Archbishop denounces “completely amoral” Russian war in Ukraine on anniversary of invasion
Archbishop Borys Gudziak, archeparch of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, recently returned home from his sixth trip to Ukraine since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, 2022. The motivation behind his trip was not only to find ways to continue to support humanitarian efforts in the country, but to give hope and encouragement by expressing solidarity with Ukraine.
Archbishop Gudziak told Our Sunday Visitor, “I went to listen to the pain, to gently touch the wounds, and [listen] to the need.” In the course of our conversation, he discussed the trauma Ukrainians are suffering, the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in the conflict, and why the United States should continue to provide military support to Ukrainian defense efforts.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Our Sunday Visitor: How have the needs of Ukrainians changed since the invasion last year? What are some of the things that people really need now, and where are humanitarian projects at work?
Archbishop Borys Gudziak: More than 30% of the economy has been knocked out. From October on, 40% of the power infrastructure, especially the electricity, was damaged. Since the Russians rained down rockets on the energy infrastructure of the Ukrainian people, despite efforts to repair it, there are blackouts throughout the country. Last month, hundreds of thousands of generators were brought into the country through the generosity of the international community. Additionally, there is a continuing need for medicine and medical supplies.
But do you know what a growing and long term, maybe multi-generational, need is? Addressing trauma. Everybody is traumatized. The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Archbishop Shevchuk, has said, “We are all traumatized by what is happening.” In Ukraine, you never know when the next 9/11 is going to hit you. Rockets, you know, are being shot into all different parts of the country.
Our Sunday Visitor: What has been the impact of defense supplies and efforts of the international community?
Archbishop Gudziak: Because of the defense assistance that has been offered by the international community, but chiefly by the United States, the Ukrainian air defense systems are knocking out between 70 to 80% of the missiles that are being sent and make it very clear that President Putin has decided to fight the whole country. He has decided to fight the people of the country, fight the children of the country, the mothers, by bombing their homes and by hitting their supermarkets. It’s dangerous to go out on the street because you never know when there will be long-range artillery fire, missiles landing or, in the last months, Iranian drones have been coming in.
The world has seen these different examples in different cities. Children have been killed. On the streets people have been ripped apart by shrapnel in the courtyards of their apartment buildings. Private dwellings, whether they are houses or apartment complexes, have been devastated by missile fire or assaults from these drones.
When visitors come in, they’re all surprised how people continue to carry on. But it is not without effect. People are strong, but the attempt to break their will has made them angry and furious. This war is wanton; it is completely amoral. It is a total war against the entirety of the population, not just against the military. And the people carry on. Their resolve is strong, but there is tremendous fatigue.
Our Sunday Visitor: In many ways this conflict has been going on since the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. But now that the severity of the war has increased so fiercely this past year, what do you say to people in your conversations? In Ukraine, you represent the Catholic Church in the United States; how do you try to encourage the people of Ukraine?
Archbishop Gudziak: The most important thing is not to speak but to listen.
We don’t have words that can fix the devastation or explain the paradox. But we can offer solidarity. Being with people, praying with people, praying for people.
In some of the news from Bakhmut, all the soldiers say is just pray. Just keep praying for us. And if you could ask your readers to pray for the defenders of the innocent, who are standing like David against Goliath — a small country that gave up its nuclear weapons and that reduced its army by 90% — has been attacked by a superpower with the second biggest nuclear arsenal and it’s resisting. But at great cost.
There is no clear information or estimates, but I have one source that said there’s over 60,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed. The number of Russian soldiers killed could be 150,000. They’ve been thrown into the fighting like cannon fodder. They’re treated as meat.
There are a number of stories in Western media that have brought out video and testimonies of the Wagner soldiers, the mercenary group that absorbed 40,000 criminals, murderers and others who were brought out of prison with a promise for amnesty if they fought for six months. Apparently, a substantial percentage of them have been killed within months of joining the Russian invasion force. It is diabolical. It has all the traits of the work of the devil, the father of lies. It brings death and devastation.
Our Sunday Visitor: Can you speak about the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the current conflict?
Archbishop Gudziak: The collaboration of the Russian Church is utterly scandalous. Not a single one of the 300 bishops in Russia has spoken out against the war. The head of the Church and many other hierarchs use Jihadist language.
When you say, “Go to war, where you will kill, where your partners and comrades in arms are committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Go there, and if you die, all your sins will be forgiven.” That is equivalent to what? Radical Islamist terrorism. This terrorism aided and abetted by a warped theology is encouraged by the very head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill. And it’s echoed throughout the Russian Orthodox Church, which is losing the last remnants of its moral authority and credibility.
Our Sunday Visitor: What should Catholics in the United States do to respond to this positioning of the Russian Orthodox Church concerning the war? What about Christian values more broadly in Russia?
Archbishop Gudziak: Prayer is very important. It’s very important to continue informing people. Unfortunately, there are many conservatives who care for family life, for the sacredness of life, for Christian principles, who are now moving away from supporting Ukraine. Some even, unbelievably, think that President Putin is a defender of traditional values.
It should be emphasized that Russia has been for the last decades the number one country in terms of abortions in the world. Putin has led Russia for 23 years and has done nothing to change that fact. Alcoholism, divorce and suicide are rampant, and corruption is the modality of social, political and economic growth in Russia.
There’s a clear black-and-white imperative here to stand for objective moral truth. And the truth is connected to freedom. And the truth about Russian imperialism and Russian colonialism needs to be made clear. It’s the last of the European colonial empires.
There’s a faith in God and a faith in eternity that this inspires. Not with everybody. Some people get brutalized and they argue with God or they reject God altogether. As the saying goes, in the foxholes there’s no atheists. Ukraine is one big foxhole. Prayer moves mountains. Prayer brought down the Soviet Union and prisoner of nations, the evil empire as Ronald Reagan called it. And this is what the people in the foxholes and the refugees are asking for. They’re asking for prayer.
Our Sunday Visitor: And what if Russia wins the current conflict and occupies Ukraine for an extended period?
Archbishop Gudziak: Russian occupation brings genocide. We have historical and contemporary evidence of this in Ukraine, where 15 million people were killed in the 20th century. Everywhere there’s been Russian occupation, there have been war crimes. There are thousands of cases of war crimes that are being documented.
And for the Catholic community, it’s important to know that every time there’s a Russian occupation, the Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic Church in union with Rome, gets strangled; it gets liquidated as a visible structure. It’s driven into the catacombs. This happened in the 18th century and then in the 19th century under the tsars. It happened under the Russian communists in the 20th century, and it’s happening under Putin in the 21st in the three eastern regions that are partially occupied.
In Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia — the occupied Russian territory — there are no more active Catholic priests. About a month ago, two Redemptorist priests, after serving under occupation for an extended period of time, were suddenly arrested. Weapons were planted on their premises, and they’re being tortured to force them to admit to planning an insurrection against the occupiers.
Two other priests who were held have been recently released from the so-called filtration camps. These are concentration camps where people are strip searched. They’re searched, for example, for tattoos that might express Ukrainian patriotism. Anybody that expresses support for Ukrainian independence and ends up in these filtration camps is in danger of death.
Thousands of children have been deported to Russia. The children along with the other adult deportees are being spread out. Part of the definition of genocide includes not only the direct killing of people but dispersing people so that the national integrity or the ethnic integrity of a people is undermined.
Ukraine is defending European and global democracy. If Ukraine were to succumb to this Russian neocolonialism, you can bet we’d have a war around Taiwan. You can bet that dictators on different continents would be emboldened. And it would cost not only American taxpayers exponentially more, but you can be sure that there would be American lives lost. Ukrainians are sacrificing their lives. And this is saving the lives of people around the world. Defending Ukraine — freedom and democracy in Ukraine, the freedom of religion in Ukraine — is the best investment Americans can make.
Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, is editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickMaryOP.