As unrest continues and the dead are mourned in Kiev, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop has called for solidarity with anti-government protesters, whose cause, he says, is broader than short-term political gains.
While the media is reporting that the ongoing protests are motivated by the Ukrainian government’s refusal to sign an agreement that would have steered Ukraine towards Europe, Bishop Borys Gudziak says the story “has a much broader context and a much deeper quality.”
The Maidan movement [a reference to Kiev’s central square, held for several months by protesters] is a reaction against the general atmosphere of fear and intimidation in Ukraine and against wanton corruption in the country, he said. It is a movement of principle and dignity, with spiritual expression.
“The people are morally exhausted,” he told Vatican Radio. “So…what began as a Euro-Maidan movement…is really now a Maidan of dignity, a Maidan of citizens recognizing something that is rather transcendental and that is fundamentally spiritual—that every person is created in dignity in the image and likeness of God.”
Bishop Gudziak, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic eparch of France, Belgium, and Luxembourg, is president of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. He told Vatican Radio that protesters are acting to rid their country of the vestiges of totalitarianism, which have lingered since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Religious leaders have had a strong presence among the anti-government crowds, he said:
The clergy from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the various Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant communities, as well as Jewish and Muslim clerics, have joined protesters seeking to minister to their spiritual needs.
“Basically, the churches have come to where the people have asked them to be,” said the bishop.
The religious presence in the main Independence Square in Kiev is obvious. Acting in accord, the churches hold ecumenical prayer on Sundays at noon. And throughout the night, when fear of violence is greatest, prayer is led from the main stage on the hour every hour, said the bishop. Religious services are held and “ecclesial tents” are set up in the square, where people can pray quietly before an icon, access the sacrament of confession and spiritual guidance.
“The Church, following the basic insight expressed by Pope Francis, is trying to make sure that the pastors have the smell of the sheep,” he stated.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which was outlawed during Soviet rule from 1945 to 1989, has come under particular scrutiny from the government for its involvement in the protests; in early January the country’s Ministry of Culture sent a letter to the head of the UGCC, Archbishop Svyatoslav Shevchuk, threatening to shut down those religious organizations perceived as aiding the opposition. From a UGCC statement on Archbishop Shevchuk’s response to the government:
The head of UGCC said that the Church is not a participant in the political process, but it cannot stand by when its faithful ask for spiritual care. To be with his faithful is the priest’s duty, which is connected with the very mission of the Church. “Our Church has always been true to this mission that Christ entrusted to our Church and will remain so for the future and despite any threats.” …
“The Church reserves the right to assess the situation in the country, if there are violations of human rights and of the principles of public morality flowing from God’s law and reflected in the social teaching of the Church,” His Beatitude Svyatoslav explained in his statement.
In conclusion, the Head of the UGCC once again stated that the only way to solve the socio-political crisis in Ukraine is honest and open dialogue among all parties, the starting point of which is the willingness of the authorities to listen to their people.
After the recitation of the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square today, Pope Francis expressed his prayers for Ukraine and its people, especially those who have lost loved ones to violence. He also expressed the hope “that a constructive dialogue between the institutions and the civil society will develop, avoiding any recourse to violent actions, that the spirit of peace and the pursuit of the common good prevail in every heart.”