Opinion & Features

The Catholic university rebuilding trust in a post-communist society

The Ukrainian Catholic University (uculeadership.com.ua)

In 1945-46, Stalin set out to liquidate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. A Church of four million people was destroyed in all of its public manifestations. Its leadership was arrested, exiled and killed. Remnants continued to operate clandestinely in the catacombs. Many others experienced untold suffering under Soviet rule.

We recall these events not only to remember the horrors of the past, but also to understand how they condition what Ukraine is and who Ukrainians are today.

The impact of authoritarian or totalitarian rule is long-lasting. It’s like radiation: you can’t see it, smell it or taste it, but its effects are lethal, creating a cancer on society, mutating the God-given gift and vocation for human interaction and relations. We human beings, created in God’s image and likeness, are endowed with the capacity to relate and interact, to give and receive, to trust. How to restore trust in a society that has been so broken? How to recreate confidence in people who have suffered unspeakable violence and wanton corruption?

There are no easy answers, but one response is being offered by the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv. The UCU is the only Catholic university in the northern expanse of Eurasia between Poland and Japan. For 25 years this institution, which has as its cornerstone a faculty of theology and philosophy, has sought to help young leaders of the future reflect on the challenges of human, family, social and international relations in light of revelation, the Gospels and Catholic social doctrine.

Today there are six faculties, including a business school effectively fostering corporate social responsibility throughout the country. UCU’s school of journalism, and programmes in theology, history, social work, sociology, human rights law, philology and rehabilitation medicine, are all among the best in a country with hundreds of universities. The computer sciences programme has set new national standards for the discipline.

The most talented students from all corners of the land flock to this school because of its educational standards and pedagogical approaches which sometimes set the benchmark for the entire country’s system of higher education. Incoming UCU students have four per cent higher average grades in the national entrance exams than the next university in the rankings.

In a short time in a country where Greek Catholics constitute a mere eight per cent of the population and Latin Catholics just one per cent, a Catholic university is considered not only a compelling brand but also a multi-faceted witness to the possibilities of the future. All of this occurs without a single penny of state funding.

One can continue the list of accomplishments, but more important for UCU’s identity as a school of life ­­– as articulated in St John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University – and for those people from lands far away who support the university, is what lies behind its success. The secret is this: UCU is a Christian post-communist laboratory of human dignity. It is built on two pillars, the two Ms: the martyrs and the marginalised.

During two years of preparation in 1992-1994 for the opening of UCU’s first faculty (theology), an Institute of Church History was founded. It initiated a comprehensive oral history of the experiences of the catacomb Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and (the “first M”) the martyrs. The project continues to this day with more than 2,500 interviews conducted, 150,000 pages of transcribed depositions, and thousands of documents and photographs assembled.

The second pillar – the second M – is the marginalised. Following the spirituality and example of Jean Vanier and the L’Arche and Faith and Light movements, UCU has fostered a relationship with people with special needs. At the heart of this ambitious intellectual community people with mental health problems were welcomed.

This was not a social project or a handout. In a society wounded by violence and social manipulation where people are guarded in their interpersonal relations, our friends with special needs share special gifts. They are professors of trust and human relations. They do not care about status, entrance exams, grades, affluence or power. With their whole being, they ask one fundamental question, which is the most important pedagogical question confronting a young student preparing for life: can you love?

The two Ms are the basis for everything else. Such cornerstones and such a construction are unusual, radical, perhaps even counterintuitive for many. And yet it is these persons, the martyrs and the marginalised, and the principles and qualities that characterise them, which have rendered the UCU community prophetic.

We live in an era when family relationships and human interactions are challenged by the virtuality of communication. UCU invites its students to meet the martyrs and the marginalised face to face. This helps them to transcend the borders and challenges of a country plagued by violence and enduring what has become a little-recognised but pernicious invasion and war.

At a time when so much in the Western world is coming unglued, in Church and in society, the cohesion fostered in this relatively small (1,900 students) academic community gives much hope.

The Most Rev Borys Gudziak is the Archbishop-Metropolitan for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia. To support the Ukrainian Catholic University, visit supporting.ucu.edu.ua/en/donate