In the early twentieth century, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptyts’kyi — Major-Archbishop of Lviv, leader of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, and a giant figure in modern Catholicism — began to plan for something Ukraine had never had: a Catholic university. Metropolitan Sheptyts’kyi did not live to see his dream realized. In fact, he lived just long enough to see much of what he had built over four decades of devoted, innovative ministry destroyed by Soviet communism and the Nazis.
But he bequeathed his dream of a university to his successor, Cardinal Iosyf Slipyi, another martyr-confessor (and the model for the Slavic pope in The Shoes of the Fisherman), who died in Roman exile in 1984. Now the dream has been realized under the leadership of a man whom Metropolitan Sheptyts’kyi, for all his worldly sophistication and confidence in divine providence, could probably not have imagined.
Growing up in Syracuse, New York, in the 1960s, Borys Gudziak, son of Ukrainian immigrants, had his own dream: he imagined himself playing professional basketball in the NBA. God, it seems, had other ideas. After theological studies in Rome and a doctorate in Ukrainian history at Harvard, Gudziak found himself inexorably drawn back to Ukraine in the last years of the Soviet empire. Determined that the experiences of Ukraine’s martyrs would be honored and that the Ukrainian nation would not lose its religious and cultural memory, he began an oral history project to preserve the witness of Catholics who had survived Stalin’s horrific labor camps and prisons; it’s now the largest such archive in the world (you can visit it at www.ichistory.org).
In 1994, Borys Gudziak helped revive the Lviv Theological Academy (LTA) in the capital city of western Ukraine; its former rector, Iosyf Slipyi, had been Gudziak’s spiritual and theological master in Rome in the 1980s. Cardinal Slipyi’s successor, Cardinal Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky, ordained Borys Gudziak a priest of the Greek Catholic Church in 1998. Throughout the late 1990s, Father Gudziak and a small band of dedicated co-workers slowly, painstakingly prepared the ground for the realization of Metropolitan Sheptyts’kyi’s dream of a Catholic university in Ukraine.
The dream came true this past June 29 with the solemn inauguration of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. Two weeks later, I had the privilege of spending three days in and around Lviv, seeing first hand what Father Gudziak and his colleagues have built. It is very impressive and deeply moving.
No local Church suffered more under communism than the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Martyrdom was an ever-present possibility, not something one read about in novels like Quo Vadis. The entire episcopate chose the slow death of the labor camps (or the quicker death of summary execution) rather than acquiesce in a communist-sponsored “reunion” with Russian Orthodoxy. Now, the ashes of bitter persecution have been forged into the building blocks of an intellectual and spiritual center for Catholic culture and national renewal.
Ukraine is poor. Senior professors at the Ukrainian Catholic University earn $360.00 per month. The students I met at a university-sponsored English-immersion summer camp in a rural area outside Lviv knew hunger and deprivation from the inside. Yet everyone was smiling. Everyone was enthusiastic about the future. And as we celebrated the lengthy and beautiful Byzantine liturgy in a chapel set in a wooded part of the camp, I could not help thinking that this was how the underground Ukrainian Church had been nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ during decades of fierce persecution: praying in the woods, confident that this liturgy was a participation in the liturgy of heaven.
Father Gudziak insisted on high academic standards at the LTA, and he’ll do the same as rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University. I’ve taught LTA students for four years in a Cracow-based seminar on Catholic social doctrine, and I’ve been uniformly impressed by their intelligence, their enthusiasm, and their faith. Being Catholic and being a critical thinker aren’t in tension for these students, as they aren’t for Father Gudziak.
The Ukrainian Catholic University is the fulfillment of a great human dream. It is also a vindication of heroic witness and an embodiment of resurrection faith with great promise for the Catholic future in eastern Europe.