Boris Gudziak: “The ability to accept the Other and his dignity is a challenge for us all”

Borys Gudziak, bishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, talks about Ukraine and Ukrainians as a multicultural community and parish. We are also talking about trust between the secular and church milieus.

Today our guest on the Encounters program is Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, head of the eparchy of Saint Volodymyr the Great in Paris, which serves Byzantine-rite Ukrainians in France, the Benelux countries, and Switzerland. He is also a civic activist, and president of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU).

About the parish

Iryna Slavinska:  Let’s talk about Ukraine and Ukrainians as a multicultural community. Ukrainians have different religions, languages, national origins; among them are also people with “regional patriotism,” who identify themselves as representatives of specific regions. The community headed by Borys Gudziak encompasses several countries, and its parishioners are people from various milieus. Tell us about them.  

Borys Gudziak:  Our community is a very interesting one, and after five years I am still not picking up on all the nuances, but I feel its richness and pain. It rarely happens that a person emigrates because of a good thing. People leave, they abandon their land, language, house, and their family members because something is pressing them. It may be the economy, social oppression, war, or violence. In our country, there is a whole set, one can say.

I myself am the son of émigrés, I was born in the emigration, in America, where my parents fled to from western Ukraine, from the second Soviet front during the war in 1944. I had an opportunity to encounter the earlier emigration that had left earlier and during the First World War. The second wave left after the First World War; there were economic factors, and political factors also played a role.

Now we have the so-called “fourth wave,” but this one is from independent Ukraine. For the most part, this is an economic migration, and it is the largest one. In 1991 Ukraine had a population of 52 million. Now, according to various estimates, 36 to 37 million people live in the territory controlled by the Ukrainian state. This means that at least 10 million Ukrainians have left Ukraine since independence.

Today there are three million in the EU countries. Over one million of them are in Poland, another half-million in Italy, and 280,000 in Germany, of whom 250,00 are legal; over 100,000 reside in Spain, France, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, I think 100–150,000 Ukrainians, more accurate data are not available because no research has been done. We don’t know anything about them. I had a talk about this with the president of Ukraine; I told him that a policy has to be formulated because we are losing citizens.

Whereas in Canada and Brazil there are people from families of migrants who continue to speak Ukrainian in the fifth generation and whereas the children of World War Two refugees spoke Ukrainian at home exclusively, today our faithful who are living in France are still not speaking French, and their children are no longer speaking Ukrainian. They no longer have one active, common language. Thus, children understand “kitchen” Ukrainian, and their parents understand basic French.

Iryna Slavinska:  How do they communicate with each other? A family is not just conversations in the kitchen.

Borys Gudziak:  That’s the problem. There is an array of problems that remain unexpressed, and children are not being heard. This happens not just through language but through employment. Our people earn between six and twelve Euros an hour; these are very modest earnings. An apartment here costs between 600 and 1,000 Euros a month. Each person also tries to help someone in Ukraine. It may be a husband who left a wife and children in Ukraine; a wife who left a husband and children at home; parents who left behind children; children, who left behind parents.

It’s a good thing that we have Skype and the telephone; earlier, even that didn’t exist. Long ago Anna Yaroslavna, the first historical Ukrainian female émigré, left her home once and for all. The Ukrainian presence in France is a thousand years old; it comprises various stages. Today the people living here are above all those without documents; I think around eighty percent. This is a population that needs support and integrative experiences that would help them psychologically, socially, culturally, and spiritually to be themselves in the new surroundings.

Iryna Slavinska:  I would like to stay on this topic and ask about integration issues, not just about adaptation to life in French society but also about acceptance of one’s new status. To what degree can a church community become a center of Ukrainian life not just for parishioners? Not all Ukrainians arriving in France, for example, are Greek Catholics. Among them are Jews, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, as well as those who do not practice [their faith]. There are atheists. Is this parish, this church as a building, is it a center for them or not?

Borys Gudziak:  The Union of Ukrainian Women meets here; the choir has practices here, lectures and meetings with the members of the community take place here. Together we are learning, we are praying, organizing actions, exhibits, and conferences.

The church is a kind of center. Some people don’t attend church, they come to the church. For example, they come here, and little shuttle buses that deliver beer or other goods from Ukraine are parked here. People stand for hours during and after the services; here they can meet up with someone, pass on a package for someone in Ukraine or pick up a package for themselves. There are four and five main points where minibuses arrive from Ukraine, which may bring something, or you can pass something through them.

Of course, next to the church on Boulevard Saint-Germain there is the Shevchenko monument. Next to it you might have seen flowers because flowers were laid there on 9 March, during the Shevchenko days.

Besides the church, next to it we have a hall where 275 children attend Saturday Ukrainian school. Besides this school, there is also a school at the Embassy, which is attended by over a hundred children. Our infrastructure problem is that we do not have accommodations. For years we had no space whatsoever.

For example, this office where we are talking, which is barely ten square meters, is a classroom; every Saturday children study here. Likewise, the Vicar General, the rector of the church, has an office approximately the same size. It, too, is not his own private office, it is used for other purposes. The hall that we went through is nearly thirty square meters; it is divided into three sections by sheets or wooden partitions. These are three classrooms, where the children are studying all at the same time. Imagine how noisy it is.

Iryna Slavinska:   Next, we talk about the property owned by the Ukrainian community and the parish: the accommodations and the costs of maintaining the team. Of course, we focus separately on charitable work and community development, especially the founding of communities in new cities.

Borys Gudziak: We don’t have anything in the Netherlands, France, and Switzerland. In Switzerland and the Netherlands there is not a single square millimeter of our property as a Ukrainian community. Likewise, we are not the owners of this cathedral on Saint-Germain. It belongs to the medical institute. We have been guests here since 1943.

In 1905 the state took over the ownership of all church buildings. The Church owns only those churches that were built after 1905. We have a total of six chapels in five countries. One of the churches that we own is the church in Senlis, where Anna Yaroslava founded a monastery. Now we are developing the Anna Yaroslavna Cultural Center there.

Right now, we are facing the question of how to become owners. This is difficult to do. Imagine: When I arrived here, the budget for the upkeep of the bishop and the eparchial staff was 35,000 Euros. Thank God, I have generous parents because I am supported by my mother. We also receive assistance from many friends and benefactors.

Fundraising has already begun; last year we raised 80,000 Euros. But the upkeep of a single married priest and his family in France costs a minimum of 35,000 Euros. Without outside sources, the support of foundations and friends, our eparchy will not do anything.

But there is movement. When I arrived, there were nine priests and fifteen active communities. Two weeks from today there will be the ordination of the 25th priest. We now have 35 communities, another 2 new communities will open, I think, in the Netherlands. In the past, Ukrainians have never served in Nice and Marseille; we began to do this for the first time only recently. Russian Orthodox churches exist in those cities, and they gladly welcome our faithful and their donations.

Iryna Slavinska:  Of course, money isn’t everything. Although Borys Gudziak says that a state policy on the development of such communities would not go amiss. Next, our conversation brought us to anticipation of the Easter holiday.

Borys Gudziak:  For Easter there will be 3,000 people here. There is joy during the holidays, there is support, there are also tears because for the holidays you want to be with your family. We try to do this strategically, and advisedly, and humanely; and to support ourselves spontaneously. In recent years all 120 active bishops in France have come to know us. There is a sense that we are becoming more established.

Another challenge for our development is that Christians are not proselytizers of ethnic values. We preach the Gospel, which is universal to blacks and whites, men and women, Americans and Europeans. Hence, our challenge lies in being open not only to Ukrainians. That is why during services we are beginning to use the French language, although this is no simple matter because quite a few people do not understand French. But this is our postulate; I have the task of learning French.

A very pleasant meeting took place in February, when Minister [of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine—Trans.] Klimkin gathered together thirty Ukrainian ambassadors with whom he had a two-hour-long conversation about how the Ukrainian Church and the diaspora can cooperate with members of the Ukrainian diplomatic corps and the state in order to serve our people.

We are very happy that the Ukrainian state has finally begun showing an interest in us. From the budget we finally received a symbolic subvention for the school.

Iryna Slavinska:  Tell us about the research that is being done on the Ukrainian community in France, which you conducted.

Borys Gudziak:  In late January, a sociological survey commissioned by the eparchy was carried out by eleven sociologists from the UCU. They collected 627 questionnaires. For the purpose of comparison: for sociological surveys that are done in all of Ukraine, between 2,000 and 4,000 people are questioned. In our community of between 10,000 and 20,000 people from Ukraine who are living in France, 627 were filled out. I think that is quite representative.

In the questionnaire we asked about people’s ancestry and personal lives: from which oblast they are from, their education, marital status, about life in France, and spiritual life. The survey data processing has just begun; that is why there are no results and generalities available yet, but a monograph will be prepared eventually.

The stimulus to the survey was the desire to extend a hand to Ukrainians, regardless of whether they are in the church or not. We wanted to understand them, find out what pains them.

I myself read fifty questionnaires and learned that Ukrainians do not trust each other. They trust their relatives who live in France or Ukraine; to a lesser degree they trust the Church; to a certain extent they trust French structures, state and civic ones. But they do not trust the Ukrainian Embassy and the Consulate very much, and least of all do they trust other migrant workers who have arrived from Ukraine.

This is very regrettable and painful. That is why unity, which we are seeking to introduce, is very important. We have to know how to forgive each other, not be envious, to help someone find a job—not sell information about a job vacancy for a thousand Euros...

The Ukrainians who go to France from Ukraine are the same Ukrainians who are living in Ukraine. There is no need to worry or moralize here; what is required is to work, take each other by the hand with a smile, with humor, with a prayer, and help wherever possible.

About dialogue between the secular and church milieus

Iryna Slavinska:  Trust does not always exist between the clerical and secular environments. Do you feel this in France, where secularism is one of the central pillars of society?

Borys Gudziak:  There are various barriers. Intelligent people know that secularism is not a denial of the church. Everyone who examines [this issue] understands that it is precisely the church that serves Ukrainians every day. You have seen for yourself. Today is a weekday, and there were between 100 and 120 people at the service. On Sunday there will be 700, for Easter—3,000.

The police come here regularly to check documents. They know the juridical status of our people, but they are protecting us from terrorist acts. France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs communicates with me regularly because it takes care of links with the Eastern Christian churches.

There is respect for the Church; at the same time there is disconnection, secularism. I have lived in many countries—Italy, Poland, Canada, the U.S.—and each of these countries has its own traits. Christians have often held illegal status, but here there is freedom, you can breathe here. We are happy about this, and grateful.

Iryna Slavinska:  But how can one build trust?

Borys Gudziak:  You know, trust is not Nescafé, where you have powder, boiling water, and gratification. Trust is created on a foundation of consistency, fundamentality, and predictability. The Church has existed for two thousand years; it has had its ups and downs. There is no other such long-standing global institution in the world.

France had its own outbreaks of anti-ecclesiasticism, but today many French people are wondering about their spiritual identity. For example, Muslims are convinced that their young people are sticking together, growing in strength, and even becoming radicalized. Have we not forfeited some things that once bound us together, which formed not only French but also European culture? It has become clear that the Euro is a weak common denominator. Brexit has happened, in France you have Madame Le Pen...

Iryna Slavinska:  Macron’s election campaign relied on strengthening the Euro.

Borys Gudziak:  May God grant that the Euro will be strong, will be a secular common denominator, and guarantee peace and accord. At the same time, you know that the main architects of the EU were convinced Christians. This nucleus of countries was eventually joined by countries that wanted to do something after the Second World War in order to prevent such large massacres and mutual destruction. Their initiative had a colossal success. The last great war in Western Europe ended seventy years ago; between the EU countries there have been no wars.

Iryna Slavinska:  Next, we talk about the role of institutions in building trust. Borys Gudziak cites the experience of the UCU as an example.

Borys Gudziak:  We need to work here. This is our bad management; that is, the absence of structures and institutions attests to the fact that we have to change the way we work. Here in the eparchy we are trying with our modest resources.

I am encouraged by the fact that I have experience in creating and building the UCU. Ten years ago, no one paid attention to this university, but today it is a source of trust. People live in this environment and want to be in it. No one is shoving them in the back.

Obviously, not everyone is holy there, but there are good relations. This is our slogan. We are trying to nurture good human relations.

Iryna Slavinska:  I think that in France this does not work as it does in Ukraine, where we see the instrumentalization of Christian values; in other words, the phrase “Christian values” is used to say things that contradict democracy and the principles of human rights. With words about “Christian values,” some people are ready to justify not very pleasant things about ethnicity, language, etc., as an antithesis in a conversation about the rights of communities and minority rights. 

Borys Gudziak:  Every good thing can be abused. Our Christianity is crippled—like all of society, it is traumatized.

The Orthodox Church in Ukraine was part of the imperial process. In 1917 the Russian Orthodox Church in the empire had 100 bishops; by 1939 only four active ones were left. In 1942 the hierarchy was restored by Stalin in order to put forward moral slogans for the military cause, that is, entirely instrumentally. It remained under nearly total control. Getting out of this is very difficult.

In western Ukraine there is an awareness that an underground Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church existed, and therefore it is free. But we do not realize how greatly it was downtrodden. Before the war there were 3,000 priests, but by 1989 a total of 300 elderly priests remained, the average age being 70. Another five to ten years, and that would have been the end of the clergy.

If you take four million people and think: How many of them could a single priest in the underground serve on a regular basis; in other words, not only baptize or bury?

Iryna Slavinska:  As many as could fit inside an apartment?

Borys Gudziak:  Let’s say, ten to fifteen people, maybe even a hundred people, somewhere at a cemetery or in a closed rural church. Let’s multiply 100 people by 300 priests: that’s 30,000. In other words, less than 1 percent of Greek Catholics, that is, 99 percent of Greek Catholics were not connected with the Greek Catholic Church in a regular way. In other words, we are starting from scratch because two generations have passed.

In the early 1990s there was a desire to have a church and a priest in every village. And the question arose of whether to forfeit this opportunity or to ordain hastily trained priests, who were sincere but not trained for this complex mission.

You are supposed to be a spiritual father, you are supposed to preach, to know texts, the Holy Writ, the Liturgy, the Fathers of the Church; you have to sing, you have to be a psychological consultant, a social worker, a cultural figure, a maestro of economics because you have to build. At one time, our Galician priests were also agronomists. You understand? It is difficult to achieve this when there are no schools, no publications, there is no know-how.

How does one cope with post-traumatic syndrome? There are many chaplains; it turns out that a chaplain can also experience trauma, he must perforce experience trauma if he is in a war. Obviously, spiritual life helps him somehow, but we are incarnate. The main postulate of Christianity is that matter is important, the spirit works through matter, a person becomes a Christian through baptism by water, s/he accepts consecration through bread and wine—the Body and Blood of Christ. We are not non-material.

Iryna Slavinska:  How can one work with this? For example, from time to time the pope publicly asks for forgiveness for the sins of the Church, ranging from the Inquisition to the persecution of gay people. It seems to me that there is a reaction to society’s questions as to what is more sensitive to the defense of rights. Here one can talk about very different people. Do you see this challenge? How can one work with this, when it is necessary to oversee hastily trained priests?

Borys Gudziak:  Our ability to accept the Other, his dignity, dignity granted by God, is a challenge for all of us.

For example, [take] the life of a man and wife. An excursion to Hoverla takes place, he gets down on one knee and asks her to marry him. The wedding, one child, another… Then, either because of the bottle or another man or another woman, this falls apart. And the Church must pick this up. Every educator knows how traumatized children are following their parents’ divorce.

Our capacity to traumatize even our families is simply astounding. This is called sin. That is why we, together with the bishop, are the first to bow to the ground with the words: “…sinners, of whom I am first.” We ourselves will not cope. We need supernatural grace for our natural weaknesses.

I have varied experience with getting people together. So, I know what success is when there are no curses, when there are no bullets, when people are not fighting. Basic peace is a very great thing.

I am very grateful to His Grace Lubomyr [Husar], whom I knew for practically fifty years. He was a pastor in the state of New York, he spent time at Plast camps, summer vacation resorts, where my parents brought me to—that is where I first saw him, when I was five or six years old. Later he was my confessor during my studies at the seminary, during the times of Patriarch Yosyf [Slipyj] in Rome in 1980–1983. Later we worked closely in Ukraine. His slogan, which became very famous in Ukraine, was “I want to be human.”

I want to be human and accept others. Whether you have a miter or a cassock, whether you are a man or a woman—this is a challenge for everyone.

How many educated people, specialists in the Humanities, behave themselves very inhumanely! I did my graduate studies at Harvard and was witness to how badly they treat their graduates, how ready they are to destroy a colleague’s reputation in order to gain a position. I remember horrible polemics, when Roman Jakobson denigrated George Shevelov and set all his students against him. This is one historical incident, I am talking about people who are already deceased, but the same thing happens among living people—at the Sorbonne and the Academy of Arts...

Iryna Slavinska:  This also happens among people without education.

Borys Gudziak:  Of course, but people with education view themselves as superior, more experienced.

Life is complex. You have to know how to laugh at yourself and your pretensions, poses. To see your weakness and rubbish, to see the beauty, charms, and mystery of another person. The Prayer of St. Ephrem, which we say during genuflections, says: “Grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother” or my sister.

The challenge is there. The Church, the Gospel, and Christ are not to blame that we, people, are not up to par. We try but are not always successful.

Iryna Slavinska:  In Marta Bohachevska-Chomiak’s book Bilym po bilomu [White on White] you can find quite a few pages devoted to women’s organizations that worked to form a civic society. These were educational, charitable, and human rights organizations, and they interacted with the Church. Together they founded kindergartens, schools, campaigned for sobriety, etc. Is this kind of work being continued today? I assume that it may not be called a “human rights” organization, but in fact it may be one.

Borys Gudziak:  Human rights defense work is taking place. Myroslav Marynovych has devoted his entire life to this.

In the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, during the period that Marta Bohachevska-Chomiak is writing about, one of the few honorary doctors of the UCU, certain traditions were established. We are trying to revive them, but mutatis mutandis—in new circumstances.

For example, today it is very difficult to create and maintain a school, and church schools existed earlier. There are more than a thousand Catholic universities throughout the world, but in Ukraine, with four million Greek Catholics, there is one university. This is the UCU. Today it boasts the highest students’ average score.

If a university, serving the poor, chaplaincy at the front can offer the hope, attest, this is transmitted further. It is satisfying for me to see young priests and young lay people who are studying the theories of social questions, and also striving to become engaged in them. This is a process, there are various obstacles here. In France there is laïcité, in Ukraine there is separation of the Church from the state.

Iryna Slavinska:  And despite this separation, in Ukraine the possibility for churches to found schools has been liberalized.

Borys Gudziak:  It has been liberalized. But let’s compare with Canada, also a secular country, where parents who choose a Catholic school for their child know that the money from their taxes will go to that school with their child. Today in the U.S. Catholic schools are disappearing, although there was a large network earlier. Similarly, the Ukrainian state is not investing in the UCU, which is educating Ukrainian citizens. Perhaps this will change.

Iryna Slavinska:  Maybe the fact that it is not financing is for the better.

Borys Gudziak:  This is my mantra, because who pays the piper calls the tune. We will be free if we do not owe anyone anything.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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