Light from the East

George Weigel

Ten years ago last month, the Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church took a striking decision: it elected its youngest member, 40-year old Bishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, as leader of the largest of the eastern Catholic Churches, a choice confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI. In the ensuing decade, what appeared bold and even risky now seems brilliant and providential. For Major-Archbishop Shevchuk has become one of the world’s most dynamic Catholic leaders under exceptionally challenging circumstances.

From 1946 until 1990, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church [UGCC] was the world’s biggest underground religious community, officially “dissolved” in 1946 by a bogus “synod” engineered by the Soviet Union’s secret police in connivance with the Russian Orthodox Church. With many of its leaders murdered in the Gulag, the UGCC in Ukraine survived underground for over four decades: worshipping in forests, conducting clandestine educational institutions (including the rudiments of seminaries), and praying for the day when it could live openly as a Catholic community, Byzantine in liturgical expression and organizational structure but fully in communion with the Bishop of Rome. During those harsh decades, the UGCC’s presence increased in the Ukrainian diaspora in North America, South America, Europe, and Australia. But in its eastern European homeland, the Ukrainian Church was in desperate straits.

When the UGCC finally emerged from underground in the last years of the Gorbachev thaw, it found itself in a morally and culturally shattered country, still suffering from the long-term effects of the communist culture of the lie and burdened by the memory of the 1932-33 terror famine, in which Stalin and his henchmen deliberately starved to death millions of Ukrainians. The Church had few resources, financial or institutional, and an educated clergy had to be trained virtually from scratch. One of the fruits of that immense effort to create a properly-prepared presbyterate was a young man named Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who became the first UGCC priest to earn a doctorate outside Ukraine and then return to serve in his native land.

Ordained a bishop in 2009, Shevchuk was serving as apostolic administrator of the UGCC eparchy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when he was elected Major-Archbishop of the UGCC in succession to some of the noblest figures of modern Catholic history: Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, Ukraine’s spiritual and cultural leader during an episcopate that lasted from 1901 until 1944; Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, the model for the Slavic pope in The Shoes of the Fisherman, who spent 18 years in the Gulag camps and another 11 in exile in Rome; and Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, architect of the UGCC’s resurrection after Ukraine regained its national independence in 1991. 

Major Archbishop Shevchuk has more than ably filled those very large shoes. Ten years after we first met in Rome, shortly after his election, he is perhaps a bit less youthful and there is grey in his beard. But the sparkle in his eyes has not dimmed, and you can see it when he challenges his Church, in both Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora, to be a Church of missionary disciples. In a film made for his 10th anniversary, Major-Archbishop Shevchuk said that the Great Commission – “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) – is the beginning of all strategic planning in the Church. The Church, he insisted, is neither a social service agency nor a cultural club, although the Church does the works of charity and justice and the Church is a culture-forming counterculture. At the bottom line, though, the Church is a sacramental communion that, because it is sanctified by Christ, can and must offer others a new and nobler way of life – the way of being a disciple of the Lord Jesus.  

At what he describes as a difficult period – a not-infrequent circumstance in Ukraine, given the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing, lethal Russian aggression in the Donbas region – Major-Archbishop Shevchuk told Pope Francis that he sometimes asked, in prayer, “Lord, why would you resurrect us after the fall of the Soviet Union? Why would you breathe into the once dead-and-buried body of our Church the breath of our Risen Savior, the breath of the Holy Spirit?” The pope replied, “It would seem that you have a special mission in the universal Church and in the world.” 

Indeed. This Church, raised from the dead and led by such a powerful witness, is a living testament to the Lord’s injunction in Matthew 17:20: “…if you have faith…you will say to this mountain, ‘Move’…and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” 

COMING UP: From rare books to online resources, archdiocesan library has long history of service to students

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National Library Week, observed this year from April 4 to April 10, is the perfect occasion to highlight the essential role of libraries and library staff in strengthening our communities – and our very own Cardinal Stafford Library at the Archdiocese of Denver is no exception.  

Since 1932, the library has served as a religious, intellectual, and cultural resource for seminarians and students at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.

As the library of the seminary, we are always responsible for the four dimensions of the priestly formation of our seminarians. The library is charged with being responsible to all the divisions of the Seminary: the Lay Division (Catholic Biblical School and Catholic Catechetical School), the Permanent Deacon Formation Division, and the Priestly Formation Division, said Stephen Sweeney, Library Director. 

In addition to being one of the main resources to the seminary, the Cardinal Stafford Library serves the needs of other educational programs in the Archdiocese of Denver, including the St. Francis School for Deacons, the Biblical School, the Catechetical School and the Augustine Institute. While the library is currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was previously open to anyone, giving people access to more than 150,000 books, audios, and videos. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library was named after Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vatican and former Archbishop of Denver from 1986 to 1996. He was a dedicated advocate of the library and of Catholic education.

In 1932, the library was established by two seminarians, Maurice Helmann and Barry Wogan. While they were not the first seminarians to conceive the idea of establishing a library, they are considered the founders for undertaking its organization.  

Since its founding, the library has grown and compiled a fine collection of resources on Catholic theology, Church history, biblical studies, liturgy, canon law, religious art, philosophy, and literature. Special collections include over 500 rare books dating back to the early 16th century and many periodicals dating back to the 1800s. The oldest publication in the library is a book on excommunication published in 1510. The Cardinal Stafford Library is also home to various relics and holds bills personally written by some of those saints.  

Over the past few years, the library has undergone a process of beautification through various renovations that include improvements in lighting, flooring, and even furniture restoration. During these difficult times, libraries are doing their best to adapt to our changing world by expanding their digital resources to reach those who don’t have access to them from home. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library provides a community space; we subscribe to about 200 print journals and have access to literally thousands more through online resources available on campus computers, Sweeney added. “I have been the Library Director for almost 11 years. I absolutely love my work, especially participating in the intellectual formation of the faithful from all of the dioceses we serve”.  

For more information on the Cardinal Stafford Library, visit: 

Featured photo by Andrew Wright