Archbishop Borys Gudziak, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the United States, recently shared the story of his church with Eternal Word Television Network. It includes the harrowing loss of 99 per cent of its faithful when Stalin conquered western Ukraine in 1944 and arrested all the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops.
“He knew the church was so interwoven with every aspect of Ukrainian society,” said Archbishop Gudziak. “If the church couldn’t be controlled, the people couldn’t be controlled.”
Archbishop Gudziak said the priests were forced to make a choice. Either renounce their Catholic communion and join the Russian Orthodox Church, or be deported to Siberia. More than 800 priests were deported, and the life of the church came to a visible halt.
“It was stripped of every thread of its garments,” said Archbishop Gudziak. “No institutions, no resources, and its clergy imprisoned.”
Before 1939, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church had 3000 priests, but by 1989 after 50 years of war and persecution, only 300 aged priests remained.
“The Soviets thought they had finished the job,” said Archbishop Gudziak. “These 300 priests were so monitored and controlled they may have only been able to serve about 100 people each.”
That meant only about 30,000 people out of four million had some limited contact with the Church. Ukraine lost the active participation of 99 per cent of its faithful.
However, in the past 30 years the Church has grown dramatically and today has 3000 priests, and 800 seminarians.
“This was not a strategy or tactic,” said Archbishop Gudziak. “It was not good management. It was martyrdom, witness and above all, God’s grace. It’s a miracle. In our society today, we have scandals and many issues. But Jesus tells us repeatedly, peace be with you, don’t fear.”
In Australia, declining church attendance can be discouraging. But it is important to retain hope that God will continue to lead and grow our Church. According to the Official Catholic Directory, in 2018 Australia was home to 2900 priests and had 253 men training in diocesan seminaries.
It is heart-warming to reflect on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and recognise that God does not fail or give up even when hope is gone.