Created in God’s image and likeness we, human beings, are meant to be free. Free as persons and communities, free as peoples and nations.
Freedom is God’s will. Freedom is God’s gift. It always was and remains today a struggle to receive and safeguard this gift. Sometimes the struggle is titanic and tragic, because many abuse freedom and authority to dominate and violate others—in families, in communities, even in Churches. In modern times the greatest human devastation was wrought by those who violated the freedom and dignity of entire peoples and nations, negating their faith, cultures, languages, political self-determination, their very existence. Purges, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide were used cynically and without pity to strip away the gift of freedom, to subjugate, to affect total control. In the twentieth century, Ukraine was a global epicenter of violence and tyranny experienced by different nationalities, ethnic groups and religious communities—Ukrainians, Jews, Crimean Tatars, Roma, Poles . . .
Twenty-eight years ago, after centuries of foreign rule, Ukraine achieved national independence. Any Ukrainian old enough to remember recalls the jubilation of August 1991. Do you remember where you were? I, at the time of the putsch and the declaration of independence, was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, completing chapter two of my dissertation. It was a long, hot summer. I vividly remember how in Moscow the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky was removed by crane. The founder of the murderous Soviet secret police was hanging by the neck. We, in turn, hung on every bit of news: the joyful telephone calls, the pictures of the giant Ukrainian flag carried into the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. In elation I went jogging—flying! —along the Charles River. After so many years and sacrifices . . . . FREEDOM!
My people are free at last! Our Church is free. Our language will have full civil rights. Ukrainian culture will flourish. The genocidal history is finally in the past!
Well, yes and no, for today there is a war in Ukraine . . . a war for freedom.
And yet the freedom is real. Not ideal, not perfect, not yet complete. The quality of social and economic justice leaves much to be desired. A quiet despotism, in fact, pervades the courts. Corruption captivates, as do personal and communal faults and flaws. Many citizens are slaves to alcohol, victims of domestic violence or child abuse. Even more suffer from poverty, poor medical care, depression, and war-generated post-traumatic shock. The country’s character and society need reform. Conversion is necessary to safeguard the poor, the marginalized and handicapped, the old and unborn—from the Carpathians to the Donbas, from Chornobyl to Yalta. There is no longer a genocide, but millions have emigrated—not by free choice, but out of dire necessity.
Still, no reasonable person can deny that progress in liberty is real. Paradoxically, Ukrainians—though dying today for their freedom—enjoy it as never before. They are free as never before to be themselves. They are at liberty to travel, to leave and to come back. To speak and write in their own language without fear of repression or shame. Never before were there so many Ukrainian books published, never before was Ukrainian cultural expression so varied and vital: literature and art, music and film, the global Ukrainian internet presence. The emancipation of conscience and confession is unprecedented. The Orthodox have gained autocephaly; Greek Catholics, yesterday banned and driven underground, today can inspire the capital and every oblast. On the global scene, only in Ukraine, apart from Israel, are the heads of both state and government (the president and prime-minister)—Jews. Muslim Crimean Tatars find refuge in Kyiv and Lviv from the occupation regime tormenting their homeland. Freedom-loving Russian democrats migrate from Russia to Ukraine to exercise and propagate those liberties denied them at home.
The liberties are not only those of identity, culture, and spirit. Never before were there so many professional and economic opportunities for Ukrainian women and men. Never were there so many Ukrainian universities, such prospects for advancement. Never did Ukrainians possess so many commodities, so many cars, enjoy so much living space in housing. Never before could they communicate and create with such abandon. Never before could Ukrainians choose their representatives and leaders in government with less constraint. Unthinkable at the time of independence, today the country is among the leaders in global computer technology. The global presence and influence of Ukrainians is on the rise. The country and the world have never been so Ukrainian.
In gratitude we salute those who were and are willing to die for our freedom and dignity. We salute those who are determined to live free and to inspire others to appreciate and own their sense of liberty.
Facing the paradoxes of the contemporary condition the question before all Ukrainians on Independence Day is: “What should we do?” In the first place we should stay focused: each of us should try to do the right thing—everywhere and at all times. We are called to teach freedom by exemplifying responsibility. Inspired by the best we are to raise up those who are low, those who debase their own dignity, who skirt responsibility and take for granted the gift of freedom earned at a great price. This is not only a Ukrainian challenge. The challenge to work together for change is felt in the cradle of modern democracy, in the United States, and in the rest of the world.
Today we celebrate independence from evil and oppression, from those who kill body and soul, extinguish our history and colonize our future. But our celebration is not only against or in contrast to something. Independence is a positive choice. It is not simple separation or dissension. We cannot be free of dependence on each other. We cannot free ourselves from truth, from principles, from values. Emancipation from God was the essential ideological dogma behind every genocide of the twentieth century. In fact, we should hold fast to the truth no matter the price. Ukraine demonstrates that independence comes at great cost. We are grateful to those who contributed to it. We realize that in the end, the responsibility for the future belongs not only to the heroes but to all of us.
Today, many Ukrainians on the front lines, in destitute villages and anonymous cities live in depression, fear and anxiety. There are many causes for this: war, occupation, torture by the enemy, poverty and corruption among our own, urban alienation, fragmentation of the family, distrust in interpersonal relations. Everyone can find an excuse to lose hope, to abandon the pilgrimage from fear to dignity. But for all of us Independence Day is rather a call to action, to respond to the challenges. One cannot be free by surrendering, giving up, doing nothing. Freedom entails love and service and responsibility.
Back then, in 1991, from the banks of the Charles River, I ran, I flew to Ukraine. What a privilege it was to participate in the construction of a new society, the birth of a new nation. What a joy it was to partake in the positive transformations over the last 28 years. How proud I am that seven graduates of the Ukrainian Catholic University in a few days will become members of the new Ukrainian parliament. How I pray that they and their new colleagues do the right thing.
Having returned to the US, I pray with Americans and Ukrainians that we see that God’s grace is the foundation and fabric of our freedom. I celebrate in Philadelphia, the cradle of modern democracy, the pulpit of American independence, the first US capital. Here I will be with my fellow Ukrainians in spirit, deed, and joy. May the bell of liberty continue to ring from country to country, from heart to heart.
May the gratitude for the gift of freedom fortify our faith and courage. May the witnesses of those who give and live their life for freedom be our example. Let us embrace each other like brothers and sisters sharing the peace and joy that true freedom brings.
Go for a run, go for a swim, raise a toast of recognition for the gift of life and liberty. Будьмо!
Archbishop Borys Gudziak is
Metropolitan for Ukrainian Catholics in the US and
President of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv