January 8, 2021

Faith in the future


Our post-World War II wave of immigration set itself the goal of preserving the Ukrainian language, culture and churches until Ukraine should be free. It succeeded. For our churches, it is now time to concentrate on their primary mission.

Statistics for the Ukrainian Catholic Church, however, are not encouraging. In 1980 there were some 700,000 people in the United States who considered themselves of Ukrainian or partly Ukrainian origin. In 1981, the Ukrainian Catholic Church counted about 245,000 members. Today, Ukrainian Americans number over 930,000. According to the eparchial websites, however, the number of Ukrainian Catholics has fallen to about 52,000. In 1981, the Church had 27 elementary and three secondary schools; today, it has a half-dozen. In 1981, the Archeparchy of Philadelphia had 98 active eparchial and mission priests; today, it has 37.

True, numbers aren’t everything. In 1969, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (today Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) foresaw a smaller, poorer, but spiritually purer Church. Besides, trends often reverse themselves.

Yet the challenge is immense. And we must consider the socio-cultural context. Western elites have largely abandoned Christianity. The combined influences of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud have undermined the Judeo-Christian tradition by removing the notion of sin – and thus the need for redemption – as well as rejecting the existence of an immortal soul, and of God himself. Denying all but power relations, post-modernism questions the very existence of truth, of good and evil, and negates the possibility of love. While modernism and post-modernism are not new, it is only with the spread of education and communications that they have attained cultural dominance.

It is thus no wonder that college students – or high school students taught by college-educated teachers – typically lose their faith and leave the Church. For few have the mental and moral equipment to subject recent intellectual trends to critical appraisal.  Even fewer have the imagination to chart a different course. Christian thinkers who attempt to do this often find themselves on the sidelines of both popular and academic discourse.

At the same time, religion is being replaced by politics. For Leftist youth, politics has become a “religion without God.” For some Christians on the Right, politics has subsumed religion. In our society, religion offers only one of many options for what to believe and how to live. To many of our contemporaries, notions we take for granted – the immortal soul, an immutable ethics and morality, the value of worship and ritual – are utterly alien. Such notions are being questioned – and rejected.

This does not mean that our churches should dilute their message to suit the times. Quite the opposite. A clear, robust, and challenging message inspires. A flaccid, opportunistic and accommodationist one elicits yawns. Tradition reminds us that Christ’s teaching is for all times and places. But we should keep the contemporary context in mind, and find ways to convey His message in terms that today’s society can understand. Orthodox and Catholic Christians can work together to create a new Christian culture – a sort of parallel universe – provided we can muster the financial and intellectual resources to embark on such a venture.

In doing so, I believe we can dismiss three false dichotomies. First, we need not choose between a committed, activist core of faithful and a broad, inclusive Church. Only the former can create the latter. Second, we need not oppose the principles of authority and hierarchy to “synodality” and conciliarism. True, the Church finds herself in circumstances vastly different from the epochs in which its top-down organizational structure, its administrative and pastoral style, were developed. Today, “authentic” horizontal relations are replacing formal, vertical ones. But hierarchy and authority remain essential. Third, we need not choose between tradition and modernity. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, traditionalists are innovators too. The only difference is between progress informed by the past, and a blind progressivism which, ignoring the past, only repeats its mistakes. We must be both modern and traditional.

Our churches can take several concrete steps in this direction. They can revive monasticism, proposing “elders” as spiritual counsellors for the laity. They can organize more pilgrimages – including long treks for the young and fit. They can engage with contemporary culture, working with Ukrainian American artists, writers, and musicians. Initiatives in online adult education are promising; they should continue. Our laity can form liturgical literacy study groups or book clubs, remotely if necessary. Inviting the laity to elect representatives to Church councils could impel us to take more responsibility for our Church.

We have a great deal to learn from American Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelicals, and others. Many American intellectuals are interested in the Eastern churches. But where is our own intelligentsia? Drawing on both our Eastern Christian theological sources and our national experience, they could contribute richly to American religious life.

Yet the above-cited statistics suggest that the Ukrainian Catholic Church is at risk. Perhaps we need to get back to basics – to the eucharistic community. As Metropolitan Borys has pointed out, the Soviet-era catacomb Church offers useful lessons. It may even serve as a model. We may lose some of our church buildings. Having failed to nourish vocations in our own families, and depending on “imported” clergy formed in a very different society, we may soon lack pastors. The occasional visit by an itinerant priest celebrating the liturgy in a private home may represent the Church of the future. That might not be such a bad thing. It could bring us to our senses.

This is the final “Cross-Currents” column. It has been an honor and a pleasure to write for you. Thank you for reading.


Andrew Sorokowski can be reached at andrewsorokowski@gmail.com.