March 11, 2022

Reflection / John F. Fink

Christianity in Ukraine

John F. FinkLet’s hope that, by the time you read this, President Vladimir Putin of Russia hasn’t destroyed the magnificent churches in Kyiv, Ukraine.

I admit that I was not prepared to see those beautiful churches during my visit to Kyiv. The towers of St. Sophia’s Cathedral, St. Nicolas Cathedral, and St. Alexander’s Cathedral, all close to one another in the middle of the city, dominate the landscape.

But the most impressive place is the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, standing on a hill by the Dnieper River. A lavra is a place where monks and hermits live, so this place is also known as the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves. The Great Lavra Bell Tower, standing at nearly 330 feet tall, was the tallest bell tower of its kind when it was constructed in the 18th century.

There are a number of churches and other buildings in the Upper Lavra, including the Church of the Assumption. It was destroyed during World War II, but was rebuilt after Ukraine won its independence in the 1990s.

Under all these buildings, the Lower Lavra, is a network of caves. There are hundreds of them, all dug by the monks and dating all the way back to the 11th century. There are numerous chapels as well as mummified remains of the monks. It’s a fascinating place to visit.

Christianity in Ukraine is traced back to the year 989. A few years before that, Prince Vladimir (or Volodymir) the Great became prince of Kievan Rus. He was a great conqueror who had many wives, and he was a pagan. But after he became prince, he learned about other faiths and decided to send envoys to the West to find out the true faith.

The envoys met with Muslims, Jews and Christians from western Europe, but were unimpressed. But then they went to Constantinople, where they attended the Divine Liturgy in the Hagia Sophia, the enormous church built in the sixth century and which was the largest building in the world at the time. They reported back, “We did not know where we were, in heaven or on Earth. … All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country.”

Prince Vladimir was duly impressed, and ordered that the pagan god Perun be thrown into the Dnieper River. Then he had himself, and thousands of his subjects, baptized in the river. He turned his life around, destroyed all the pagan statues and replaced them with churches. He also lived from then on with one wife, Anna, the sister of the emperor of Constantinople.

The Orthodox Church honors him as St. Vladimir.

Within a century of the start of the Christian history of the Kievan Rus, the Church became divided between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East. The Church in the Kievan Rus remained in communion with the Christians of the East. However, it was not always to be that way. In 1595, seven Orthodox bishops in Ukraine re-established full communion with the Catholic Church, thus beginning what would become known as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

While Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian Catholics were persecuted, many of them martyred. In 1945, all the Ukrainian Catholic bishops were arrested or killed. Today the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the largest Eastern Catholic Church.

In the 19th century, many Ukrainian Catholics emigrated to Canada and the United States.

Recently, I was able to link onto a ZOOM discussion of Ukrainian religious leaders on “Ukrainian Churches in the Time of War.” They described how their churches were providing shelter and food to the refugees. They agreed that “the war has united the people into one strong nation” and that “religion gives people hope in a time of despair.”

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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