Almost exactly a year ago, Bohdan Solchanyk, a lecturer on modern history at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), was murdered by a government sniper in Kiev as hundreds of thousands of people protested the almost unimaginable corruption and cynicism of former president Viktor Yanukovych and his Russian puppet regime. About a week later, the head of the Department of Pastoral Care at UCU, Fr. Yuriy Sakvuk, visited Franciscan University to explain for faculty and students the meaning of Ukraine’s “revolution of dignity.” While people sympathized, it was difficult for them to understand the scale of the tragedy occurring so far away despite its effect on a country the size of France.
Since then, the revolution has sobered and matured into “a pilgrimage from fear to a kingdom of dignity”—a pilgrimage marked by low-end estimates of 5,100 casualties, 11,000 wounded, 1 million persons internally displaced, and on the order of $500 billion in economic losses through destruction and the confiscation of property in territories now occupied by Russian-backed separatists. Moreover, Jews, Muslim Tatars, Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic believers continue to endure bigotry, persecution, deportation, and confiscations at the hands of the separatists.
Last week, on a frigid 12° F morning at the Church of the Blessed Martyrs (whose cornerstone was blessed in 2002 by Pope John Paul II), during a requiem for Mr. Solchanyk and others, presided over by Bishop Borys Gudziak, I am not ashamed to admit I lost my composure—several times. I cried for a martyr I had never met and for a country that has suffered repeated conquests and genocides over literally hundreds of years. The extraordinarily beautiful yet profoundly sad chanting accentuated the almost unspeakable losses endured by UCU and the country. I have never in my life felt so inadequate in the face of such suffering—especially while standing fairly close to Mr. Solchanyk’s fiancée and parents.
What is happening in Ukraine is not God’s will. Natural disasters and wars are not “acts of God”—a notion correctly criticized by Rabbi Harold Kushner as a form of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Wars are, undeniably, instigated by the sins of particular persons. As George Weigel reminds us from a lesson taught by John Paul II, one should not psychologize an adversary: “bad guys behave badly because of who they are, what they espouse and what they seek, not because of anything we did to them … [their agendas are] driven by their own ideologies, not reactions to U.S. policy that can be pacified through behavioral changes.”
What did the people of Ukraine do to “provoke” Putin’s ideologically fearful and nationalistic rage? They deposed a murderous and corrupt despot who impeded the nation’s prosperity and European integration. A successful Ukraine would present a rival model to Putin’s kleptocracy. Putin’s hold on power would be relegated to the dustbin of history once the Russians themselves pierced through the fog of lies, corruption, and nationalism. Unfortunately, certain western talking heads —betraying their own fearful ideological commitments, ignorance, and Schadenfreude—blamed Ukraine and urged others not to get involved for fear of “instigating” Putin … as if Putin needs a western pretense to invade his neighbors. Even Pope Francis was “ecumenically correct” when he characterized the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “fratricidal conflict,” appearing to side with diplomacy over the principles of faith on the very eve of the Ukrainian bishops’ ad limina visit with the Holy Father.
Recently, a pointed political cartoon was shared fairly widely on Facebook. In the first panel we see a public speaker basking in the warmth of the crowd’s thunderous cheers at his question “Who wants change?” In the second panel, after the speaker asks “Who wants to change,” he is greeted with cold, embarrassed silence from glum, down-turned faces. The crowd’s response to the first question is based on the secular (and largely mechanistic) notion that perceived external threats to one’s personal “values” must be eliminated to maximize freedom for its own sake. The crowd’s cold, silence to the second question reflects a fear of self-sacrifice that might lead to a heroic life of virtue.
Change means being open and vulnerable. And if there is anything that has impressed me about believers in Ukraine—with all their foibles and fears notwithstanding—is their willingness to be vulnerable. Our family witnesses it (and are humbled) on a daily basis: at liturgies when old men and women who can barely shuffle are on their knees beating their chests asking for mercy and forgiveness; young people crossing themselves passing churches on the street, etc. Christ provided them the perfect model—the Cross: he was born in utmost poverty, he cried when a beloved one died, he served rather than being served, and he made himself vulnerable even unto succumbing to deicide.
This could not have popped out of thin air. It is, in fact, the fruit of a particular witness—a martyrdom—of what was (under the Soviet regime) the largest underground church in the world. Ukrainians know they cannot blame Putin for their own internal problems. These imperfections must be remedied if their freedom is to be secured. However, this freedom is not an end in itself. They seek freedom to overcome sin and achieve inner excellence. Freedom for the sake of virtue is a lesson Western Europe has forgotten and is in dire need to relearn. Ukrainians know any pilgrimage that truly changes hearts must be through the Cross.
So, where is God in the face of the cruelty and suffering in Ukraine? He is on the Cross—suffering right along with them.
Editor’s note: Pictured above are Oksana Solchanyk, center, her husband, Zinovij, left, and son Stepan mourning on March 1, 2014 in Lviv, Ukraine, over the body of their son and brother, Bohdan, 28. (Photo credit: Uriel Sinai / NYT)