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The Ukrainian Diaspora vs. the Soviet Union: A Story of the Renewal of the Ukrainian Catholic Church | Robert A. McConnell | Ignatius Insight | April 21, 2010

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This year marked the 99th anniversary of International Women's Day, and numerous people and groups took the occasion to reflect on various milestones for women, such as suffrage, educational opportunities, and even the first woman to get an Oscar for best director. However, for me, with no intention of disrespect towards women, March 8th will always remind me of the 79th anniversary of International Women's Day, a day during which Nadia and I were in western Ukraine, not too far outside Lviv.

It was my first trip to Ukraine and Nadia's second. As we drove through the small, poor, rural village of Medenychi, Nadia and I simultaneously saw the same thing and called out for her cousin, our driver, Ihor to stop and back up. International Woman's Day was a big holiday in Soviet Ukraine and people had the day off. And on their day off, here in this village, in a spot across from the village school and its obligatory statute of Lenin, a group of men and boys were building a church!



We stopped, got out, and walked around the site. As Nadia and Ihor walked back off the street, past the construction to a very old wooden church, I started taking pictures and a video. Through conversations with the men, Ihor and Nadia established that this was to be a Ukrainian Catholic church. The old wooden church had been constructed in 1662. The new one under construction was of brick, in a design that suggested a miniature basilica, but a structure quite large for the town.

The "foreman" of this volunteer building crew, proud of their efforts, introduced himself and took us inside. The church was to have three altars. We followed him up scaffolding ladders to the roof where work was underway on the distinctive Ukrainian dome. We met others from this work crew of village men and they were fascinated that we had come all the way from the United States to their village. They wanted to pose with Nadia for pictures out on the roof. There was a special feeling about this place, these people. I busied myself with cameras, viewing the village and the workers efforts, and felt privileged to have been seeing all this. Then, as Nadia was visiting with the foreman, he began telling her the history of this new church. Nadia began translating for me as he spoke. The story went like this:

"In 1939, the Catholic parishioners set out to build a new parish church. The foundation was laid. Then, the Soviet Army, an occupying force, moved into Western Ukraine. Church building and religious practice was forbidden. The foundation was left untouched and the practice our religion went underground.

"Then in 1988 your President Reagan went to Moscow to meet with Gorbachev. While there, he met with religious dissidents at your Embassy and the dissidents included two Ukrainian Catholics. We took that as a sign that changes were underway and began to plan the completion of our church. Last year we started construction on the old foundation and we will finish this fall."

I listened to this story, stunned. I stared at Nadia. There were tears in her eyes. I, too, was choked with emotion. Here in Medenychi, in western Ukraine, in what was then still the Soviet Union, we were being told that a political struggle that Nadia and I, along with others, had fiercely waged with senior White House staff thousands of miles away and two years earlier had touched the lives of real people, the Catholic community in this little parish. Nadia and I just looked at each other in silence. There were no words. It was a deeply gratifying moment, a moment of grace, that I will never forget. After fifty years of repression, the word of a brief meeting on our President's busy Moscow schedule had given these people the sign for which they had been waiting for decades.

At that moment we could not have explained our role in the events that had led up to this moment - the role that determined individuals can play in a free society - and we did not try. We could only applaud their efforts. We met with the parish priest, who arrived and beamed as we admired their new church.

They told us that people who had moved away from Medenychi had heard of this project. They sent envelopes with contributions for building materials. We had our picture taken with the pastor, gave the foreman a contribution, and walked back to the car. Then as we drove on, we told Ihor the "rest of the story."

In the early spring of 1988, Nadia and I were involved in the preparations for two major events, a worldwide celebration of the Millennium of Christianity in Ukraine, and the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Moscow.

As was, and continues to be, the case the Kremlin sought to make everything about Russia. Stealing the culture and accomplishments of others was, and remains, routine in Moscow. In this case, the Soviet government saw the Millennium of Christianity as a propaganda opportunity and intended to exploit that opportunity relying on, among other things, the West's inability to distinguish between Russia and Ukraine or the Soviet Union and Russia. 

The Kremlin had scheduled celebrations for the Millennium of Christianity in the Soviet Union to take place in Moscow and invited religious leaders from throughout the world to attend. This celebration was absurd not only because it was historically inaccurate, since the roots of Slavic Christianity trace back to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, not Moscow, but stupidly cynical, for anyone who knew the facts: Please come to our 70-year-old atheistic, Communist empire and help us celebrate our 1,000-year Christian heritage.

Yet, sadly, Moscow was getting a lot of buy-ins to this fantasy. The Ukrainian diaspora, however, fought back. 







Nadia volunteered, full-time in the public affairs office of the Ukrainian diaspora's Millennium of Christianity Committee office in Washington. Many in the community donated substantial time including Irene Jarosewich, Orest Deychakiwsky, Bohdan Futey, Eugene Iwanciw, Myron Wasylyk, Markian Bilynsky, as did I. This core group, and others too numerous to mention, spent an extraordinary amount of time talking to Congress, monitoring developments, responding to inquiries, meeting with officials, planning and staging events. At our urging, Congress passed a resolution that called for no United States official to attend any celebration of the Millennium of Christianity in Moscow unless the Ukrainian Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox Church were legalized (they were the only two Christian Churches specifically outlawed in the Soviet Union). Pursued by Moscow, Pope John Paul II declined his invitations unless he also could visit and celebrate with his Catholic flock in Ukraine. Of course, the Kremlin was not about to let that happen.

