Ukrainian Catholic University Defends Christian Values

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The Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) is the fruit of the labors of faithful Christians who persevered in the Catholic faith amidst trials and persecutions during the twentieth century.  Today, while the University faces new challenges in a turbulent Ukraine, its story serves as a reminder to Catholic educators everywhere to be vigilant in defense of their religious freedom and Catholic identity.

The Ukrainian Catholic University, the first Catholic university in independent Ukraine, educates leaders for Church and society.  Young men train for the priesthood.  Lay men and women study history, social work, and other disciplines.  Nuns learn how to run a religious order well.  Business people and civil servants learn how to bring morals into their professions.

Based in Lviv, in the far western part of Ukraine approximately 40 miles from the Polish border, UCU traces its roots as far back as 1929.  Metropolitan Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky, who was head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church from 1901 to 1944 and whom Pope Francis declared “venerable” on July 17, stated that UCU’s predecessor, the Greek-Catholic Theological Academy:

…will lay a solid groundwork for the spiritual revival of our people. It will also serve to prepare our holy Church to fulfill its great forthcoming mission in Christ’s vineyard, both on the Ukrainian land and among the peoples of Eastern Europe, thirsty for the truth of God.

… We… entrust the rector and professors to protect and cherish among students deep piousness, along with pure and untainted knowledge of the Universal Catholic Church. We decree that theology, canon law and the liturgy of the Holy Eastern Church, which originated before the schism, shall be profoundly studied, and that divergences between Eastern Christians and the Catholic Church following the ill-fated schism shall be thoroughly researched. In particular, the past of the Church of the Ukrainian people, as well as the self-sacrificing struggle that our forefathers led for holy unity, sparing not even their own blood, shall be closely studied.[1]

Background on Ukrainian Catholic Education

The Ukrainian Catholic Church is the largest of the Eastern Catholic churches.  According to Vatican II’s Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite, the Eastern Catholic churches, though they differ “in liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and spiritual heritage… are… of equal dignity” with churches that follow the Latin rite.[2]  Kyivan-Rus, the predecessor to today’s Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Russia, became Christian in 988 with the mass Baptism of Kyiv during the rule of Prince Volodymyr the Great.  In 1596, the Ukrainian Catholic Church returned to full union with Rome, centuries after the schism that separated its mother church, that of Byzantium, from the Holy See.

Like all the Eastern Catholic churches, the Ukrainian Catholic Church has “a special duty of promoting the unity of all Christians, especially Eastern Christians.”[3]  Consequently, part of the stated mission of the Ukrainian Catholic University is “living the Eastern Christian tradition.”[4]

This mission, not surprisingly, set the Academy at odds with the Nazi regime, which had control of far western Ukraine from 1941 to 1944, and with the Soviets, who invaded in 1939, retreated from the Nazis, and then returned in 1944.  The Greek-Catholic Theological Academy was then closed, and many of its graduates and professors, including the first rector, Metropolitan Archbishop Josyf Slipyj, were exiled to the Siberian gulag.  The whole Ukrainian Catholic Church was declared illegal and forcibly “re-united” with the Russian Orthodox Church in 1946, becoming the largest officially “banned” church in the world.  All of the Church’s bishops and many of its priests, nuns, and lay activists were arrested and persecuted by the Soviet government.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church, however, survived underground until 1989.  Bishops and priests provided the sacraments in secret.  Nuns taught catechism.  Monasteries and seminaries functioned secretly.  Alumni of the Academy took part in the underground movement as well, often in leading roles.

In 1963, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, soon to be named Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, was exiled from the Soviet Union.  He went to Rome, where he took part in the Second Vatican Council (his life inspired the book and subsequent fictional movie The Shoes of the Fisherman).  In December 1963, he founded a prototype Ukrainian Catholic university in Rome.

Inspired by the vision of Cardinal Slipyj, many youth—children of Ukrainian immigrants who had left home during or soon after World War II—returned after the fall of the Soviet Union to start a Catholic university in free Ukraine.  In 1994, the Lviv Theological Academy opened.  The Academy was not just for the education of future priests; male and female laity and nuns majored in theology, as well.

Birth of Ukrainian Catholic University

During the 2001 papal visit to Ukraine, Pope St. John Paul II blessed the foundations for the Academy’s successor, the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU).  UCU opened in 2002, headed by (now) Bishop Borys Gudziak.  Born to Ukrainian immigrants in Syracuse, New York, Bishop Gudziak was educated at Harvard.

