Honoring Fr. Myron Panchuk's Legacy
Updated: Mar 18, 2019
Today, we went to St. Nicholas cemetery, and buried Fr. Myron Panchuk. His body will spend eternity between that of my father, mother, and Fr. Tom Glynn — some of his best friends. My mother has reminded me over the last few days, in fact, that Fr. Myron convinced my father to come to seminary in Chicago. Here, Fr. Myron introduced him to my mother. So, in many respects, I owe my very existence to him. He’s been there since the day I was born, the very same date that his mentor, Fr. Marian Butrynsky died. More on that later. Fr. Butrynsky, too, is buried right behind them, looking over them, and guiding them.
But more than just a presence, Fr. Myron was one of my best friends. He was a mentor, a great teacher, and it feels like my last advocate in this Church.
Many of us knew him as a psychologist, and were very proud of him when he earned his doctorate a few years ago. When so many turned their backs on him many years ago, my father and only a few others stood beside him, encouraging him to continue his education and explore the depths of human consciousness and subconsciousness. That is to say, he wasn’t a typical psychologist. When he got excited to share his work with our family over Christmas, at the beginning of his grad school, my grandmother quipped, “Отче, Ви за багато Фрейда читаєте” — Father, you’re reading too much Freud.
As many pointed out, it’s appropriate that Fr. Myron died 205 years after Taras Shevchenko, the quintessential Ukrainian poet and artist, was born. Fr. Myron and I both traveled to the Euromaidan in Ukraine. He was there in November 2013, during the revolution’s first days. He came home and I went about a week later. He was quick to point out the images of Shevchenko all over the Maidan. “Pay attention to his watchful eyes,” Fr. Myron said. “Like a benevolent panopticon.” This idea less invoked Jeremy Bentham, and more Christ Pantocrator, the all-seeing Savior in the central dome of every church.
Now, Fr. Myron wouldn’t say that sharing the day of his death with Shevchenko’s birthday was a coincidence. He’d say it was “synchronous.” It’s a word some would call “psycho-babble,” but in short, that’s what Fr. Myron’s favorite psychologist, Carl Jung considered deeply meaningful coincidences that don’t seem to have a causal relationship, yet contribute to one’s understanding of the world.
Fr. Myron desperately wanted to understand the world, and what caused so much pain in it.
He used the word “synchronous” before the two of us went to Chornobyl almost 10 years ago. Our trip ended in us producing a feature-length documentary about the traumas of people who still live in Chernobyl. The whole project was inspired by a dream Fr. Myron had. Here’s him describing the dream in his own words, quoted from his dissertation:
I am holding a spoon in my hand which I start to dip into a broth-like soup. Suddenly I stop doing so as I notice that the soup is full of broken Ukrainian Easter eggs. The shattered shells of these colorful, mandala-like eggs float to the top of this broth, and as I get a fuller perspective of this dream image I said out loud “I can’t eat this soup.” I immediately woke up and came to realize that Psyche was calling me to ingest a soup created by the brokenness and psychic fragmentation of my ethnic family. The vivid quality of the images of the shattered eggs, and the intense affect which I experienced during this dream, transported this unconscious material into my conscious awareness that I had no choice but to take notice, and to “wake up” to these images. ...
Is not the shattered egg a symbol of atom smashing, psychological brokenness, social breakdown and the forces of fragmentation? My fear of ingesting the brokenness still challenges me. My life as a re-searcher continues down a path of trying to make sight of what lies under the surface, of that which remains imprisoned in darkness.
Around the same time as Fr. Myron was working on his doctorate, I was gearing up to go to graduate school myself.
He taught me concepts that gave me a head start in my master’s degree. He taught me about the idea of Colonization. Formulated by Edward Said, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon, Colonization isn’t only when self-professed empires claim and plunder territory, it’s when any powerful force, like Russia, establishes an unjust social hierarchy. This leads colonized groups, like Ukrainians, but also many others, to choose between evils, mimic unjust practices, and devour their own.
