The world abounds in confusing situations confounding our limited human abilities to see, think, analyze, and discern. In our hubris, we may think we have the authentic insight into a given situation, and that those who do not share our conclusions must be our adversaries. But to all involved God says, as He did when setting Job straight: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if thou hast understanding” (Job 38:4).
A prime example in our times of clashing narratives and analyses is the war in Ukraine. The various media platforms abound with angry exchanges, even among faithful Catholics. In the absence of an unmistakable intervention from God, we must rely on guidance from the Church. And for deeper insight into the spiritual realities of the war set in the context of historical facts and tragedies, we have a reliable Catholic witness and shepherd, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC). An accessible introduction to His Beatitude’s life and work is At the Foot of the Cross, Lessons From Ukraine: An Interview with Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk by John Burger. Burger began interviewing the Archbishop before the war began, but the project was not finished in February 2022 when Russia invaded its neighbor. Hence Archbishop Shevchuk offers his on-the-ground and historically-informed reflections on the war, as well as scenes from his life, developments in the UGCC, and life after the Soviet Union.
“According to our understanding and direct experience of the situation in Ukraine and Russia, in these post-Soviet countries, each nation has its own spiritual and social sicknesses, illnesses. Ukraine as well. Russia has its own” (210). Crucial to an understanding of Ukraine and its challenges is the suffering of its people under Soviet rule. And central to that story is the suppression of the UGCC in 1945 and its re-emergence beginning in 1988-89. Unlike the Russian Orthodox Church, the UGCC, according to Shevchuk, “never was a church of the state. It was always a church of the simple people” (181).
But as much as this is a story of Ukraine in recent decades and past centuries, it is also the story of a remarkable churchman. Sviatoslav Shevchuk was born in 1970 in Soviet Western Ukraine, and for many years he had little or no direct contact with the church of his family. Despite the absence of the UGCC from open ministry, young Sviatoslav witnessed belief in God, including at home, where he saw his mother and father and other relatives pray. “And maybe a small kid doesn’t understand what they are doing,” he said, “but he understands very well if they are doing something important or not” (45).
The UGCC had been forced underground and many of its priests and bishops imprisoned, exiled, or killed. This was on top of the pre-WWII famine created by Bolshevik cruelty and stupidity and which especially affected Ukraine and its people. The future archbishop grew up listening surreptitiously to liturgies on illegal radio sets. As a teenager he began to believe he had a vocation to the priesthood, and began seminary studies through clandestine independent study from priest-teachers. As the Soviet Union imploded and Ukraine asserted its independence, Shevchuk wound up in Argentina, where he attained fluency in Spanish and took classes in philosophy and theology not available back home. In the following years he was ordained to the priesthood and earned a doctorate in Moral Theology in Rome. He was sent back to Argentina to minister to the Ukrainian diaspora there. It was there he met Cardinal Bergoglio. In 2011, to his surprise, Bishop Shevchuk was elected to be the primate of the UGCC.
Since then he was striven to pastor his flock at home and abroad because the UGCC is “a Ukrainian Church, but not a Church only for Ukrainians” (11). To read this book is to understand that history, which is rooted in specific places and times, ultimately only understandable with a spiritual interpretation. The Archbishop glimpsed this truth with the election of Pope John Paul II, when his family realized that “something will be changing in the world” (62). The moral authority of Rome as articulated by the Pope foreshadowed the downfall of the USSR.
The next turning point was the 1988 celebration of the millennium of Prince Volodomyr’s conversion at Kyiv (69). It was the eve of the collapse of Communist control in Eastern Europe and during Gorbachev’s perestroika, and the Russian Orthodox Church—still controlled by the Soviets—hijacked the millennial celebrations. And yet, it was also the beginning of a resurgent UGCC, and that Church began to emerge from underground. The UGCC has been blessed with many holy priests and bishops, some canonized or beatified, others not, but all united in suffering for the confession of Christ (90). Leaders such as Metropolitan Sheptytsky and Patriarch Yosyf Slipy must be included in any account of heroic and faithful Catholicism in the twentieth century. Archbishop Shevchuk learned from previous generations—such as his mentor Cardinal Lubomyr Huzar—that surrender is not an option.
But Burger’s interviews show how the Archbishop applies those lessons to this time in history. The Eastern Catholic Churches have frequently been prone to two very different impulses. One is that of “latinization,” which means uncritically accepting Roman-Western practices as superior to their own tradition. The second is to give way to an Orthodox tendency to live in the past and to define themselves by ethnicity. Archbishop Shevchuk, because of stints in Argentina and Italy, has gained an understanding of Eastern and Western approaches to theology. His graduate work on the theology of Orthodox lay theologian Paul Evdokimov is evidence of that (94-97). So is his insistence on implementing the Church’s social doctrine. The Eastern Churches, whether in communion with Rome or not, have not historically grappled with social teaching in a theological way. The subjugation of Eastern Christianity by Islam and Communism has meant the Churches have lost their leading role in providing for the poor and needy, and that role is only slowly being rediscovered in the twenty-first century. Archbishop Shevchuk ties together social teaching in action with evangelization (176-179).
This is an accessible book written in a conversational style. It will be of interest to a general audience. It is quite simply an inspirational book that can give the reader some measure of hope when we are faced with so many stories of failure. Importantly, Archbishop Shevchuk defies easy categorization in a time of polarization. He is authentically Byzantine in theology (142-143), but is a bridge-builder. He is neither conventionally conservative nor progressive, and while he is somewhat close to Pope Francis, he remains outside the criticisms some have made of the Supreme Pontiff. There are issues I wish His Beatitude had addressed because they come up so often in connection with Ukraine and the war: the notoriety around that country’s orphanages, the prevalence of surrogate motherhood, and the corrosive effect of long-standing corruption. Perhaps they will be answered in another book.
Photo by AAB71 on Shutterstock.