KIEV — When millions of pro-democracy Ukrainians launched what they called the “Revolution of Dignity” in November 2013, which led to the fall of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and resulted in about 100 deaths in just 48 hours, the country’s Greek Catholic Church gave its blessing.
In the background was 81-year-old Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, the former leader of the Greek Catholic Church and, despite being a lion in winter, still a critical voice of conscience in Ukrainian life.
Months after the revolution, a fragile cease-fire between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces could unravel at any moment. Even more lives may be at risk this winter as the country scrambles to make up for lost Russian gas, and those living in regions of the country still at war struggle to defend their homes against the cold.
Catholics have long been among the social actors in Ukraine supporting a less subservient position to Russia. With more than 5 million faithful, Greek Catholics represent less than 15 percent of the total national population of 45 million. Nevertheless, it’s perceived as the most important organization in civil society in terms of political leadership and social programs.
In November 1991, after driving 3.5 million faithful underground and killing almost 3,000 clerics in Siberian gulags, the Soviets legalized the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. From that point, it rose from the catacombs to become a miracle on its own.
With only 300 priests and an estimated 30,000 faithful, the Church managed to survive the Communist era. Barely two decades later, the Greek Catholic Church claims more than 5 million faithful and 3,000 priests, with 100 new priests ordained each year, and more than 800 seminarians.
For more than a decade (2001-2011), Cardinal Husar was the face and voice of this resilient, defiant Catholic community.
A chubby, smiling figure eerily reminiscent of Santa Claus — complete with a trimmed white beard, suspenders, and welcoming persona — he led the largest of the 22 Eastern churches in communion with Rome during some of its darkest days.
Retired since 2011, he’s still considered the most respected intellectual in the country. His presence in Kiev’s Maidan Square last November was seen as a blessing to those rallying for a more transparent, responsible form of government despite frigid winter temperatures.
“We’re convinced that the churches have to play a very important role in the development of the society,” Husar said during a meeting with journalists Monday in Kiev.
“The Church should not remain only a praying society,” he said. “We have to encourage people to pray and, at the same time, teach them to be practical Christians.”
“We don’t wish to take part of machinations that build the state, but we do wish to inspire those in politics, so that, practicing their Christian lives, they build up a better nation,” said Husar, who believes that religious leaders still play a key role in overcoming five decades of Bolshevik oppression.
He admits that for 20 years, Ukrainians fed on Soviet traditions.
“Many would come to confession, but no one confessed stealing things from their brothers. Stealing had become a survival mechanism,” he said.
According to Husar, many of the country’s economic, social, and political difficulties are a result of that past. In his eyes, November’s revolution was a turning point.
On Sunday, Ukrainians will elect 450 new members of parliament. Expectations for true change, for a definitive break with forms of government associated with corruption and patronage, are higher than ever.
“Clerics have to take part in politics and daily life by preaching justice, truthfulness, desire to help one another in practical, social life,” Husar said.
Husar believes that, for the success of this reform, the unity of the churches is indispensable, citing the Ukrainian experience of interreligious collaboration as a model.
“It took us centuries to become divided,” he said. “We have to be ready for a long period to come back to one another.”
He’s a big supporter of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, which includes representatives of 19 organizations, including Russian Orthodox, Protestants, Catholics of the Latin Rite and Greek Catholics, Muslims, and Jews.
“In the words of Pope John Paul II, Ukraine is a laboratory of ecumenism,” Husar said.
The Polish pontiff visited the country in 2001 and used the Council of Churches to meet with the patriarchs of churches that answer to Rome as well as those that don’t.
“If we all live our Christianity, we’ll find that there are very few things that divide us,” he said.
Born in Ukraine in 1933, Husar and his parents fled to the United States during the chaos of the Second World War and the rise of a Soviet regime that would drive the Greek Catholic Church underground in 1946 and imprison most of its leadership.
He became an American citizen, studied at Catholic University and Fordham, and was ordained into the Ukrainian Catholic eparchy of the United States.
In April 1977, he was secretly consecrated bishop by his predecessor, Cardinal Josyf Slipy. Rome, fearful of upsetting Paul VI’s Ostpolitik, a policy of outreach to the Soviets, refused to acknowledge the ordination, hoping to avoid angering the Russian Orthodox Church. After the fall of communism, Husar was named auxiliary bishop in Kiev, were he was eventually made a cardinal by John Paul II.
As many Ukrainians, Husar hopes to see his country become a part of the European Union, but “the one with the real, democratic values, dreamed by great pious, Catholic men such as [Alcide] De Gasperi and [Robert] Schuman, who chose the 12 stars of Our Lady’s crown as the symbol of the Christian origins of the Union.”
But as other countries that belonged to the Soviet Union but managed to maintain a strong religious tradition did before them, such as Poland, Ukrainian clerics fear a negative influence in their religious life if they join the European Union.
According to Husar, after the war Western Europe experienced a spiritual rebirth during the 1950s and early 1960s, but a contemporary period of well-being was detrimental to that rebirth.
“We [Ukraine] never had the opportunity to experience the growth or decline of our spiritual values at the time,” he said.
“Today, as we find ourselves turning towards the block, we can’t help fearing the moral decrease of Europe, particularly in things concerning the family, such as euthanasia or same-sex marriage,” he said.