Ukraine's University of the Catacombs

Ukraine's University of the Catacombs

Andrew Kania

The Orthodox theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan, once described Metropolitan Andrii Sheptys'kyi with the words that he was "the most influential figure ... in the entire history of the Ukrainian Church in the twentieth century."

Overseeing the direction and protection of the Ukrainian Catholic Church for nearly half a century as its Primate, Sheptyt'skyi set in place the structures within his Church that would see its eventual survival against not only the oppression of the Nazi regime, but also the 45 years of Communist persecution, which were to follow.

One of Sheptys'kyi's lasting legacies was his dream of building a Ukrainian Catholic University, a place solemnly charged with the development of scholars who could not only sustain and develop the Byzantine Rite, but play a role in the spiritual as well as the political germination of Ukraine.

Sheptyts'kyi himself was a man of great education having earned three doctorates, in philosophy, theology and law, and being also fluent in a dozen European languages, as well as Hebrew.

Education for Sheptyts'kyi was the key to the survival not only of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, but the Ukrainian national identity.

Due to tensions between the Polish government and the Ukrainian population living on Polish soil, Sheptyts'kyi's ambition for a Ukrainian Catholic university did not come to fruition in his lifetime. In its place in 1928, he established the L'viv Theological Academy and appointed Reverend Iosyf Slipyj (later of Morris West's Shoes of the Fisherman fame), to be its rector.

Despite the fact that the Polish government forbade any awarding of degrees from the Academy, Sheptyts'kyi continued to plan for the time when this Academy, which by World War II had 300 students enrolled, could begin life as a recognised university. Ever the philanthropist, Sheptyts'kyi provided scholarships to students to study abroad at the universities of Vienna, Freiburg, Rome and Innsbruck, both for clergy and laity.

At the time of its closure by the Soviets, the L'viv Theological Academy had two faculties, theology/philosophy, and law. In a period of less than two decades Sheptyts'kyi's dream had become the wellspring from which some of the greatest minds of the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the 20th century were to germinate.

Tragically it was also to become the gardenbed of some of the Catholic Church's greatest martyrs of the 20th century, a by-product of the strong faith development engendered by the Academy, and the viciously oppressive persecution by the Communist regime.

Of the 25 Ukrainian Catholics beatified by Pope John Paul II on 26 June 2001, many were associated with the Theological Academy, as either staff or students.


It goes without saying that the foundations on which the Ukrainian Catholic University, finally established in 1994, now stands were dearly bought, purchased from decades of struggle and martyrdom. The Ukrainian Catholic University is today not only the first Eastern Catholic university in the world, but also the first Catholic university established in what was once the Soviet Union.

In a remarkably short space of time the University has earned itself astonishing accolades.

In an article in the Daily Telegraph in London (6 June 2009), Damian Thompson wrote: "You probably haven't heard of the Ukrainian Catholic University ... but I suspect that is going to change. For this wonderful institution offers a philosophy of teaching in radical contrast to the moribund model of Catholic further education found in this country and much of the West."

A feature article in the international magazine, The Economist (26 April 2010), praised the work of the University's rector and his colleagues: "In the evening, it is time to visit an old friend, Borys Gudziak, the inspirational rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University. In the early stages of the Second World War, the Soviet occupiers of western Ukraine murdered the university's staff and sent the students to the gulag.

"Fr Borys - a Harvard educated American-Ukrainian - has re-founded it, with spectacular results. Run on a shoestring, it has educated thousands of students in theology, philosophy, classics and other subjects (it has just launched an MBA). But it is not just an academic powerhouse: part of its mission is to provide a loving life for mentally handicapped people. Like many ex-Communist countries, Ukraine too often adheres to the shameful standards of the Soviet Union in dealing with such matters.

"Fr Borys is raising money for a grand building in which the finest accommodation will be reserved for mentally handicapped people. That teaches the students something even more valuable than what they learn in the classroom ... UCU is a jewel in Ukraine's educational system."

Today, the Ukrainian Catholic University, nearly a century after Sheptyts'kyi first dreamt of the idea, is fast taking its place on the world stage as a major player in higher education.

Not only does it have a growing reputation for academic excellence but it lives under the glowing light of men and women who in the past lived lives of faith, not merely as conjecture, or from force of habit, or cultural osmosis, but out of a deeply reasoned and committed certitude, where faith and reason are not opposed, but rather conjugal partners in the human spirit.

The Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic  University, Fr Borys Gudziak, delivered a public lecture at the University of Western Australia on 27 July 2010. Dr Andrew Thomas Kania is Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College, Perth, and also lectures at Oxford University.

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