Freedom is never free

George Weigel

When I first visited Lviv, the principal city of western Ukraine, in 2002, the transportation from plane to airport terminal was an old bus towed by a Soviet-era tractor; today, the airport is a model of cleanliness and efficiency. In 2002, the Old Town was shabby and begrimed; today, it’s become a major tourist destination, and while there is still more clean-up to do, the charms of an old Habsburg city are beginning to reveal themselves. To sit in a downtown restaurant and speak with the city’s mayor about his plans for further development, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a country at war.

But then you come to the Garrison Church of Sts. Peter and Paul.

There, Father Stepan Sus of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is running an urban ministry so dynamic that he has twenty other priests working with him. The church itself is full of architectural and decorative interest: built in the Baroque style the early seventeenth century as the city’s “Jesuit Church” (and therefore modeled on the Church of the Gesù in Rome), Sts. Peter and Paul long served as a center of military chaplaincy for the Austrian and Polish troops garrisoned in Lviv. Then, in 1946, the property was seized by the Soviet regime and the church was turned into a book depository in which some two million volumes were stored. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Ukraine achieved independence, there was a fuss over ownership and it was not until 2010 that the church was deemed the property of the Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Lviv.

Father Sus is full of energy, and on both weekdays and Sundays, the church celebrates the Divine Liturgy several times, with confessions available for over 11 hours each day. But when Father Sus takes you to a small memorial to the left of the church’s entrance, his mien becomes more sober and you begin to understand that the vibrant ministry underway at this site of ecclesial resurrection has its costs. For there, amidst shell casings, bits of shrapnel, spent bullets, and an icon, are the pictures of the young men of the parish who have been killed in the war Russia has been conducting in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine since 2014. Since the invasion of the Donbass by Russian “little green men,” Father Sus has conducted 76 funerals in the garrison church. Each of those young lives, sacrificed to defend a country against an aggression the West would prefer to ignore, is a powerful and poignant reminder that freedom is never free.

So is the memorial to Bohdan Solchanyk in the foyer of one of the sparkling new buildings that grace the campus of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. UKU (as it’s known from its initials in transliterated Ukrainian) is another marvel. The only Catholic institution of higher learning in the former Soviet space, UKU was a dream 25 years ago. Today, it’s a stunning reality — the most highly-rated university in Ukraine on several indices of accomplishment, thanks to the work of an extraordinary faculty and administrative team first assembled by Bishop Borys Gudziak.

UKU is a university that takes Catholic mission with utmost seriousness: in this case, the mission to heal and evangelize a society still traumatized by more than seven decades of communism, war, and the Soviet attempt to destroy Ukraine’s national identity. The university has long understood that one of its foundations is martyrdom, for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was brutally persecuted after World War II and gave the faith thousands of many witnesses-unto-death. When Bohdan Solchanyk, a history lecturer at UKU preparing his doctorate and engaged to be married went to Kyiv in 2013 to participate in the nonviolent demonstrations we now know as the Maidan Revolution of Dignity, he was certainly aware of that foundation. Then he, too, became a martyr, shot through the head by a sniper as he peacefully called for a Ukraine cleansed of corruption in society, culture, politics, and economics.

The vibrant ministry at Lviv’s garrison church and the exceptional university being built at UKU are signs of hope in a world where the bad news sometimes seems to be all the news there is. The war in the Donbass is real, however, and the West needs to take it far more seriously.

COMING UP: Making a diverse College of Cardinals work

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With the exception of the two consistories held by Pope John XXIII in 1958 and 1959, every creation of new cardinals since Pope Pius XII has decreased the percentage of Italian members of the College of Cardinals while internationalizing it. (John XXIII’s first consistory actually increased the Italian membership to 40% of an expanded College.) That pattern of internationalization and, if you will, de-Italianization has continued with Pope Francis and the College now includes members from fifteen countries (such as Tonga, Laos, and Papua New Guinea) that have never given the Church a cardinal before.

There are obvious advantages to this internationalization, in terms of the cardinals’ role as an ecclesiastical senate of senior papal counselors and their responsibility for electing the pope. A wider representation of countries and ecclesial experiences should, in theory, allow for a broader-gauged reflection on the Catholic reality in different parts of the world, both in the Roman offices, in whose work the cardinals participate and in a papal conclave. But that broadening can’t happen if the cardinals don’t meet with some regularity as a body – and they haven’t in a long time. Since the Extraordinary Consistory of 2014 (during which Cardinal Walter Kasper opened the argument about marital permanence and sacramental discipline that continues, unabated, today), there has been no meeting of the College as a body, because Pope Francis has not called one. Cardinals who wish to see their new brothers invested in the College may attend the installation ceremony, but there have been no formal meetings of the whole body of cardinals since February 2014.

This would seem to be a problem, for the blunt fact is that the members of the College of Cardinals really don’t know each other. They’ve not had the opportunity to learn each other’s concerns and views beyond what they read in the media. They’ve not measured each other spiritually and intellectually. They’ve not shared collegially in serious debate and discussion about the issues that confront the entire world Church. They are, in a sense, strangers. And strangers, as we all know, are often reluctant to speak frankly with each other. (Or even speak obliquely, which is more often the Roman manner.)

A college of strangers is not, presumably, what Pope Francis wanted with his diversification of the world cardinalate. But unless he begins gathering the men who will choose his successor on a more regular basis, the cardinals will enter a future conclave as strangers who, because of their lack of familiarity with each other, will likely rely on the world press for information about men they really should know from personal experience. Given the realities of world communications in the 21st century, it’s inevitable that the media will play some role in a conclave. But the media shouldn’t be so prominent in defining the playing field and the players.

There is also a structural problem with the way a conclave presently functions that Pope Francis, the reformer, might well address.

Under the current rules, the conclave begins balloting almost immediately after it’s immured (i.e., locked up, with no contact with the outside world except for the famous smoke coming from a stack atop the Sistine Chapel). This rapidity of balloting should be reconsidered. Why not change the rules so that the actual cardinal-electors (as distinguished from the cardinals over eighty years old who do not vote in a conclave but who participate in the “general congregations” of cardinals during a papal interregnum) have three days by themselves to conduct discussions and get to know each other better? Wouldn’t such a pause for common prayer, reflection, and fraternity, with no outside interference, help facilitate the kind of prudent decision-making the Church always hopes for in a papal election? Such a built-in “pause” would also minimize the pressure that has been felt in recent conclaves to reach a decision quickly in order to demonstrate the Church’s unity before the world media starts speculating about divisions, crises, and so on. If it were clear to everyone that there would be no votes until the morning of the fourth day of a conclave, that pressure would largely dissipate.

The diversification of the College of Cardinals, in other words, has to be made to work toward the ends it was supposed to serve.

Featured image by Daniel Ibanez | CNA