Recharging Ukraine

Ukraine’s revitalized Greek Catholic Church strives to recharge a nation that has lost its way.

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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“Only after I grow strong spiritually will I really touch people,” asserts a 20-year-old Ukrainian student at the Lviv Theological Academy. Unlike most young adults, Brother Michael has no doubts that this spiritual journey will be long and arduous. Though a student at the academy, he spends most of his days and nights in prayer and contemplation at St. Theodore’s Monastery, a remote hermitage located some three hours from the city of Lviv in western Ukraine.

Brother Michael’s parents, Oleh and Svetlana, take us to the monastery in their Soviet-made Lada, the car packed with picnic treats. From Lviv’s dilapidated Austro-Hungarian center, with its opera house, churches, statues and fountains, we move through the dreary, Soviet-era suburbs, finally reaching a bucolic, pre-Industrial Revolution landscape: wooden villages; well-tended garden plots; geese; onion-domed churches; roadside shrines; peasants in horse-drawn carts; unpaved roads.

It is time to fire up my Russian, so I ask Oleh and Svetlana what they think about their son entering religious life.

Shto zdyelat? What to do?” shrugs Oleh. “We don’t really like it, but he seems to have his heart set on it. And there are so many problems in Ukraine today; perhaps it isn’t such a bad idea. His brother is unemployed – the factory where he worked has closed – and many young people are just getting by, dipping into crime or drugs. Perhaps he’s safer there. Besides, if this is what he really wants, then we support him.”

Brother Michael is a member of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic body adhering to the Byzantine tradition while embracing full communion with the Church of Rome. This communion cost Ukrainian Greek Catholics dearly: In 1946, Soviet authorities rounded up – at gunpoint – 216 priests, who were ordered to sever ties with Rome and accept communion with the Russian Orthodox Church. For more than 45 years, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church existed clandestinely, or in exile. The unraveling of the Soviet Union, however, coupled with the rebirth of Ukrainian nationalism, strengthened the outlawed church, fueling its legalization.

As we enter the monastery chapel, Brother Michael pays homage to Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the saints, bowing, genuflecting, kissing icons and crossing himself. His parents pay homage to the occasional icon, but they seem uncomfortable with the ritual – they were brought up in the U.S.S.R., where God did not count for much.

My eyes adjust to the extreme darkness of the medieval-like scene in the chapel. There are roughly 30 hooded monks, some clutching tiny candles to illuminate their sacred texts. A beautiful, hypnotic chant undulates through the chapel and then ceases as monks read passages in Church Slavonic from the Lectionary.

Thirty-eight-year old Father Gregory is the Superior of St. Theodore’s. Born in Croatia, the Studite priest studied in Rome and New York. He explains that this monastery is a branch of an ancient house originally founded in Italy. There are some 40 young monks, most of them in their 20s, and seven priest-monks, one of whom runs the local parish. Twenty sisters live in the nearby Monastery of the Presentation, where they receive spiritual direction from the priest-monks.

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Tags: Ukraine Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church