BALTIMORE — Between COVID-19, secularization and polarization, Archeparch Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, has plenty of reasons to feel gloom.
Yet, during the past year, he chose instead to “surrender” himself to God, daily saying the prayer of surrender: “Jesus, I surrender my life to you, take care of everything.” And it seems to have worked, because despite the challenges, he continues to believe in the church.
“Over the centuries, many have been writing their obituary of the Body of Christ, but the body of Christ is divine,” he told Crux on Wednesday. “The mystical Body of Christ is divine. And we can find our peace in that truth.”
Born in Syracuse, New York, he spent 30 years in Europe, most of them in Ukraine, where Gudziak played a key role in funding Ukraine’s Catholic University. He then served as the head of the Greek Catholic Ukrainian eparchy of France, that also includes Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, and Switzerland. Pope Francis appointed him to Philadelphia in 2019.
The prelate spoke with Crux and what follows are excerpts of that conversation.
Crux: How was COVID for you?
Gudziak: COVID was a radical change for all of us. We all had friends who were sick or who died. In our metropolia, we had about 300 priests and religious, and 22 of them died in the first year. Not all from COVID, but we had a 7 percent mortality rate and many funerals.
But I think it was also good for me, because we couldn’t travel, and we all stayed in one place. In the meantime, it was a time of looking at the systems of our archeparchy: There were some difficult decisions that needed to be made. And subsequently, there has been great grace because we have six new priests from Ukraine. And we’ll have a seventh one in February, and hopefully I’ll be ordaining a deacon in December. So that’s a big change, because we have 64 parishes.
Was this your first in-person USCCB meeting?
No, no, I actually did before COVID, days after my enthronement , we had the first meeting, with a major, major topic that was the abuse crisis, and then another one in the fall, which I also attended. But I still feel like a novice, somebody who is just learning.
Because I spent over 30 years in Europe. And here there are about 300 bishops and most of them are new for me. And the seven years previous to coming to Philadelphia, I had spent trying to understand and get to know the bishops and the bishops’ conferences of France, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland. It’s a very different landscape, with different languages.
And different priorities, or are they more or less the same?
I think the priorities are converging: To get out of scandal, reconsider deeply the life of the Church, deal with diminishing resources and how to maintain a joyful faith going forward. I think that in some ways, the service in the Paris eparchy was very good preparation because those are some of the more secularized formerly Christian countries.
Is the United States as secularized, or going towards that?
The United States in its history was quite explicitly open and even built upon a trust in God, even in the money, every dollar says “In God we trust.” And as I was growing up, the church had emerged from the prevailing anti-Catholicism present in the elite, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. Many Catholics thought that with the election of a Catholic president, John Kennedy, the Church had kind of arrived and that the Catholic population had arrived. But there’s never an arrival on this side, we’re always on pilgrimage. And instead of the God in which America trusted, the American society developed new idols. And I’m a child of that, being born into the softest, most comfortable and most affluent society in the history of humanity. Jesus says you can’t serve Mammon and God, but we have a culture that is very Mammon-centric.
And it now has become a culture very much marked by shear. And so it is an optimum situation for announcing the good news. Because people need the good news.
It sounds as if the States has become missionary territory?
I think we’re realizing that never is the world not mission territory. Never is the Church, you know, if it is authentically following the example and words of our Lord, it has never “arrived.” We are sinful. And we’re saved. And that dichotomy is sometimes an incredible paradox. But that is the stretch that we are being made aware of now, and I think we will be humbled even more, because we see that a large percentage of youth for example, leave active practice among Roman Catholics after confirmation. From the outside there has been an increased critique of the church, sometimes very valid, but sometimes bad willed, and that also does not make life easier.
Can you give an example of that bad willed critique?
You can feel it. It concerns the Church but not only. There’s a great anti-institutionalization, there’s a skepticism towards establishments and towards institutions.
There is also a detraditionalization, a deconstruction of basic identities. What a family is, what a human being is, what a man is, what a woman is. And since the Church stands for certain “traditional views” or views that have been held by most people in most aspects of Western civilization for 2,000 years or maybe more, it’s viewed as an obstacle, as abstinent, as behind the times, irrelevant.
Of course, it’s not the first time this has happened: It happened at the time of the Enlightenment. The Church was ridiculed by Roman authorities. Our church, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, was liquidated in the Soviet period. The whole communist experiment, which between Estonia, Albania, China, and Vietnam embraced about 2 billion people, was predicated on an elimination of life of faith. And that Marxist critique is not absent from certain philosophical and cultural trends today.
Going back to the assembly, how was it for you?
It was peaceful, deep, prayerful, it began with a half day of prayer was an opportunity for many of us to go to confession. We had a beautiful Mass at the Baltimore cathedral. I think the meeting is very disappointing for the press because there was not a big fight and what everybody was predicting or fearing is not happening. The Holy Father encouraged unity, and I think we all want to be united in Christ.
As a member of the Greek Catholic Ukrainian church, you’re used to synodality. Do you have any advice for the Latin rite bishops in the United States?
It’s the same advice for all of us: Just do it. Our church has a kind of synodal governance style. I’ve been privileged to be not only in the full synod, which meets annually for 10 to 12 days. Also, for my entire episcopate, I’ve served on the permanent synod, which is like the executive committee here.
With some leadership responsibilities in the university community, and then as bishop in Paris, we worked together with colleagues to develop consensus, a lot of listening to each other. In the Paris eparchy in my last five years, we had eight three day synods with representatives from all five countries. It wasn’t simple because during coffee breaks, we would have eight languages among 80 people. There was French, Dutch, German, Italian, we used English as a lingua franca and we had three Slavic languages: Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian. And we all got along, I saw it work.
I find synodality to be a very vital and authentic way of living the life of the church.
You mentioned that you work to build consensus in your eparchy. How can that happen at the universal church level, when the reality of the church in Nigeria is very different from that of India or Venezuela?
I think in the Roman Catholic Church, because of its history, there is a confusion between consensus and uniformity. Particularly after the invention of printing, and the Council of Trent, there was a great genius in Latin Christianity of having this monolithic system spread around the globe, in Latin language, with a code of canon law, and everything kind of comes down from the top. What happened was also that local traditions had to be, let’s say, modified or even abandoned to create this uniformity. In the Christian East, we’ve had a bouquet that is sometimes chaotic, of many liturgical languages, many rites, and different styles of living the gospel.
I think that what this synodal process for the global church is called to identify is, what are the essential aspects of life in Christ that should be shared by all, and what stylistic qualities can enjoy a diversity in the global context? And that’s not an easy topic, but I think it’s very important to really trust in the Holy Spirit, to respect each other. And to have a good sense of humor.
The Holy Spirit is working … we get really tense and uptight when we think that we have to solve the issue of our salvation. When we realize that it is gift, really is that we have a God that created this universe in its immense dimension and it’s very long chronology, we can be a bit more humble about our little space and our little time in which we, you know, feel that if we don’t get it right, the world is going to fall apart.
It’s God’s Church. This year, my prayer has been the prayer of abandonment: “Jesus, I surrender my life to you, take care of everything.” And I’m also very much encouraged by the history of our church, which was supposed to be completely abolished and destroyed in recent history, and it was largely destroyed: it lost all material possessions, all infrastructure, everything, including 90 percent of its priests. And in the end, after, you know, two generations, only 1 percent was left in terms of active physical participation in services, because the number of priests were diminished and they had to serve clandestinely. There were only 300 priests and they could have secret services with just a few people. Maybe if each priest served 100 people, it’s 30,000 out of 4 million, it’s less than 1 percent. Much was left in the hearts and souls of people, but they could not participate.
And then, something miraculous happened: The Soviet Union which was armed to its teeth, with nuclear weapons, a superpower with limitless resources to persecute religion, which it did, outlawing the church, fell apart. And the church came to life again.
Over the centuries, many have been writing their obituary of the Body of Christ, but the body of Christ is divine. The mystical Body of Christ is divine. And we can find our peace in that truth.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma