A sordid anniversary, to be remembered

On September 24, 1949, Georgii Karpov, chairman of the agency that provided “liaison” to the Russian Orthodox Church for the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, wrote Josef Stalin and his chief henchmen a confidential letter reeking with self-congratulation. The “government’s instruction on the liquidation of….the Greek Catholic Church [in Ukraine],” Karpov crowed, “has been carried out.” The “Uniate Church” that “was subordinated to the Roman pope was liquidated by August of this year through its reunion with the Russian Orthodox Church.”

              The crucial moment in this calculated aggression, in which Russian Orthodoxy acted as a front for the brutal assault on a sister Church by an atheistic regime, came seventy years ago, on March 8-10, 1946, in Lviv, the principal city of western Ukraine. There, after more than a year of secret police coercion, a non-canonical “council” (or “Sobor”) of Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy “voted” (without discussion and by a “spontaneous” show of hands) to abrogate the 1596 Union of Brest that had brought their Church into full communion with Rome. Not a single Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop was present; all were under arrest or en route to the Gulag.

St. George's Urkanian Greek Catholic Cathedral in Lviv, Ukraine.

St. George’s Urkanian Greek Catholic Cathedral in Lviv, Ukraine.

              In the years between this notorious “Lviv Sobor” and Karpov’s letter, the Soviet authorities completed the task of “liquidating” the institutions of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, destroying those of its churches, seminaries, and monasteries that were not “reunited” with Russian Orthodoxy. By the early 1950s, Ukrainian Greek Catholics were the largest underground religious community in the world, living an entirely clandestine existence. And they survived as such, through extraordinary acts of courage and fidelity, until their Church re-emerged publicly in 1989.

              The “Lviv Sobor” was not an ecclesial act; it was a farce state-managed by the Soviet authorities, who saw in Ukraine’s Greek Catholics a major obstacle to implementing two communist policies: state-sponsored atheism and the Russification of Ukraine. Throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, under the leadership of an extraordinary archbishop, the Venerable Andrey Sheptitsky, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church had been the engine, and later the safe-deposit box, of Ukrainian culture, identity, and aspiration. Stalin was having none of this: Ukrainian national aspirations (like other such ambitions in the multinational prison of the USSR) would be ground into dust, and one step toward accomplishing that was the eradication of the Greek Catholic Church. So as World War II was winding down, the Stalinist regime began a campaign of calumny – nicely described by historian Bohdan Bociurkiw as a “falsification industry” – that painted Ukraine’s Greek Catholics as treasonous “bandits” and “criminals” who had worked hand-in-glove with the “German-fascist occupiers,” and who were sabotaging “the socialist transformation in western Ukraine.”

              The vilification of the Greek Catholic Church and the “Lviv Sobor” were integral parts of the Soviet attempt to eviscerate Ukrainian nationalism. And if “reuniting” Ukrainian Greek Catholics with Russian Orthodoxy helped strengthen the Soviet regime’s control over the Russian Church, so that it became an even more pliable instrument of Soviet power, so much the better. There were ironies in the fire here: in its efforts to liquidate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and accelerate the Russification of Ukraine, the Stalinists were mimicking the 18th-century behavior of the czarist regime the Bolshevik revolution had displaced. In both instances, though, the Russian Orthodox tendency to act as chaplain to the regime, whatever its nature or character, was on display.

              Why is this anniversary worth noting?

              First, Catholics throughout the world have a fraternal obligation to honor the memory of the many Greek Catholic martyrs who refused to accept the “Lviv Sobor,” who stayed faithful to Rome, and who consequently paid the ultimate price.

          Second, remembering the “falsification industry” of the past should make us more alert to the lies of the present, which are omnipresent in the Russian propaganda campaign against Ukraine’s efforts to build a future of democracy, prosperity, and freedom.

              And third, because there will be no progress on the path opened by Pope Francis in his February meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill unless the Church Kirill leads acknowledges its sordid role in the “Lviv Sobor” of 1946, thereby taking an important step in liberating itself from the evangelically stifling embrace of Russian state power.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash