A clergyman stands between riot police and protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, Jan. 21. (CNS photo/Gleb Garanich, Reuters)
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
CWR: What has the Church’s role been in the
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
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
CWR: What can the Western, i.e. the Roman Rite, Church do
to help the Church in the Ukraine right now?
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
. George Weigel has also
been very helpful by explaining what is at stake in this conflict.