Catholic Mission and Witness: Notes on a Spring Break Trip to L’viv, Ukraine

March 10, 2016

From February 28 to March 6, ten students of Eastern Christian Traditions at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles participated in an international immersion program as guests of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in L’viv, along with me, their professor. Fr.  Roman Zaviyskyy, Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Theology and Ms. Halyna Teslyuk served as the group’s hosts and created a robust program of study, engaged learning, and fellowship.

Following a brief trip to the vibrant city center of L’viv on the evening of February 29, the program commenced with a presentation on the icon painting school and a liturgical chanting workshop. Professor Taras Tymo introduced us to a unique school of iconography at UCU where ordinary men and women learn how to paint traditional icons following the traditional Western Ukrainian Byzantine style. The participants were struck by the sophistication of the icons and the quality produced by ordinary men and people for domestic and liturgical use. Our introduction to this school was supplemented by our own visit to the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum on March 2. The Sheptytsky Museum contains hundreds of icons dating from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries from churches representing diverse regions of Western Ukraine. A significant component of this visit was the activity of painting our own icons on glass, following the tradition of Western Ukrainians who made their own icons for domestic use.

LMU Students, Icons on Glass
LMU Students, Icons on Glass

The sessions on iconography introduced students to an integral component of the mission of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church: to recover and recreate her distinct Eastern tradition. The museum visit was particularly illuminating for me as a historian. I witnessed the diversity of iconographic styles, which functioned as a sort of demythologizing of Western Ukrainian iconography as solely belonging to the era of Ukrainian baroque liturgical art. In fact, Professor Tymo emphasized the desire to revive and cultivate the unique Byzantine iconographic tradition belonging to Western Ukraine. The university’s attention to the liturgical arts was evidenced in the diverse uses of liturgical music. On February 29, students also participated in a challenging session of liturgical chanting, essentially rehearsing selections of Byzantine Chant in preparation for the Divine Liturgy to be celebrated the following day (March 1) in the Chapel of the Faculty of Philosophy and Theology, entirely in Greek. On March 2, a communal Divine Liturgy was celebrated in the same Chapel, in Ukrainian and English (with a little Church Slavonic) using choral settings based on native chants.

Divine Liturgy at UCU Chapel, March 2
Divine Liturgy at UCU Chapel, March 2

The sessions on iconography and liturgical chanting presented the university’s witness to the riches of its past and its reception and cultivation of the Western Ukrainian liturgical tradition in the present to our students. It is also worth noting that the Greek-Catholics are not alone in this witness. The student’s final excursion to the L’viv Orthodox Theological Academy on Saturday, March 6, showed students how the local Orthodox Church is also steadfastly working to preserve ancient liturgical books and restore icons damaged and neglected during the period of Soviet persecution of the Church.

Students were also introduced to the unique mission of the Ukrainian Catholic University. Students met with Fr. Iwan Dacko, who presides at UCU’s Institute of Ecumenical Studies and spoke frankly and openly about the objectives of ecumenical dialogue and the contemporary obstacles to progress. The current political crisis in Ukraine was a frequent topic of discussion both with Fr. Dacko and at the international symposium “Churches and Peacebuilding: Ecumenical Engagement for Peace and Reconciliation” hosted and organized by Rev. Prof.  Roman Zaviyskyy on March 5 at the L’viv Polytechnic University. Speakers representing UCU, along with the Greco-Catholic and Orthodox communities, were univocal on two matters: first, the war in Eastern Ukraine is not a civil war, but an instance of Russian aggression. Second, the Maidan of 2013-14 was a revolution of dignity, a protest against corruption, and not a campaign of anti-Russian sentiment. The symposium’s first speaker, Fr. Oleh Kindiy of UCU, outlined possible paths of reconciliation between Ukraine and Russia, a theme echoed by other speakers who viewed the role of the Churches in South Africa in rebuilding society after apartheid as potentially modular for Ukraine. Another common refrain among the speakers was frustration with the stereotypes one frequently encounters on social media of Ukrainians as fascists simply carrying out an American governmental agenda. I made a small contribution to this lively discussion by stating that Ukrainians needed to become the primary communicators of their own narrative by sharing the story of the Maidan with the world, and not allowing those who were not present at the Maidan to control the narrative. Many speakers also expressed frustration with the Moscow Patriarchate, in light of the Havana summit of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill and the seventieth anniversary of the pseudo-Sobor of L’viv on March 8-10, 1946, in which the Soviet government liquidated the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine with the cooperation of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Fr. Roman Zaviyskyy and panel
Fr. Roman Zaviyskyy and panel