The study of theology had been outlawed in Soviet Ukraine, and official recognition of theology as an academic discipline was not quick to come to post-Soviet Ukraine.  This was despite the fact that the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education had recognized the Academy’s bachelor’s degrees in theology in 1999, such that graduates were able to continue their studies at any Catholic institution of higher education in the world.  With much ongoing effort on the part of the staff of UCU, Ukraine’s Ministry of Education finally recognized the theology degrees awarded by the University in 2006.

In addition to bachelor’s degrees in theology, when the institution became a university in 2002 it also had a history department and a licentiate (graduate) program in theology.

“We are witnesses to a great breakthrough,” said Bishop Gudziak, following recognition of UCU’s theology degree.  “Christian ideas have found a proper place in the scholarly and social life of Ukraine, where the nation was deeply wounded by the dramatic history of the 20th century and where painful economic, social and political transformations continue.”

“This society has an acute need to accept the potential which religious life offers,” he continued.  “After 15 years of independence, Ukraine is still looking for ways to turn from an officially atheist society to a multi-denominational one, where people would not lose the opportunity to give a critical analysis of the outlook and mission of religious communities.  That is where the task of the theologian lies.”[5]

Although post-Soviet Ukraine has a Catholic population of around 10 percent, predominantly in the western part of the country, those who identify as Eastern Orthodox are a significantly higher percentage.  The rest of the population includes Protestant denominations, vast numbers of those who were unchurched in the atheistic times of the Soviet Union, small Jewish and Muslim communities, and others.  So the field is ripe for evangelization, although there is also a need for the churches to learn to live in interreligious harmony.

Standing for the Truth

The government’s official recognition of theology did not guarantee easy times for the University.  Representatives of the Security Service of Ukraine, the successor of the Soviet KGB, visited the University in 2001 and again in 2010.  In 2001, the government was worried about protests against then-President Leonid Kuchma and wanted the University administration to inform them of any student plans for protest.

“I was not an informant during the days of the Soviet Union,” said one of the University’s vice-rectors, Myroslav Marynovych, who was a prisoner of conscience and spent seven years in Perm’s labor camps and three years in exile in Kazakhstan.  “And I’m not about to start in an independent Ukraine,” he emphasized.[6]

Then in 2010, during the rule of President Viktor Yanukovych, Bishop Borys Gudziak was also visited by a representative of the security service, who wanted him to sign a document that the service would keep and allow him no copy.  He never signed or even read the letter, though he suspects it also involved reporting student protest plans.

Bishop Gudziak took the opportunity to mention to the agent that Ukraine’s security service, “as the former KGB with many employees remaining from the Soviet times, has a heavy legacy of breaking and crippling people physically and morally, and that he as a young married person should be careful not to fall into any actions that would cause lasting damage to his own identity and shame his children and grandchildren.  I sought to express this pastorally as a priest.”[7]

Bishop Gudziak then typed up a memorandum detailing the whole incident and made it available to the public.  Perhaps providentially, two days later UCU was hosting in Lviv the General Assembly of the Federation of European Catholic Universities, and he made sure his international colleagues, as well, were aware of what had happened.

Students and staff of the University later took active part in the movement of late 2013 to early 2014 that resulted in President Yanukovych fleeing Ukraine.  Demonstrators camped out on Independence Square in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv for many cold months.  At first, they were protesting Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an agreement with the European Union that he had at first been committed to.  Then the amount of protesters increased, reacting to the government’s brutal treatment of the initially peaceful protesters.

Although the western press did not cover this aspect well, those protests had a significant spiritual dimension.  A chapel was set up on Independence Square.  Mass was celebrated every day.  A professor-priest of the University joined his fellow priests in hearing the confessions of protesters.

Fr. Mykola Buryadnyk, a graduate of the University who is now the pastor at a parish in Chicago, visited the protesters on Independence Square in December 2013 and said, “It’s a joyful place.”  The Ukrainian Catholic Church played a “great role” in providing for the protesters’ pastoral needs, he said.  Orthodox priests were also present in a pastoral capacity.

“All the priests are serving, especially praying at night, the Jesus prayer, the Rosary, especially when it is cold. Every night from the stage, you hear the national anthem, then a prayer, holy Scripture, a prayer,” Fr. Buryadnyk said.[8]

One of the University’s lecturers, 28-year-old Bohdan Solchanyk, unarmed, was killed by a sniper’s bullet on Independence Square on February 20, 2014.

Contemporary Challenges

The University continues to respond to the needs of the times.  Russia invaded southern Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March 2014, and the University has offered scholarships to Crimean Tatars and others who have fled the Russian occupation.  Because there is now fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, the University now has more students from various parts of the country than ever before.

The latest moral challenges faced by the Church and society in the twenty-first century have not passed Ukraine by.  The country is mulling over possibilities of constitutional changes.  The churches have expressed hopes that these changes will include the outlawing of abortion and continuing the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman.

The current rector of the University. Fr. Bohdan Prach, on July 29 sent an appeal to Ukraine’s president, parliament, and prime minister, including the following proposals:

To introduce changes to Article 3 of the Constitution of Ukraine and to present it as follows: “The human being, its life from conception to natural death, its health, honor and dignity, integrity and safety, is recognized in Ukraine as the highest social value.”

To introduce changes to Article 27 of the Constitution of Ukraine and to present it as follows: “Each human being has an inalienable right to life from conception to natural death.”

To preserve inviolable the norms of the Constitution of Ukraine (CU, Article 51) and the Family Code of Ukraine (FCU, Article 21), which define marriage as the family union of a woman and a man and stipulate that “persons of the same sex cannot be adopters” (FCU, Article 211, Section 3).[9]

Only time will tell where Ukraine will go in these and other matters, as well as how the Ukrainian Catholic University will respond to maintain the University’s Catholic identity and values.

Bearing Fruit and Looking Ahead

The new government of President Petro Poroshenko expressed a desire to train civil servants to operate in a non-corrupt environment, and UCU’s Lviv Business School, founded in 2008, helped establish the “Good Governance” program to address this need.  In an interview for the Financial Times, Bishop Gudziak expressed the intention very simply: “We want businesses to be ethical and managers to be ethical and we want those who control firms to love our land and be patriots.”[10]

The Christian and Catholic foundations of the business school are so strong that the auxiliary bishop of the city of Lviv, Venedykt Aleksiychuk, in addition to his pastoral duties, has become a student there.  The former abbot of the Studite order of monks and an accomplished speaker, Bishop Aleksiychuk also gives occasional formal talks on moral and spiritual themes for his fellow students.

The University’s new residential college, called the collegium, includes a small community where the developmentally disabled and their helpers are integrated into the life of the University’s students and staff who live there.  “Contact with the handicapped ought to be an integral part of theological formation,” said Bishop Gudziak.  He calls them his “professors of human relations.”[11]

The University continues to grow, with some 2,100 students in its full-time and part-time programs. This includes opportunities for foreign students, who can come in the summer to study the Ukrainian language ( or learn how to paint an icon in the Eastern tradition, with skill and prayer.  UCU also offers a semester abroad program for foreigners, with classes in the English language (  And the University is always looking for volunteers to come to Ukraine for its English-language summer school, to create an immersion atmosphere near Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains where UCU’s students can improve their knowledge of English by spending plenty of time, recreational and instructional, with native speakers (

For further information about the Ukrainian Catholic University, contact UCU’s North American representative, the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation,


Matthew Matuszak was an instructor at the Ukrainian Catholic University and is currently manager of grants and publications for the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation.


[1] Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, promulgated in Lviv, Ukraine, on February 22, 1929. Available at:

[2] Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite (November 21, 1964). Available at:

[3] Ibid, 24.

[4] Mission statement available at:

[5] “Ukrainian Catholic University Marks A Milestone”, Zenit (April 2, 2006). Available at:

[6] Marta Kolomayets, “SBU attempts to pressure rector at Ukrainian Catholic University”, Ukrainian Weekly (May 30, 2010). Available at:

[7] Ibid.

[8] Victor Gaetan, “Ukraine’s ‘Maidan’ Protests Are Spiritual as Well as Political”, National Catholic Register (December 27, 2013). Available at:

[9] Available at:

[10] Yuri Bender, “Lviv aims for ethics and expertise”, Financial Times (January 31, 2010). Available at:

[11] John L. Allen, Jr., “A Great Catholic renaissance in Ukraine may be at risk”, National Catholic Reporter (May 28, 2010). Available at:

MATTHEW MATUSZAK is manager of grants and publications for the Chicago-based Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation.

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