ROME — Under the Soviet Empire, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the biggest of the 22 Eastern churches loyal to Rome, was the largest illegal religious body in the world. Per capita, no other church produced a greater share of martyrs during the Soviet era.

The Greek Catholic Church emerged bent, but not broken, and has gone on to experience a renaissance. Bishop Borys Gudziak, who was a 30-year-old Harvard graduate not yet ordained a priest when Communism fell, has had a front row seat to that drama – and he’s made the most of it.

Today, the 53-year-old Gudziak is the leader of the Greek Catholic community in France, after serving as the founder and rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv, Ukraine. In many ways, he is the face and voice of his church outside Ukraine.

Born in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1960, from immigrant parents who had fled the Communist occupation of Western Ukraine, Gudziak knew from his teenage years he wanted to be a priest in his parents’ country.

As a seminarian in Rome, his goal was discouraged by his teachers, who told him it would be easier for him to preach on Mars than on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

“I was young enough to believe in this romantic expectation that I would, at some point, serve as priest in Ukraine,” he told Crux.

Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church at the time and the inspiration for Australian writer Morris West’s legendary 1963 novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, was the one who stoked hope in Gudziak and his fellow seminarians of returning their church to its former glory.

At the request of his father, before joining the seminary Gudziak earned a bachelor’s degree in biology. He finished the seminary when he was 23, but instead of seeking ordination, he enrolled at Harvard, where he obtained a Ph.D in Slavic and Byzantine Cultural History.

While at Harvard, Gudziak fell under the spell of Henri Nouwen, a Dutch-born Catholic priest and spirituality writer who introduced Gudziak to the L’Arche community a group that encourages friendships with disabled persons. Contact with people with special needs would later become one of the pillars of his vision for the reborn Ukrainian Catholic University.

As an American student, he applied for a USA-USSR exchange and moved to Ukraine, then still a part of the Soviet Union, in 1988.

“They followed me constantly,” Gudziak said. “I had different tails, and there was monitoring of all my activities. For legal reasons I couldn’t leave Kiev, but the experience gave me the chance to meet the intellectuals of the opposition.”

At the time, the USSR required a separate visa for each city visited inside one of its territories.

In 1990, Gudziak was one of the masterminds behind a September 8 youth meeting that gathered 40,000 people in L’viv, a Western Ukrainian city that’s the stronghold of the country’s Greek Catholic population.

It was the first “Youth for Christ” rally held in the country since 1933, he said.

In 1998, Gudziak was ordained and sent as a priest to L’viv, were he was working on re-establishing a Catholic University. His aim was not only to re-open it, but to actually reform the educational system.

“We asked ourselves: can we reinvent university?” Gudziak told Crux. “We decided to try.”

They built the only Catholic University of the former Soviet Union over two pillars, which they refer to as the “two M’s”: The martyrs and the marginalized.

The martyrs were those from the catacomb church who suffered under Communist oppression, and many of whom died in Soviet gulags.

“They did difficult things so they could teach us to do difficult things in the 21st century, if we are willing to look and learn from them,” Gudziak said.

The pillar of the marginalized, for Gudziak, are the mentally handicapped, who he believes can help Ukrainian society rediscover its capacity to trust.

“In a society where 15 million were killed, where fear is in the DNA, there’s difficulty of trust in politics, finances, family,” Gudziak said.

“People with special needs break through those barriers and ask one basic question: Can you love me?” he said.

This question is at the heart of the University, where the Emmaus House provides persons with an intellectual disability a chance to share their life together with the students. It embodies the heart of the institutions’ mission: “To help the contemporary, postmodern, post-communist person discover their God-given dignity.”

Gudziak defined the Ukrainian Catholic University as “the daughter of this martyr mother church that gives courage to stand up to different social, economic and political powers.”

As one example of that spirit, Gudziak cites a 29-year-old professor named Bohdan Solchanyk, who was killed on Feb. 20 during peaceful pro-democracy protests of Maidan Square.

He was one of millions participating in the “Revolution of Dignity,” a pro-European manifestation that lead to the fall of the pro-Soviet government of Viktor Yanukovych.

Gudziak was among the religious leaders, including Greek and Roman Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Protestants, who accompanied the protesters.

Back in February, after the pro-Russian government killed 102 protesters in 48 hours, he said: “At the moment a solution seems impossible, but I am still praying with the people of Maidan because I am part of Pope Francis’ school of thought.”

“A pastor,” he said, “must have the smell of his sheep.”

That may seem like little more than a nice rhetorical flourish elsewhere, but in Ukraine it’s the job description of what it means to be a Catholic leader. Arguably, no one illustrates the point better than Bishop Borys Gudziak.