For UCU, witness and mission come together with the societal crisis of corruption. For me, the most impactful session was the presentation of UCU’s vice rector, Myroslav Marynovych, a former political prisoner sentenced to labor camps under the Brezhnev administration of the USSR. Marynovych presented UCU as the realization of a dream where a Catholic university would educate people in the post-Soviet, post-atheistic period of Ukrainian society. UCU is very small in comparison with the public schools, relying on financial donations and student tuition. But UCU offers an authentically interdisciplinary curriculum where students are formed in philosophy and theology, reinforced by the community’s active liturgical life, and specialize in a variety of areas from social service to business. UCU is determined to educate people and show the next generation of Ukrainians that it is possible to have a good life in Ukraine without succumbing to the temptations of corruption. UCU’s mission includes an appeal to ecumenical dialogue, to demonstrate that Eastern Ukrainians, international students, and non-Catholics are welcome in the university. Marynovych spoke openly about the university’s challenges: they are simultaneously denominational (a Catholic university), but their purpose is to educate and not to be an eparchy. Their presence and activity in a country where the population is predominantly Orthodox is challenging. Students of LMU paid close attention to UCU’s active participation in civil life. UCU practiced civil disobedience during the revolution of dignity in 2013, and provided employment for scholars in Eastern Ukraine who were unable to remain in their positions on account of the war.

Marynovych presenting to LMU
Marynovych presenting to LMU

Concluding Remarks

What, then, can we take from this international immersion trip? Having focused on mission and witness, I want to close with my own observations. First, perhaps the best learning experience for all of us was the time we spent with the people of UCU and in L’viv. Despite enduring financial hardship, we were showered with the generosity and hospitality of our hosts, including indulgence in the fine local cuisine, not to mention the loving touch of homemade delicacies. Second, we were all struck by the positive energy and vibe of the people of L’viv. A city shaped by its multiethnic heritage (Ukrainian, Polish, Austrian, and Armenian), L’viv was filled with old and young enjoying music, food, and games, even during the gloomy days of spring cold. UCU’s students were very happy that we came to meet them. They showed us their city and school, and the entire encounter was bereft of any religious hostility. I did not hesitate to tell them that I am a faithful Orthodox Christian, and not once was I pressured to change my position. My sense is that they were happy that an Orthodox Christian wanted to meet and greet them, to learn about their lives, passions, and struggles. Yes, there were some disappointing moments. Twice, we were refused service at local restaurants, perhaps because we were speaking English. But this experience was the exception, far from the rule. In this immersion, I saw bright students led by faculty who are “giving blood” for Church and society and believe that they can and will contribute to a better future in Ukraine. I met Catholics and Orthodox who acknowledged their differences but pledged to work together. I met Muslims who were forced out of Crimea, grateful for local municipal and ecclesial support for their community to gather and worship. Essentially, I witnessed the fruits of ecumenical dialogue, people working together for the common good, eager to encounter the other and learn from her. This trip was a blessing for me; I’m fairly certain it was a blessing for my students, too. And I encourage you to meet these people and learn their story – you won’t regret it.

St. George Cathedral
St. George Cathedral

Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko
Associate Professor of Theological Studies
Director, Huffington Ecumenical Institute
Loyola Marymount University
Los Angeles, CA, USA

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