LaSalle University holds International Scholarly Conference “The Church of the Catacombs in the 20th Century”

 Year 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of legalization of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) which, banned and persecuted by the Soviet regime, spent over 40 years of its existence in the Catacombs. To mark its reemergence in 1989, the St. Sophia Religious Association of Ukrainian Catholics, Inc. organized at international scholarly conference “The Church of the Catacombs in the 20th Century”. The event took place on May 3, 2014 at the premises of the LaSalle University Chapel. Among co-organizers of the conference were: the Shevchenko Scientific Society, USA; Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation in Chicago; Lypynsky East European Research Institute; Ukrainian Free University Foundation.

Br. Robert Kinzler, Chaplain of LaSalle University, opened the event with a prayer for peace and stabilization of political situation in Ukraine. Leonid Rudnytzky, professor of LaSalle University, chair of the morning session, delivered greetings to the participants of the conference received from Cardinal Lubomyr (Husar) and His Beatitude Sviatoslav (Shevchuk), Head of the UGCC.

Keynote speaker, Geffey Kelly, professor emeritus of the Religion Department at LaSalle University, offered an extensive lecture “The Church and the Totalitarian State” focusing on the work and mission of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident. Hitler’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions encouraged theologian Karl Barth, pastor Martin Niemoller, and the young Bonhoeffer to organize the Confessing Church, which announced publicly in its Barmen Declaration (1934) its allegiance first to Jesus Christ: “We repudiate the false teaching that the church can and must recognize yet other happenings and powers, personalities and truths as divine revelation alongside this one Word of God. …” Banned by the government to teach openly, Bonhoeffer was teaching pastors in an underground seminary, Finkenwalde. He eventually had gone to America to become a guest lecturer, but being unable to shake a feeling of responsibility for his country, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to become involved with the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler by members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office). Bonhoeffer was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo, imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp for nearly two years, and after a very brief, biased trial with other plotters as the Nazi regime collapsed, executed by hanging on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before Allied forces liberated the camp and three weeks before Hitler’s suicide. His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential, and his book The Cost of Discipleship became a modern classic.

Dr. Svitlana Hurkina, Director of the Institute of Church History at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), Lviv, Ukraine, delivered a paper “The Response of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Faithful to the Liquidation of their Church: 1945-1989.” She analyzed details of liquidation by the Soviet regime the Metropolia of Halych and Mukachevo eparchy of the UGCC. Dr. Hurkina thoroughly described beginnings of the Underground Church, establishment of its hierarchical structure, and formation of clergy. Specificities of the liturgical and prayer life of rural and urban communities were presented, as well as the life of monastic orders, role of women and means of resistance to the repressive system.

The concluding accord of the morning session was opening of the exhibit “To the Life or Resurrection through the Thorns of Catacomb” and presentation of the English version of the accompanying book translated from Ukrainian by Dr. Iryna Ivankovych, Executive Director of the St. Sophia Religious Association and Curator of the Josyf Slipyj Research Center in Philadelphia. As stated by Dr. Ivankovych, the exhibit, launched by the Institute of Church History (ICH) of UCU in 2009, has travelled across various regions of Ukraine, Poland, Italy, and USA. Geography of its presentation has prompted its creators to inform readers of other languages of the history of the Underground Church. Thus, in 2013, the book was published in German, and subsequently in English. The exhibit is based on the materials collected by the ICH in 1992-2009: memoirs of the witnesses and active members of the Underground; documents from the State archives; photographs from private collections. It reflects unique life stories of the representatives of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy, religious and laity. All of them witness to profound Christian faith and unbreakable fidelity to the Church and people. Chronologically, the exhibition covers years 1939-1991 and is divided into three periods of the tragic and yet heroic history of the UGCC in the 20th century: forcible liquidation, Underground, and legalization in 1989.

The afternoon session chaired by Nicholas Rudnytzky, Adjunct Professor in the Central and Eastern European Studies at LaSalle University and Associate Registrar at Manor College, offered three papers on selected aspects of the underground activity of the UGCC.

Rev. John Sianchuk, CSsR, Director of the Bishop Velychkovsky Martyr’s Shrine, Winnipeg, Canada, delivered a detailed presentation of Blessed Vasyl as “Father of the Underground Church”. As stated by the presenter, the importance of Bishop Velychkovsky (1901-1973) for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of the underground period is obvious and significant. His contribution to its preservation is of both moral and structural nature; his enthusiasm, courage and leadership ensured cultivation of faith by the people even under perilous circumstances of persecution by the Soviet totalitarian system. He organized life of the monastic orders which lived in small, almost family-like communities. Consequently, Sisters became catechists bearing responsibility for the formation of the laity of the Church. Bishop Velychkovsky educated and ordained new candidates for priesthood, accepted the apostate priests thus increasing the number of the clergy who would clandestinely or even openly serve the needs of faithful. However, it was his readiness to accept episcopal consecration from His Beatitude Cardinal Josyf Slipyj in a hotel room in Moscow that secured continuity of the hierarchy of the underground Church. Having become a bishop, Vasyl Velychkovsky not only ordained new priests, but also consecrated bishops. Among them was Bishop Volodymyr Sternyuk whose consecration can be considered providential. He managed to avoid arrest, remained its leader until reemergence of the UGCC, and became one of the key person in the process of its legalization. Martyr of the faith, prisoner of the Soviet concentration camps, Bishop Vasyl Velychkovsky was beatified along with other martyrs of the UGCC on June 27, 2001, during Pontifical Divine Liturgy celebrated by His Holiness John Paul II in Lviv.

Rev. Marko Yaroslav Semehen, President of the St. Sophia Religious Association in Rome, Professor of Liturgical Studies at the Josyf Slipyj Seminary in Ternopil, offered a paper on “The Liturgical and Pastoral Life of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the Catacombs.” He defined specificity of the pastoral work of the underground priest and presented the role of laity in organization of clandestine liturgies, prayer services, and in cultivation of religious upbringing in families. Rev. Semehen outlined ways of preparation for the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Holy Eucharist, Christian Initiation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, as recorded by witnesses of the students of secret seminaries in the Catacombs. Despite numerous restrictions and constant surveillance, clergy and laity of the Underground Church managed to cultivate fullness of the liturgical life focusing on the Divine Liturgy as its core point.

Dr. Andrew Sorokowski, a historical researched at the U.S. Department of Justice, Environment and Natural Resources Division, Washington, DC, analyzed “The Road to Legalization of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, 1984-1991.” This process was conducted on several levels and thus, brought a series of results. Reemergence of the UGCC initiated transfer of the church buildings to its lawful owner. Many priests who served under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church returned to the UGCC. For clergy, legalization meant change of ways of life, mentality and service. Administrative units of the UGCC with the Metropolitan See in Lviv were established. Finally, reemergence of the Church brought freedom of faith and gave an opportunity to openly serve the needs of its faithful.

Concluding remarks offered by Paul Mojzes, Professor of Religious Studies at Rosemont College, pertained to current situation of the UGCC given in a retrospective snapshot of its 400-year existence and in comparison with the situation of other Churches in Central and Eastern Europe. The event concluded with a prayer of thanksgiving conducted by Rev. John Sianchuk.

Press-bureau of the St. Sophia Religious Association, Inc.  

Photo (by Steven Fartuszok)


Speakers and Chairs of the Conference (left to right): Leonid Rudnytzky, Nicholas Rudnytzky, Geffrey Kelly, Iryna Ivankovych, Rev. Marko Semehen, Rev. John Sianchuk, Paul Mojzes

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