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Men in Black

Lviv Theological Academy plays a major role in a post-Communist nation struggling with independence.

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Sunlight pierces thick clouds of incense, bringing to light the faces of three hundred young men. Squeezed into a hall that serves as a chapel, these men clad in black pray and chant while priests behind a screen of icons celebrate the sacred mysteries of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy. This daily ritual culminates with communion and prayers of thanksgiving, followed by a mass exodus to the dining area for a hearty breakfast of sausages, black bread and tea, all accompanied by breakfast chatter.

These young men attend a new and thriving Ukrainian Greek Catholic seminary, a branch of the Lviv Theological Academy, in the village of Rudno, just outside Lviv in western Ukraine.

Founded in 1928 by Andrey Sheptytsky, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, closed by the Soviet authorities in 1944 and reopened 50 years later, the Lviv Theological Academy answers a need in Ukraine for a center of Christian learning:

“In opening its doors to Catholics of other traditions and to Christians of other confessions, particularly Orthodox,” states the academy prospectus, “the Lviv Theological Academy is committed to transcending narrow concerns, while remaining faithful to its ecclesial tradition. Its mission is both to foster the intellectual life of the church in Ukraine and to articulate a Christian world view in contemporary, post-modern Ukrainian society.”

This is a formidable task in post-Communist, post-modern and, some would say, post-Christian Ukraine. Ukraine is divided between East and West, pro-Russian and pro-Western, pro-Communist and pro-capitalist, atheist and believer, Orthodox and Catholic. Ukraine is a nation in the process of identifying itself. It has a great, yet mixed, inheritance.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which reflects the society from which it developed, shares this patrimony. This includes both its Byzantine expression of the Christian faith, which the church maintained after it entered into full communion with the Church of Rome in 1596, and the legacy of Communism, which suppressed the church in 1946, forcing its leaders and members into hiding or membership in the Orthodox Church. Ukrainian Greek Catholics and Orthodox share similar rites and traditions but differ in regard to full communion with the Church of Rome.

In the late 1980, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine independence, Ukraine burgeoned with religious activity, particularly in the western portion of the country. The Greek Catholic Church, though outlawed, moved above ground; miraculous apparitions appeared; people burst into spontaneous prayer and “men in black” were free to spread the faith. Priests were suddenly in demand.

Father Bohdan Prach, a Pole, had always dreamed of working in Ukraine. He teaches Christian history and Old Testament at the Rudno seminary and serves as its rector. Ninety-five percent of the seminarians, he reports, enter the seminary from high school. Yet they are carefully selected.

“There is always the temptation to enter a seminary as an escape from poverty and malnutrition,” Father Prach says. “The goal of many seminarians is to acquire knowledge as soon as possible – they see it as a way out of poverty. But it not always the best motive.

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Tags: Ukraine Education Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Seminarians Communism/Communist