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Restoring Human Dignity

By Katrina J. Zeno
In Ukraine, the communists not only created an economic disaster, they destroyed human dignity.

Catholic Channel - -

An interview with Dr. Damian Fedoryka, regarding Ukraine’s struggles after communism

Dr. Damian Fedoryka has been active since 1992 in the effort to rebuild the Ukrainian Catholic Church after the fall of communism. This fast-moving interview focuses on, first, the efforts of the Church to instruct a generation taught to believe that God does not exist, and second, the widespread suffering and hardship caused by the collapsed state of the Ukrainian economy. Dr. Fedoryka is involved in the training of seminarians and catechizing university students; his stories of the re-emerging faith of young Ukrainians are refreshing and inspiring.

Imagine receiving $6 a month for maternity leave, and paying $10 for a package of Pampers. Imagine working in a factory that hasn’t paid you for six months. Imagine cramming three generations into a four-room apartment.

Welcome to Ukraine, where the average number of abortions per married woman is four, where your name comes last on the mailing address (and the state first), and where 3 million ethnic Ukrainians died in 1933 when the Russians placed armed guards around the harvested grain to create an artificial famine. This is a land stripped not only of natural resources, but also of human dignity.

"The U.S.S.R. came in, collectivized, and destroyed human dignity," says philosophy professor Dr. Damian Fedoryka, who left Ukraine via horse and carriage when he was 3 ½ years old. "It created despair, alcoholism, break up of family life, and loss of self-esteem."

When Dr. Fedoryka returned to his homeland in 1989, memories flooded back: his father catching fish bare-handed in the stream, the smell of harvested hay and potatoes, his father being arrested by two plain-clothed Nazis, and the bomb that dropped 50 feet in front of their house. "Because I was so young, I didn’t have a sense of tragedy or suffering," he says. "It was a time of adventure."

That spirit of adventure came in handy as Dr. Fedoryka joined the effort to rebuild the Ukrainian Catholic Church in 1992. Just one year before, the country had declared its independence, and a Catholic seminary established at a rundown summer camp. Despite primitive conditions, dirty toilet facilities, and a military-type field oven, spirits were running high among the 350 seminarians. The Catholic Church, which had been outlawed for 50 years in western Ukraine, and 70 years in eastern Ukraine, was finally above ground.

"The seminarians desperately needed theological and philosophical formation," Dr. Fedoryka says. "Some had studied in the underground, but they’d gotten their theology on little slips of paper that they had to copy and hide."

Using his training in ethics, personalism, and the thought of Pope John Paul II, Dr. Fedoryka began the arduous task of retraining Ukrainians to think in Christian philosophical categories, instead of materialistic ones. "One Christian psychologist was teaching seminarians that the soul is very refined matter," he says.

Instead, Dr. Fedoryka introduced Pope John Paul II’s concept of the human person as created in the image and likeness of the Trinity for a sincere gift of self. He unmasked modern theories of self-actualization, autonomy, and free market economy that promote a view of man based on acquisition and self-appropriation.  He also confronted radical feminism and passive masculinity by detailing the receptive dimension of women and the responsibility of men to transform the world.

"Some sit there entranced," Dr. Fedoryka says. "They’re hearing for the first time what it means to be a human person and also the incredible stupidity of contemporary theories."

In addition to lecturing at the seminary two or three times a year, Dr. Fedoryka teaches at a summer catechetical institute that trains Christian ethics’ teachers for state grammar and middle schools. He also travels and speaks for Obnova ("Renew"), a Catholic student organization that was revived in 1992 after being stamped out under communism. One of its student presidents, Yuriy Kolasa, never imagined he’d be promoting Christian faith and morals among university students.

"Until I was 15, I accepted the communist regime and all its ideology as the real truth," he says. "I believed the communist party’s intention was to build a just society, to help people, and to take care of them."

What Yuriy didn’t know was that his great uncle had been sent to Siberia—and that an imminent military threat to the U.S.S.R. was only propaganda.  "We were educated to think that the West was preparing an attack, and we had to protect our country," he says.  "Eighty percent of the Soviet economy was based on the military. Eighty percent of people’s salaries went to the government, with 64 percent going to military build up."

At home, Yuriy’s family never spoke against the regime for fear of repercussions, nor did his parents speak of God. His grandmother, however, ventured a bit further.  "She kept telling my sister and me that there is a God," he recalls.  "She didn’t ask us to publicly manifest our faith, but to at least believe in our hearts and keep something holy inside that would not be totally destroyed."

Meanwhile, the communists represented priests and believers as uneducated, even mentally unstable. By the 1980s, there were no young people in church according to Yuriy.

Then, in 1985, glasnost hit and a different Soviet face emerged. "When the truth came, it was so hard," Yuriy says. "I read stories of people who were killed or sent to Siberia, including children. The people we had trusted lied to us and used us."

As a result of this destroyed trust, thousands of young people streamed into the Greek Catholic Church from 1989 to 1992, including Yuriy. He even began considering a vocation to the priesthood, until he told his mother. "When I told her I’d like to enter the Greek Catholic seminary, she started crying," he says. "She was afraid I would harm my family because if the communists returned to power, my whole family would be sent to Siberia, and my parents would lose their jobs."

Deciding to honor the Fifth Commandment to obey his parents, Yuriy enrolled at a civil university and completed his degree in engineering. While at the university, he met his wife, Iryna, who was studying economics and was a part of the Catholic student organization. For her, the student group was a welcome refuge for the faith she’d always known.

"My grandmother taught me all the prayers, and we celebrated the feast days in our home," she says. "We didn’t go to church every Sunday because it was too risky, but we went on Easter and Christmas." As a little girl, Iryna didn’t know God was a taboo subject: She taught Christmas carols to her kindergarten classmates, prompting her teacher’s intervention. "She asked my parents not to teach me these songs because she didn’t want to have to report us," Iryna says. When other teachers matter-of-factly referred to God’s nonexistence, Iryna couldn’t keep silent: "That’s not true," she would say.

"God is in the world."

God’s presence in the world is a truth that Iryna and Yuriy cling to especially now as their country experiences economic disaster. "Elderly people receive a pension of $5 or $10 a month," Iryna says. "I can’t imagine how or where they get the money to live." For some people, it means selling whatever material goods they still possess; for others, it’s begging in the street. "It breaks my heart to see so many people begging," Iryna says. "It’s difficult to live in a time of revolution because everything is changing."

Those changes, however, have also allowed Yuriy to leave his country and study at the pontifical International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria. A surprising benefactor—former U.S. security advisor George Clark—made his doctoral-level training in theology possible. "Under communism, we all knew Mr. Clark’s name because he was the biggest enemy of the Soviet Union according to the propaganda," Yuriy says. "Now he’s funding scholarships for Eastern Europeans out of his own pocket. It shows you the real intention of Western society to help."

It’s an intention that Dr. Fedoryka hopes will galvanize the West on behalf of Ukraine, not only financially, but also spiritually. "The Western Church can help by being places of renewal," he says. "The Ukraine needs financial help desperately, but even more so, the West needs to understand that its society is decaying, dissolving. A price has been put on human dignity."

While Ukraine struggles with an inflation rate of 100 percent, idle factories, and widespread unemployment, economic renewal is indeed a critical factor for this country of 50 million. But it must be accompanied by a new understanding of the human person. "The most important thing in both the East and West is restoring a sense of human dignity," Dr. Fedoryka says. "Not because it will save human institutions, but for its own sake."

Copyright © 2000 Katrina J. Zeno

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