'Pray for the conversion of Vladimir Putin': Philadelphia's Ukrainian archbishop reacts to Russian invasion

MC 11719 CEC Conference 06 Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia. | Matt Cashore / Notre Dame de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture.

The Ukrainian Archbishop of Philadelphia fears that the Russian invasion will again lead to the suppression of Catholicism in Ukraine, worrying that leading Catholic figures are on a “hit list.”

Those watching the situation in Ukraine should “pray, be informed and help” through organizations like Aid to the Church in Need, he said. They should also remember that Vladimir Putin was formed under the KGB and that Russian Orthodoxy has become captive to an ideology of the “Russian world.”

“We pray for the defenders of Ukraine,” Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia said March 5. “We pray for the people, for the refugees. We pray for the conversion of Vladimir Putin. We pray that as we begin Lent and go through it to your resurrection, we realize that every crucifixion is lived in you.”

His prayer came in an interview via Zoom with George Marlin, chairman of Aid to the Church in Need – USA. Aid to the Church in Need, founded in 1947, is an international Catholic charity that supports both pastoral and humanitarian work.  It presently backs more than 5,000 projects in 149 countries, and has been active in Ukraine for 74 years.  

The archbishop reflected on the history of Russian involvement in Ukraine.

“Every time there’s a Russian occupation of any part of Ukraine where, for example, the Ukrainian Catholic Church is ministering, the Ukrainian Catholic Church is strangled and eventually rendered illegal and maybe extinguished,” Gudziak told Aid to the Church in Need – USA. “This has happened over almost 250 years. It’s happened at least four times.”

In the present day, Catholics are not alone, he noted: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Muslims in Crimea, and Jews and Protestants have suffered as well, said the 61-year-old archbishop. Since 2014, the Russian occupation in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has been “devastating” to the churches and other religions.

The latest Russian invasion has prompted further concerns.

“An Orthodox priest has been killed and it is pretty clear that the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, (Archbishop) Sviatoslov Shefchuk is on the hit list,” Gudziak said. “He has been in a safe house. He’s moving around from bomb shelter to bomb shelter in the capital of the country. I think many bishops and priests are in an analogous situation.”

Gudziak has been archbishop in Philadelphia since 2019. He is director of external affairs for the Ukrainian Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church with some 3.6 million members in Ukraine alone.

The archbishop was born in New York to immigrant parents but moved to Kyiv in 1992 and lived for several decades in Ukraine. In his remarks to Aid to the Church in Need, the archbishop discussed the war.

Aid to the Church in Need raised the question of whether holy sites like the Monastery of the Caves, which houses may Christian relics, could be destroyed.

“When indiscriminate rocket fire begins, anything can be hit,” Gudziak replied. He cited a report from Archbishop Shevchuk which said intelligence showed that the Russians intended to destroy Kyiv’s 1,000-year-old Church of St. Sophia. The American archbishop described this church as “the symbolic sign of Ukrainian spiritual life and spiritual unity.”

As for Putin, the archbishop worried “the problem is we're dealing with a ruler who as a young man made a step in a diabolical direction.”

“He became a KGB operative. And in the Soviet Union, working for the KGB was something that was considered unconscionable. I mean, you sold your soul to the Communist system of repression,” he said of Putin. “And he’s been in that mindset for 50 years. He’s explicit about recovering that legacy. He considers that the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he wants to rebuild an empire of those proportions. And he’s thinking, as Stalin did, well, ‘how many divisions does the Pope have?’”

“The Pope and Christians have spiritual warfare,” the archbishop said.

To the question of the Russian Orthodox Church’s endorsement of the war, Gudziak said that Church is “still in a colonial mindset” that has only strengthened in the last 15 years. This contrasts with most Christian churches which are revisiting their history and the role they might have played in colonization and empire building, “recognizing it has nothing to do with the Gospel and with God's will.”

