The Reverend Doctor Athanasius D. McVay specializes in the 20th-century history of Vatican diplomacy and of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. He co-edited a publication of Vatican archival documents on the 1932-1933 Holodomor famine in Ukraine, and has recently completed a major monograph on Blessed Nykyta Budka, Canada’s first Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop. Novelist and European correspondent Dorothy Cummings McLean spoke to him last week for CWR about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
Dorothy Cummings McLean, CWR: Father McVay, can you explain to us what triggered the demonstrations?
Father Athanasius D. McVay: The immediate cause was President Yanukovych’s about-face regarding talks with the leaders of the European Union. The remote cause is the corrupt un-democratic regime which is heavily influenced by Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime.
CWR: What has the Church’s role been in the demonstrations?
Father McVay: The Church is Christ’s Body so it is made up of all the faithful. The role of the priesthood in the Church is to minister to all the faithful, to teach and sanctify. People demonstrating at Independence Square (the Maidan) asked their clergy for ministry, prayer, liturgy, and the sacrament of confession. They preach Christ’s Gospel of peace and justice. The presence of the Greek Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant clergy helped the protests remain peaceful.
CWR: I could hardly believe my eyes when I read that the regime’s Culture Minister had threatened to “ban” the Catholic Church in the Ukraine. Were you surprised by this?
Father McVay: A letter was sent by an assistant to the minister threatening to “re-assess” the status of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church if it continued to celebrate the holy services on the Maidan. The minister later denied any knowledge of the letter. This is part of a long intimidation by the current regime against the Greek Catholic Church because the Church speaks out for freedom and justice and against corruption.
For example, the government has been making difficulties for the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv for several years now. Recently it charged one of the professors for a traffic violation in a city in which he was not even present. It is also demanding that the rector of the university be a Ukrainian citizen. The current rector is an ethnic Ukrainian from Poland. The former rector, founder, and current president of the university, Bishop Borys Gudziak, is an ethnic Ukrainian from the United States.
CWR: What is the history of government oppression of the Church in the Ukraine, both before 1989 and after?
Father McVay: What is Ukraine today was ruled by foreign powers for seven centuries. In the region ruled by Poland, Ukrainian Orthodox hierarchs united with Rome and their Church became known as “Uniate.” Subsequent Austrian rulers re-named the Church “Greek Catholic” to promote its equality with the Roman Catholic Church. Because the Tsarist Empire destroyed the Greek Catholic Church in the eastern territories it annexed, it survived only in Austrian Galicia (western Ukraine).
In 1945 Joseph Stalin gave the orders to Nikita Khruschev to suppress the remaining three dioceses in the newly acquired western Ukraine. He also ordered the Russian Orthodox Church to absorb [members of] the UGCC into their fold. Bishops, priests, religious, and faithful who refused to renounce Catholic unity were convicted of crimes against the Communist Party and sent to the gulag. Blessed John Paul II beatified some of these martyrs in 2001 during his visit to Ukraine.
I recently completed a historical biography on one of these martyrs, Nykyta Budka, who had served as the first Ukrainian bishop in Canada from 1912 to 1928. Like many others, Budka died in a work camp in Kazakhstan. After Gorbachev initiated his Glasnost reforms, the UGCC emerged from the underground and demanded civil rights. These were granted shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
CWR: Father, you are based in Rome and minister to Ukrainian Catholics in a number of communities worldwide. What concerns or opinions have Ukrainians both in the Ukraine and outside (in the UK, Canada, and Italy) voiced to you?
Father McVay: Ukrainians at home and abroad and also those of Ukrainian descent consider themselves part of the Ukrainian nation or people. Those who have retained the confession of their ancestors (Ukrainian Greek Catholic, Ukrainian Orthodox) also are spiritually united to their brothers and sisters in the old country because they are part of one Church. In the case of the UGCC, it is a particular Church existing on four continents. It is united to the Universal Church and all the Catholic Churches.
Both inside and outside the borders of Ukraine, Ukrainians are very grateful for the spiritual and moral solidarity coming from Catholics around the world and from people of other faiths. However, some have expressed concern that in some countries there appears to be little concern for our struggle for freedom, and that international leaders are not acting with greater vigor to dissuade the regime from its totalitarian tendencies. Also, Ukrainians are concerned when others try to “dissect” and “divide” Ukraine into zones and categories. These spectators weigh the pros and cons of our alliance or integration with the European Union against creating closer ties to Russian and the Putin dictatorship. In doing do they do us a great disservice. The participation in the Maidan demonstrates that civic-minded citizens from every part of Ukraine are behind a movement for human freedom. This is not linked exclusively to the EU, but, above all, to European values and freedoms.
CWR: What can the Western, i.e. the Roman Rite, Church do to help the Church in the Ukraine right now?
Father McVay: Roman Rite Catholics can help by learning more about their Sister Church the UGCC and by expressing prayerful and moral solidarity. They should also examine the dire consequences for the Catholic Churches and all citizens if the regime continues along the dictatorial path it has chosen. Church leaders can make the faithful aware, especially through the press and Internet, of what is going on and what is at stake. A magnificent example of solidarity has come from Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who expressed unreserved support for the Ukrainian people and the UGCC hierarchy on his blog. George Weigel has also been very helpful by explaining what is at stake in this conflict.