Exhibit Opening “To the Light of Resurrection through the Thorns of Catacombs”

Iryna Ivankovych


Exhibit Opening “To the Light of Resurrection through the Thorns of Catacombs”

Matthew 5:10-12 (NKJV) Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


The year 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the legalization of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. In Ukraine and in the diaspora, it is being marked by numerous prayerful and scholarly events. This event serves as a unique opportunity to honor the martyrdom of the Church of the Catacombs and the lives of thousands of its martyrs who laid their lives for their faith.

Because we live in the United States, one may think that the idea of persecution of Christians is not very relevant today. However, in many countries today it is a crime to be a Christian. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, 2.2 billion people lived in 79 countries under significant restrictions on their religious freedom in 1980, with some three million Ukrainian Greek Catholics being deprived of this right for almost half a century. Yet, with dignity and unbreakable spirit, the largest Eastern Catholic Church walked a long way to the Light of Resurrection through the Thorns of Catacombs, which is and still will be examined and analyzed by historians, sociologists, and scholars around the world.

It was this necessity of recording the history of the Church in the Underground that prompted an alumnae of Harvard University, Dr. Boris Gudziak, to establish the Institute of Church History back in 1992. From its beginning, the main goal of the Institute was to carry on the research project titled “Profiles of Fortitude: An Oral History of the Clandestine Life of the UGCC, 1946-1989,” a captivating intellectual topic. How was it possible that common, ordinary, defenseless people could withstand and resist the unlimited forces of the Soviet superpower?

The project “Profiles of Fortitude,” was crowned with an exhibit titled “To the Light of Resurrection through the Thorns of Catacombs” which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the legalization of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in 2009. The Church became the victim of deliberate religious persecution by the Soviet regime that attempted to impose atheism. The so-called ‘L’viv Sobor’ of 1946, organized by the Soviet authorities and its repressive services, completed the reprisal of the insubordinate Church. The ‘Sobor’ acknowledged liquidation of the UGCC and its ‘reunification’ with the Russian Orthodox Church. Officially dissolved and banned by the Stalinist regime, the UGCC began a new chapter in its history, the life in the Catacombs. From 1945-46 till 1989, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was the largest illegal Church in the world and the largest community in the Soviet Union, which despite persecutions and interdictions, preserved its identity and offered resistance to the totalitarian Soviet system. The Church of the Catacombs embraced all social strata. It had its bishops, priests and monastic orders. Despite unprecedented totalitarian control and forcible suppression, this community found many ways and means of existence in next-to-impossible conditions. Not only did it miraculously survive, but demonstrated a phenomenal spiritual renaissance. It is impossible to imagine the independence of Ukraine, its spiritual and moral foundation without the underground paschal testimony of its martyrs and confessors of faith.

The hereby presented exhibition “To the Light of Resurrection through the Thorns of Catacombs” consists of twenty thematic banners and is based on the documents compiled in 1998-2008 by the Institute, as well as the memoirs of eyewitnesses and active participants of the underground. One can also view documents from State archives, as well as numerous pictures from private collections of survivors. The exhibit tells the numerous life stories of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy, monastic orders and laity; each one a unique tale of human endurance. All of them bear witness to a profound Christian faith and steadfast fidelity to God, His Church and His people. Chronologically, the exhibit covers the period between 1939 and 1991, and it reflects three important phases of the UGCC history in the 20th century: forcible liquidation, the underground era, and legalization in 1989. We are offered a history of the Church in the period between the two world wars.  This period is followed by the details of the horrific Stalinist campaign of intimidation and defamation of the leaders and clergy of the UGCC. The photos of the martyrs are highly revealing in their ability to document their resistance to organized terror. The succeeding banners uncover the entire process of the planned liquidation of the UGCC.

Later on, we learn about Hierarchical Structure of the Church in the Catacombs led by Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, Bishop Vasyl Velchykovsky, and Bishop Volodymyr Sternyuk. The “Geography of Imprisonment” is by far the most disquieting and yet the most inspiring in the undying struggle of a faith-filled people. No effort was spared to break the resistance of the UGCC clergy, religious and laity.  We learn of the cruel interrogations, the torture of those arrested, the severity of the sentences and the inhuman conditions in the deportations to the GULAG of the Soviet Union.

The scene shifts in the next banners in which we are brought into the actual underground pastoral ministry where secrecy was the order of the day. Meetings in apartments of various religious persons were necessary to outwit the snooping authorities. The use of a hand copied prayer book defied the police-state’s orders forbidding printed books dealing with religion or liturgical practices.

As in the early Christian communities, survival in the catacombs of Ukraine depended largely on the laity who had become the backbone to the underground clergy.  They offered sanctuaries for the sacraments, security for the liturgical vessels, “legal” counsel to keep “open” the closed churches, and provide essential links between their priests and anyone in need of pastoral care. They organized protests against church closures. In this clandestine resistance, the role of women receives special acknowledgement for taking responsibility for catechizing and keeping alive the faith of the children of the UGCC.

How the underground clergy were formed is one of the most intricate parts of the story of the UGCC’s survival amid the necessary secrecy needed for their eventual reemergence as a faith-filled church community with full civil rights.

The photos of the anti-Union policy illustrate the perils and the vicious acts perpetrated against individual churches. These tactics included converting churches into storage units, extra hospitals, cafes, grocery stores and recreational facilities.

No better way to illustrate more fully the Church of the Catacombs, the Church of a martyred people, than by the chapter on Patriarch Josyf Slipyj who, to his dying day, championed the cause of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. No tribute here can do complete justice to such a prophetic force and inspiration. He survived harsh imprisonment of 18 years. In many ways the climactic portrait of Patriarch Slipyj captures well the spirit of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church that has endured a vicious repression and overcome its enemies with faith, compassion, and daring. Through his efforts and living martyrdom, he inspired the resistance movement that overcame prison, torture, murder and systemic terror to lead his people to become a “Church reborn” with full civil rights and a future full of hope. The light of Jesus’ Resurrection had come to spiritual life again in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. In the final banners, the closing tribute to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is both a fitting summary of the courage and faith of the people of Ukraine as well as a solid recommendation of this exhibit that has so beautifully brought to life the moving history of overcoming persecution and death. “The lengthy existence of the underground Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church became a manifestation of the spiritual and moral maturity of the Ukrainian people; it was a sign of the indestructability of the national spirit. The Church had revived and is now continuing its activity in an independent Ukraine.

To facilitate each visitor’s journey through the exhibit, a comprehensive book has been put together that contains historical data, copies of secret documents, memoirs, excerpts from interviews, and numerous pictures witnessing to the road that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has come through the thorns of Catacombs. Published initially in Ukrainian, it is was subsequently translated into English and is now available for the English-speaking audience. It is a product of mutual cooperation between the St. Sophia Religious Association of Ukrainian Catholics in the USA and the Institute of Church History.

As proven by the exhibit, the lengthy existence of the underground Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church became a manifestation of the spiritual and moral maturity of the Ukrainian people; it was a sign of the indestructability of the national spirit. On June 27, 2001, His Holiness John Paul II beatified many UGGC bishops and priests during a Pontifical Divine Liturgy in L’viv, and in doing so recognized the spiritual triumph of the Church which, amidst the hardship of a totalitarian regime, preserved its faith in Jesus Christ, its fidelity to Church unity and its hope in the inevitable Resurrection.

Let us pray that this exhibit will inspire a deeper spiritual thinking and a re-examination of personal values and attitudes.

Posted in Food for thought.