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Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has developed an “ideological construct” of the “Russian world” which treats any lands that had been part of the Russian empire as part of his Church’s canonical territory. These lands are where the Russian Orthodox Church must guide society and have an impact. In Gudziak’s view, Putin has taken this concept of the “Russian world” for his own purposes.

“This is really scandalous,” said Gudziak. “The Patriarch, and his main spokesman, Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the Department of External Church Affairs, are not able to speak truth to power. They are not able to speak out clearly in defense of the orphans and widows that are being multiplied. They don't defend the schools and universities and hospitals that are being destroyed. It's a major problem. It's a major problem for the Russian Orthodox Church and for Russian society.”

“This is not a war that Russia is waging because NATO was threatening Ukraine. Ukraine, of course, is not threatening Russia,” he said. He cited Ukraine’s surrender of its nuclear arsenal for guarantees of territorial integrity from Russia, the U.K., and the U.S. It had reduced its army from 900,000 in 1991 to 6,000 in 2014.

“Ukraine was not a threat. The real threat is the democracy, the spirit, the freedom of the press, the civic society that developed in Ukraine,” the archbishop said. “That virus, if it passed to Russia, would create great danger to an autocracy, a kleptocratic oligarchy, which Putin runs and is fostering. And he wants that kind of system globally.”

As Gudziak sees the world, this kind of system is in place in China and Venezuela. He noted that Putin is supporting “authoritarian tendencies” and has shown friendliness towards Indian Prime Minister Modi and Brazil’s President Bolsonaro.

“Putin is not a defender of traditional values,” Gudziak added.  He pointed to Russia’s extremely high abortion rate and “astronomic” rates of alcoholism, divorce, and corruption.

“These spiritual, moral indicators are much better in secular Netherlands than they are in Russia,” he said.

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Gudziak discussed the world’s reaction to the Russian invasion and welcomed prayers and Church outreach to refugees.

“The Catholic Church in Poland has taken a prophetic stance and is leading all of Polish society in receiving the refugees … they're being received very warmly, very generously,” he said.

The archbishop also stressed the need to pray.

“We’re very grateful that Churches throughout the world are praying and prayer is very important,” he said. “Prayer brought the Soviet Union down. It wasn’t a war, it wasn’t an army. It was the blood of martyrs, God’s Grace and years of prayer and the kind of work that Aid to the Church in Need did, educating people and calling people to pray for the fall of communism.”

“We saw the incredible power of a tyranny of a totalitarian state armed to his teeth with nuclear weapons, with limitless resources for repression, (yet) that Soviet Union was not able to snuff out the Church,” the archbishop continued. “The Ukrainian Catholic Church was reduced from 3000 priests to 300. Those 300 priests in the end were serving only 1% of the pre-World War II population because in the underground you can't have big gatherings and today [the Church] has 3000 priests. Again, we see that authoritarian powers can do great damage to Christians, to Catholics—China is an example today—but the Church will prevail.”

“We have prayer, we have grace, and we can see that morally Ukraine has won this war. The whole world is united today around Ukraine,” he said. The war “united a fractured Europe” and brought together North Atlantic partners.

“This moral foundation is what the Church works with, what Jesus preaches, what is God's will for us, and it prevails, but it often entails great suffering,” Gudziak continued. Despite the “excruciating suffering” and the “crucifixion” of these Christians, he said, “there will be an Easter.”

“God is the Lord of history. And for over 2,000 years, beginning with Golgotha, beginning with the emperors of Rome and tyrants, for 2,000 years there’s been countless attempts to destroy the Church and kill Christians. But the faith lives. It's passed on and the Church prevails,” he said.

The archbishop asked the faithful to “pray that the walls of Jericho will fall in front of prayer.”

He encouraged generous gifts to Aid to the Church in Need.

“This is an organization that knows how to help. It knows where to help. It does it in the name of Jesus,” he said. “It helps the Church in need globally, and it will effectively help the Churches in Ukraine.”

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