Ukrainian Catholics pray to forgive violence in homeland

 On Forgiveness Sunday among Ukrainian Catholics, Mohammad Khaled “Kyle” Afridi prayed for peace and tried to forgive Russia.

Forgiveness seemed almost unthinkable for him and dozens of fellow parishioners who attended the 9 a.m. Divine Liturgy on March 2 at Denver’s Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church. Forgiveness Sunday is an annual ritual in the Ukrainian Catholic Church, a Byzantine-rite segment of Catholicism in full communion with Rome.

Russia and Ukraine

As Denver Ukrainian Catholics prayed, violence escalated in their home country as hundreds of thousands of protesters faced off with riot police in the capital of Kiev, and Russian troops set foot in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

The conflict began last November when then President Viktor Yanukovych gave into pressure from Russia and refused to sign a political and economic association pact with the European Union that would have strengthened ties between Ukraine and western Europe. The country is divided between Pro-EU and pro-Russia proponents, with Crimea being mostly pro-Russia.

A statement Sunday from the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church downplayed the hostility between Russia and Ukraine. “The Ukrainian people have only friendly, fraternal feelings toward the Russian people, it said. “Do not believe the propaganda that enflames hostility between us. We want and we will continue to build friendly and fraternal relations with Russia but only as a sovereign and independent state.”

Nonetheless, the Church appealed to the international community to “stop foreign invasion into Ukraine and brutal interference into our internal affairs.”

“Undermining of peace and stability in Ukraine threatens to destroy all the modern system of the world security,” the statement said. “Therefore all the measures should be used to stop breaking up of the war in Ukraine.”

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned Sunday that blood could spill if Ukrainian resistance continues.

“Such a state of order will be extremely unstable,” Medvedev wrote on his official Facebook page. “It will end with the new revolution. With new blood.”

Interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of declaring war and said his country is “on the brink of disaster.”

Hell on earth

In a short ceremony following Forgiveness Sunday Divine Liturgy, Byzantine-rite priests and deacons humble themselves before laity and beg forgiveness for any sins they may have committed during the year.

“If I’ve offended you in anyway, please forgive me,” the clergy ask.

Worshippers are encouraged to also forgive others who may have caused them harm.

“I do and I don’t forgive Russia,” said Afridi, a former Muslim who migrated to the United States in 1984 and converted to Catholicism in 2007. “It is a struggle to forgive a country that continues as such a menace to freedom and peace in this world.”

The upheaval reminds Afridi how Russia helped conquer his native land of East Pakistan, known today as Bangladesh, in the 1970s.

Afridi was rounded up with his parents and five siblings and held as a prisoner of war. At age 11, Afridi found himself surrounded by barbed wire and abusive guards. Meals often consisted of a single slice of bread. He describes living “hell-on-earth,” made possible by Russian intervention in his native country’s affairs.

Afridi fears the unrest in Ukraine may quickly escalate into full-fledged war.

The challenge to forgive

Father Vasyl Hnatkivsky, pastor of Transfiguration, said Russia’s aggression in his home country made Forgiveness Sunday more difficult than usual.

“It is very difficult to find forgiveness of an evil empire that is only doing bad things in Ukraine,” said Father Hnatkivsky, who immigrated to the United States from Ukraine 10 years ago.

Father Hnatkivsky has felt threatened by Russia and the former Soviet Union most of his life. The priest’s grandfather was captured by Russian troops and held in a Siberian prison camp for six years during World War II because he resisted Soviet occupation.

“Today, the people of Ukraine just want to be part of the civilized world and the Russian dictatorship wants to stop that from happening,” Father Hnatkivsky said. “But there is nothing good in Russia and Ukrainians do not want to be a part of it. The country is not much different today than under the Soviet Union.”

Deacon Joseph Kasuboski concurred with Father Hnatkivsky’s opinion that Russia’s governmental philosophy of domination hasn’t changed much, even 23 years after the Soviet Union’s demise.

“It’s all PR,” Deacon Kasuboski said, asserting that good public relations have led Americans to view Russia as a peaceful, post-Cold War country not so different from the United States.

“It is very difficult to forgive Russia for what it is doing to Ukraine,” the deacon said. “We need to ask God for help with this one.”

Deacon Kasuboski explained that all humans must forgive those who have done or continue doing something evil.

“If we do not forgive, it is like holding acid in our hands,” he said. “If you hold it, the acid burns you. If you let it go you are free to cleanse your hands and begin a healing process. The acid is no less corrosive because you let go, but it’s not burning your hands.”

The grace of forgiveness

Deacon Kasuboski used his homily to help worshippers forgive threats to the safety and lifestyles of families and friends back home. He recited a payer found in the clothing of a dead child at the World War II Ravensbrück concentration camp, where Nazis murdered more than 90,000 women and children.

“O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will,” says the prayer. “But do not remember all of the suffering they have inflicted upon us. Instead, remember the fruits we have borne because of this suffering, our fellowship, our loyalty to one another, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble.

“When our persecutors come to be judged by you, let all of these fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.”

In his Sunday Angelus address, Pope Francis made “a heartfelt appeal to the international community: support every initiative for dialogue and harmony.”

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.