Still, the Kremlin kept suggesting items for President Reagan's schedule that would involve him directly in a Millennium of Christianity event in Moscow or that would provide an opportunity for it to appear that the President had attended such an event. Our group made it our objective to see that this did not happen. Having served in the Reagan Administration throughout the entire first term, I pushed my White House West Wing relationships in challenging events that for other reasons were favored by senior staff. Our welcome was all but nonexistent when we finished arguing against the President's visit to the Russian Orthodox Church's Danilov Monastery. Only a few years earlier, before Moscow's propagandistic Millennium preparations began, the Danilov Monastery had been a juvenile prison!

Then, in an unexpected move, one apparently designed to mollify Ukrainian-Americans and free the President's staff to pursue its desire to accommodate Gorbachev, senior White House staff called me to say that they were inviting the leaders of the Ukrainian Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in the West to meet with the President before his trip. I told them that these leaders would oppose the President's going to the Kremlin's bogus Millennium celebration, but they scheduled the meeting anyway.

On the day of the afternoon meeting with the President, Nadia and I took Cardinal Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky, primate of the Ukrainian Catholic Church (who flew in from Rome for the meeting) and the primate of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Mstyslav to lunch at the Hay Adams to brief him on all that had transpired and to explain what was going on and then we walked them to the Northwest Gate entrance to the White House. The two Church leaders had a wonderful meeting with President Reagan - who surely had never been told about the controversy surrounding Gorbachev's wanting him to attend a religious event as part of the Summit schedule.

When the Cardinal and the Metropolitan exited the West Wing, the waiting reporters asked what they had told the President. Their response to the press was that they had recommended that the President not visit Moscow during the Kremlin's bogus celebration because the Millennium of Christianity was not Russia's but Ukraine's and should properly be celebrated in Kyiv, not Moscow, and warned the President against being a dupe for cynical propaganda, the celebration of religion by an atheistic regime that spent 70 years destroying every reference to God.

Ultimately, the dates of the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit were changed so that President Reagan would not be in Moscow during the bogus Kremlin celebration. However, we continued pressing senior White House staff that the President should make a point about religious persecution when he visited Moscow. Finally, the West Wing (Director of Communications Tommy Grissom) called to tell me they had included in the President's Moscow schedule a meeting with "refuseniks" sounding as if this would somehow calm criticism. I jeopardized my remaining relationships arguing that the President should meet with not only with "refuseniks",  but with representatives of other persecuted religions, as well - indeed, since the timing was all about Christianity's history, he must meet with persecuted Christians! In particular, I pressed the point that the President should meet with representatives of the only two Churches completely banned in the Soviet Union - the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches that had continued to operate secretly despite being outlawed. "All right, all right," the White House replied, "get us some suggestions of people and we will consider them."

Nadia coordinated communications with the office of Cardinal Lubachivsky. Others sought names from the Orthodox community. Suggested invitees came back to us via the Helsinki Union. Bohdan Futey as Chairman of the Organizational Committee of the National Committee to Commemorate the Millennium of Christianity in Ukraine and Nadia as Chairman of Government Relations sent our suggestions to the President's National Security Advisor, General Colin Powell. We waited and hoped. The suggestions were accepted and some of our suggested people were included in what turned out to be a fabulous meeting with President Reagan in Spaso House in Moscow. (Several other invitees were taken off their train on the trip to Moscow from Ukraine and purposefully detained by Soviet police, thereby not arriving in time for the meeting.)

The U.S. President had not been used by the Kremlin to continue to perpetrate its propaganda and President Reagan, in his unique and genuine way, helped to provide hope to representatives of two banned Ukrainian Churches and to their members. For us, that was it in 1988, a successful end to an inside-the-Beltway struggle.

However, two years later, on International Woman's Day in 1990, we were reminded of several important lessons from 1988, important lessons that need to be remembered.

We were reminded that determined people in a free society can alter events successfully. We were reminded that acts within our system can have profound effect on the lives of people thousands of miles away. And, we were certainly reminded that the United States can be a city on the hill, and its beacon of hope is more than a line in a political speech - it is a genuine ability to bring hope to people around the world and, in this case, embolden Catholics in a small parish in western Ukraine to come out of hiding to again proclaim their faith in public.

The spirit of good people is incredibly strong and even decades of Soviet repression did not change that reality.

(Photo courtesy of Chrystia Sonevytsky.)



Related Ignatius Insight Excerpts and Interviews:

• On Keeping People In: The Berlin Wall and the Shortness of Political Memory | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• The Comprehensive Claim of Marxism | Peter Kreeft
The Mission: The Introduction to The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand | Paul Kengor and Patricia Clark Doerner
William P. Clark: The Quiet Catholic Who Changed the World | An Interview with Paul Kengor



Robert A. McConnell and his wife, Nadia, are co-founders of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, a not-for-profit established in 1991 to facilitate democratic development, encourage free market reform, and enhance human rights in Ukraine.  Mr. McDonnell was Assistant Attorney General for the first term of the Reagan Administration.



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