‘He loved you, and he prayed for you’: I’m not Ukrainian, but my bishops are Ukrainian Catholic (Catholicity: Identity and Its Discontents)

‘He loved you, and he prayed for you’: I’m not Ukrainian, but my bishops are Ukrainian Catholic (Catholicity: Identity and Its Discontents) August 24, 2016
Parastas for a Priest, for Bishop Richard (Seminack), St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, 22 August 2016 - photo by me
Parastas for a Priest, for Bishop Richard (Seminack), St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, 22 August 2016 – photo by me

This is my second post in the Patheos Catholic forum ‘Catholicity: Identity and Its Discontents.’ My first post, which is equally as jumbled and full of free associations, was on the Most Holy Theotokos. Because I am still searching for clarity, I do not expect that this will be my last contribution to this forum.

I just moved to Chicago. My first Eastern Catholic series of events came soon afterward, as I attended the funeral services for Bishop Richard (Seminack). There was a parastas (memorial service) in the evening of August 22 (two nights ago) and a Divine Liturgy with a panakhyda (short memorial service) yesterday morning on August 23. Some of my astute readers have criticized me for being elusive about which of the 23 Eastern Catholic churches I belong to, as it is impossible to be all 23, so my attendance at these events should be a definitive indicator that I am Ukrainian Catholic.

But as I participated in these services, I learned there is a difference between belonging to the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC) and being Ukrainian, and I suppose this is an especially relevant point given that today is the the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ukraine’s independence.

It’s not something I’ve thought about much until moving to Chicago, to be honest. At the service I attend at the Eastern Catholic Church in Richmond, the demographic makeup of our service – which is self-consciously a mission to Asian Canadians – is mostly young and young-at-heart people, a smattering of ethnicities from Anglo-Canadian to French Canadian to Jamaican to Filipino to Chinese. There’s maybe one Ukrainian who shows up, but that’s more unusual than the Chinese exchange students and political dissidents who wander in. We do have some Ukrainians who go to an earlier morning service, which our Chinese Canadian priest also conducts, but I learned Eastern Catholicism at our Asian Canadian mission.

It never struck me as odd that I was becoming Ukrainian Catholic. For one, my priest always says, Why is it strange for a Chinese person to become Ukrainian Catholic? Most Chinese Catholics are Latins, but they’re not Italian! For another, Bishop Ken (Nowakowski) – the first Ukrainian Catholic I ever had as a bishop – tells me that in Saskatchewan, there were so many Chinese restaurants that also served Ukrainian food that he grew up thinking that Chinese were just another kind of Ukrainian. I can personally vouch for Bishop Ken on this number: his taste for all kinds of Chinese food, from north to south, is truly catholic, which means that ordering for him is a pleasure. For thirds, Fr Andriy Chirovsky has said both publicly and personally to me that one does not have to be ethnic Ukrainian to join the UGCC, as the Kyivan Church is from Ukraine but for the world. There were a lot of examples of non-Ukrainian UGCCers I met along the way that are public figures in our church – the Hieromonk Richard Soo SJ, Professor Brian Butcher, Dr Andrew Bennett (the erstwhile Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom), Fr Deacon Randolph Brown – that I became convinced that this was a thing.

But I am realizing slowly as I’ve come to Chicago – and this might be a word of humor to the catechumens at the Eastern Catholic Church in Richmond who are following after me (I was the first; they called me the proto-catechumen, which really just means that I was our temple’s guinea pig) – that this is certainly not the understanding in some other parts of our church. There was a priest who said at one of the services that the UGCC Synod had called us to evangelize, which (as he then said) meant reaching out to all the Ukrainian Americans who don’t come to church anymore – a very different philosophy from the temple I’m from, for the record. At the funeral services, I was probably the only Chinese guy, and perhaps I am self-conscious, but I feel like I got some weird stares. I hope nobody thought I was a Chinese spy; that’s not only against my Hong Kong Umbrella Movement politics, but more importantly, I think (for the record) it’s a great thing to be Ukrainian because some of the first images that I saw of Ukrainian Catholicism in action were of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, which occurred during the lead-up to the events in Hong Kong. Strictly as an issue of social and political justice, we have always prayed for Ukraine and the welfare of its people during this hybrid Russian invasion of its sovereign territory, and our service even organized an Akathist to Jesus, Light to those in Darkness for all victims of state violence, whether in Ukraine, Hong Kong, or black lives and indigenous people in the United states and Canada.

Therefore, on this twenty-fifth anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, I think it is therefore a great thing to be Ukrainian. As public intellectuals like Bishop Borys Gudziak show us (Google Translate is not perfect, but I got the gist), Ukraine itself is a gift to the world for reflecting on what it means to truly have solidarity in a civil society, especially when those bonds are attacked by an aggressor.

However, great as it is to be Ukrainian, it would be dishonest and inappropriate for me to claim that I as a person am somehow Ukrainian. If anything, I get to be ‘Asian American’ and ‘Chinese Canadian,’ but even those terms (as I’ll probably blog through another day) have serious liabilities. And even though I will be working on my Cyrillic so that I can do hukd on foniks in Ukrainian, to be able to sound out the words is really not going to make me Ukrainian.

What’s a guy like me to do in the UGCC? Do I have to learn more Ukrainian than hospody pomylui and vichnaya pamyat? What does it mean to be Ukrainian Catholic when I have no intention of becoming Ukrainian, much as I pray for Ukraine in my daily prayers and enjoy hanging out with Ukrainians?

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