(Vatican Radio) The protests in an increasing number of public squares across Ukraine
are more about a growing people’s movement than plain political expression, says a
Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop.
While the media is reporting that the ongoing protests are motivated by the Ukrainian government’s refusal to sign an agreement that would have steered Ukraine towards Europe, Bishop Borys Gudziak says the story “has a much broader context and a much deeper quality.”
The Maidan movement is a reaction against the general atmosphere of fear and intimidation in Ukraine and against wanton corruption in the country, he said. It is a movement of principle and dignity, with spiritual expression.
“The people are morally exhausted,” he told Vatican Radio. “So… what began as a Euro-Maidan movement…is really now a Maidan of dignity, a Maidan of citizens recognizing something that is rather transcendental and that is fundamentally spiritual— that every person is created in dignity in the image and likeness of God.”
Listen to the full interview with Bishop Borys Gudziak:
Bishop Gudziak heads the Ukrainian Greek Catholic eparchy of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. He also serves as president of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
“After 20-odd years of independence, Ukraine is maybe halfway on the pilgrimage from the land of captivity to the promised land,” he said, as many aspects of the former totalitarian regime are only slowly being pushed aside. “Dropping the cloak of slavery is not easy.”
Protest leaders include many from the Ukrainian middle class; about two-thirds of protesters have university degrees, he said.
The clergy from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the various Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant communities, as well as Jewish and Muslim clerics, have joined protesters seeking to minister to their spiritual needs.
“Basically, the churches have come to where the people have asked them to be,” said the bishop.
The religious presence in the main Independence Square in Kiev is obvious. Acting in accord, the churches hold ecumenical prayer on Sundays at noon. And throughout the night, when fear of violence is greatest, prayer is led from the main stage on the hour every hour, said the bishop. Religious services are held and “ecclesial tents” are set up in the square, where people can pray quietly before an icon, access the sacrament of confession and spiritual guidance.
“The Church, following the basic insight expressed by Pope Francis, is trying to make sure that the pastors have the smell of the sheep,” he stated.
In early January, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture sent a letter to the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, stating that the Church’s involvement in the protest could lead to a revocation of its legal status.
“That is a very serious threat expressed to a Church that for much of the 20th century, by the powers that be, was outlawed,” Bishop Gudziak said .
From 1945 to 1989, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was the biggest illegal Church in the world and the biggest body of resistance in the Soviet Union, he stated. It did not collaborate with the regime; as a result, by 1945, all of its bishops were imprisoned.
“Because of its free and dignified stance in the Soviet times, it emerged into the period of Ukrainian independence with unique moral authority,” he explained. Today, the Church exerts a very big influence on issues of freedom, dignity, justice, and equality before the law.
“The Church speaks about these principles because they are the principles of our Saviour,” Bishop Gudziak said.
He commented on how numerous protesters are being beaten and harassed and how many students of the Ukrainian Catholic University have been intimidated by calls from the police and the secret service.
“One must realize that in a country where so many people were killed, so many people were sent to Siberia, so many people were spied on, a call from the secret service to the students' personal cell phone is a very invasive action that creates great trepidation and insecurity,” he said.
“The fear in Ukraine is only skin deep,” he continued, “and you scratch the surface and it pops out. Because the system killed systematically, people are afraid of the system. This movement of the Maidan is actually a response to this fear.”
The bishop called for prayers for peace and for conversion in Ukraine. He also urged people to become informed about the “real-life story” that is developing there, to understand the importance of Ukraine in Europe’s geopolitics. He called for people to express their solidarity with the Ukrainian protesters by writing letters and appealing to political leaders.
“This experience of the 20th century, in which people of faith and other people of good will stood up to the greatest human challenge, the challenge of totalitarianism, this school of faith has much to offer to western Europe and to the broader international and ecclesial community,” he said.
“I think Ukraine and the Church in Ukraine has a great responsibility to share this story,” he concluded. “Today, this Church is growing and I am convinced that it has a vocation to help the universal Church in ways that are still unknown.”
Report and interview by Laura Ieraci