Light from the East

One of the more jarring transitions in the liturgical year is the rapid switch from the beautiful pastoral exhortations of the First Letter of Peter, which the Office of Readings prescribes for Easter Week, to the high drama of the Book of Revelation, read during the next four weeks of the Easter season. I was particularly struck this year by a passage from the sixth chapter of St. John’s vision:

“When the Lamb broke open the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the spirits of those who had been martyred because of the witness they bore to the word of God. They cried out at the top of their voices, ‘How long will it be, O Master, holy and true, before you judge our cause and avenge our blood among the inhabitants of the earth?’ Each of the martyrs was given a long white robe, and they were told to be patient a little while longer until the quota was filled of their fellow servants and brothers to be slain, as they had been.”

No Christian community in the 20th century had to exercise such heroic patience amidst martyrdom as the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. Bitterly persecuted by Stalin and his NKVD henchmen, the Greek Catholics of Ukraine – Byzantine in liturgical and theological practice and sensibility while in full communion with the Bishop of Rome – became the world’s largest outlawed religious community, forced to worship and catechize underground for decades. That the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church survived the Soviet Union was a miracle of heroism, empowered by grace.

Throughout those difficult years, the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine was blessed by two remarkable leaders: Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, a man of culture and vision and a pioneer ecumenist, and Cardinal Iosyf Slipyi, who survived years in the Gulag to become the model for “Pope Kyril I” in The Shoes of the Fisherman. Both Sheptytsky and Slipyi dreamed of building a Catholic university in Ukraine. Now, under the current head of the Greek Catholic Church, the equally remarkable Cardinal Lubomir Husar, that dream is becoming a vibrant reality. And the Greek Catholics of Ukraine are becoming a cultural force to be reckoned with in one of the world’s most strategically important countries.

The Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in L’viv is led by a Ukrainian-American, Father Borys Gudziak, who brings to his work a Harvard doctorate in church history, indefatigable energy, organizational skill, and spiritual vision. I am a suspect witness in the case of Father Gudziak, as we’ve been friends for years. But I will risk special pleading by saying publicly what I’ve said privately: if I had to name the 50 Catholics whose present work is most important for the future of the world Church, Father Gudziak’s name would easily make the cut. What he has built in a decade in L’viv, starting from scratch, is breathtaking.

L’viv is a university town, home to some 100,000 students. Only 1 percent of those students attend UCU, but they generate half the public discussion in town. Books published by the UCU press win prestigious awards; UCU’s theology department broke through the secularist bias in post-communist Ukraine and got theology recognized as an academic discipline. Of the university’s 500 graduates to date, almost 40 percent have gone on for graduate studies, and all but one of those students has come back to Ukraine. UCU forms its students for a mission: building the free and virtuous society from under the rubble of communism. And the students respond.

During the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in defense of Ukrainian democracy, UCU students were among the leaders of nonviolent protests against a stolen election that threatened to undo the gains of the post-communist period; they were also leaders in seeking reconciliation and cooperation with Orthodox and secular students. If Ukraine has thus far escaped reincorporation into a Russian imperial system, UCU can claim some measure of the credit – and that’s good both for Ukraine and for the world.

You can learn more about this remarkable enterprise, and how to share in its work, by contacting the Chicago-based Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation:

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.