spirit of freedom and those Christians, who were in prison, can be free. We have the political freedom but we lack an internal personal freedom, a freedom from sin, a freedom to be good, to construct a new society and a new Church community. We have a big task and a big challenge, not only in Ukraine but also the Ukrainians in the diaspora.
Q: What is this challenge?
Archbishop Schevchuk: We have the freedom to construct our churches and are free to celebrate our liturgy but the big challenge today is secularization. The people are losing the sense of the transcendent or perhaps they do not appreciate being a Christian in the modern world. My task is to transmit my enthusiasm to them. Do not be afraid to be a Christian. During my time in the former Soviet Union it was dangerous to be a Christian. Today, in Europe, to be a Christian is not so convenient; it is important and I would like to repeat this - do not be afraid of being a Christian even when it is not convenient.
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The interview was conducted by Marie Pauline Meyer for the weekly radio and television program “Where God Weeps,” made in cooperation with Aid to the Suffering Church/Aid to the Church in Need.
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