Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, the former head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, died on Wednesday in Ukraine, according to a statement from the synod of the largest Eastern Catholic churches in full communion with Rome.

For more than a decade (2001-2011), Husar was the face and voice of this resilient, defiant Catholic community that is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. In a span of six decades, the church saw almost 3,000 clerics killed in Siberian gulags during the Soviet occupation of the country.

In November 1991, after driving 3.5 million faithful underground and confiscating virtually every church property that mattered, a post-Soviet Ukraine allowed the Greek Catholic Church to reemerge. From that point, it rose from the catacombs to become a miracle — and Husar played a key role in its renaissance.

Today, 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.

He was born in 1933 in L’viv, in western Ukraine. His family fled to the United States in 1944, seeking refuge both from the Nazis and the Soviets. He studied at Catholic University and at Fordham, later obtaining a doctorate in theology at Rome’s Urban University.

He was ordained a priest in 1958 in Stamford, Connecticut, where he ministered to the Ukrainian diaspora.

Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, at the time the exiled head of the Ukrainian Catholics, ordained Husar a bishop in a secret ceremony in 1977.

The Vatican refused to acknowledge the ordination because doing so would have angered the Russian Orthodox Church and upset Paul VI’s Ostpolitik, a policy of outreach to the Soviets. As a result, Husar spent more than a decade as a bishop with all the burdens but none of the privileges.

Husar’s episcopacy would remain a secret for the next nineteen years, until it was formally recognized by John Paul II and the Greek Catholic synod in 1996, when he was made an auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Ivan Lubachivsky. In 2000, Husar succeeded Lubachivsky as head of the church.

Technically, the Vatican recognized Husar as the “Major Archbishop of Kiev-Galicia,” but the world’s six to ten million Greek Catholics, both in Ukraine and in immigrant communities elsewhere, regarded him as their “Patriarch.”

A chubby, smiling figure eerily reminiscent of St. Nicholas – 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.

“In Ukraine, St. Nicholas is a very beloved saint, for his goodness and generosity to the poor and the children, so anyone being compared to St. Nicholas would be, I think, honored,” said Bishop Borys Gudziak, eparch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Paris.

Speaking to Crux on the phone before heading to Ukraine for the funeral, which will take place on Monday, Gudziak had nothing but fond memories of Husar. The two knew each other for over 50 years.

After officially being recognized as a bishop by St. John Paul II in 1996, for all intents and purposes Husar became the leader of a church which, according to Gudziak, was “on its knees, suffering post traumatic shock.”

The Greek Catholic Church was highly divided at the time, something which according to Gudziak was evident in the fact that Husar only got elected after several votes were cast, and by the minimum margin possible: 14-12.

“By the time he died, the synod counted 50 bishops, and it’s a unified synod of gentlemen with a common cause,” Gudziak said.

Though the office is for life, Husar made it clear beginning in 2009 that he intended to step down, in part because of declining health, including being legally blind. He stepped down in 2011.

“I learned a lot from his Beatitude,” Gudziak said. “We had many beers together, many laughs and I will carry for the rest of my life many of the lessons that he taught. [They were] lessons of simplicity, of poverty, of joy and peace.”

Retired since 2011, Husar died being considered one of the most respected public intellectuals in the country. Hundreds of thousands are expected to go either to Kiev or L’viv in upcoming days to say farewell.

“In the Ukranian tradition, a blind old man is the prototype of the sage,” Gudziak said. “He always enjoyed a good table, he’s now at the sacramental table of the kingdom. I don’t begrudge him that. Now we have to carry on his legacy.”