Liberation, Fr. Myron believed, was the only way out of colonization.He felt he needed to lead the community to a place of liberation. One that radically rethought of who we all are as a Church and ethnic diaspora: colonized. In his academic writings, he called himself a “liberation psychologist.” Fr. Myron fought for liberation unceasingly, trying to unwind the mechanisms of colonialism — to think and act critically about absolutely everything. He believed that the Church could pave the way towards liberation for Ukrainians, and he believed that Ukrainians could pave the way for liberation for all colonized people: Tibetans, the Rohingya, Jews, Palestinians, Yemenis, Crimean Tatars, Black people, Latinos, indigenous people, etc. This is why, in his last year, Fr. Myron blessed the creation of a new organization here, at St. Michael’s parish on the South Side of Chicago called the “St. Mary of Egypt Social Justice Fellowship.” The name was his idea, in fact.
Fr. Myron also taught me about feminism. After our dear friend Fr. Tom Glynn died, Fr. Myron became the go-to guy for anything in English at St. Joseph the Betrothed Parish. I often had the opportunity to cantor for Fr. Myron. And at a funeral one day, as I was sitting right there, in that pew, Fr. Myron started to preach about the concept of a Divine Feminine. Unusually, he turned to me, even though the homily should have been directed toward the family of the dead person. He said, “this is probably going to offend your orthodox sensibilities, Julian, but I like to think of the Church as one, big, buxom, Black mother.” He talked about the black, fertile soil of central Ukraine, some of which he was buried with, as simultaneously life-giving, but also inviting foreign plunder. He emphasized that the Church could only nurture and feed our souls like only a woman could. He emphasized the inherent dignity—even supremacy—of women, that we must all defend. He invoked Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, who, amid the Nazi invasion during WWII, commanded that every Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church paint an icon of St. Sophia—the Holy Wisdom—above its altar. As we know through the research of Fr. Andriy Chirovsky, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky believed that only Sophia’s love could inspire nonviolent opposition to Nazi atrocities, and Fr. Myron believed that our community’s strong women could resist today’s atrocities.
Now some might say that Fr. Myron was engaged too much in postmodern thought. Indeed, there’s a harsh trend opposing postmodern thought, especially among Ukraine’s intellectual elite today. But postmodernism teaches that humans are limited in their ability to know what is true. It’s a sentiment St. Paul shared with the Romans (“I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.” -Romans 6:19). St. Paul, Fr. Myron, and modern theologian Luke Timothy Johnson would argue, that faith is the convergence of subjective realities that lead to one objective truth: salvation. Fr. Myron argued that postmodernism, as a philosophical movement, better reflected the Ukrainian experience of colonization because our people have always questioned our fate.
Fr. Myron was very proud of me and my brothers, his godsons, for playing the Bandura, an ancient Ukrainian instrument. It’s also known as a Kobza, the namesake of Taras Shevchenko’s writings. Here’s a staple Kobzar song from the early 19th century, personifying the concept of Truth as a Ukrainian peasant:
Нема в світі Правди, Правди не з’іскати, Бо тепер Неправда стала правдувати!
There is no truth in the world. Because untruth has begun to call itself truth.
Тепер уже Правда в панів під ногами, А тая Неправда сидить між панами.
Now truth is beneath the feet of the ruling class, and untruth sits alongside them at the table.
The Bandura players who sang this song embodied a desperately Ukrainian sentiment that Fr. Myron wished more modernized Ukrainians could return to. Here’s another quote from Fr. Myron’s dissertation, paraphrasing from 18th century Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda: “The inner dimension of reality is soul, and its truth is expressed through the symbolic, while the outer is the material body and its truth is literal.” Fr. Myron’s material body, amputated and wheelchair-bound, was a broken truth. It was but a symbol of a deeper truth.
Fr. Myron believed that truth could only be found through the soul, by challenging every preconceived notion of reality. Thinking and soul-searching, for Fr. Myron, was true liberation — true free will in a world that was clouded by — in the words of his favorite postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault — the ubiquity of power, “diffused and embodied in discourse, knowledge and regimes of truth,” like propaganda and false ideologies.
One of the ways Fr. Myron liked to channel our primal Ukrainian-ness was through an appreciation of our natural environment. I remember when a graduate student from the University of Chicago reached out to him about 4 years ago to learn about the psychological dimensions of Ukrainian sacred music. The student was probably expecting to be directed to some composer like Dmytro Bortniansky, or Artem Vedel’. But instead, Fr. Myron instructed him to listen to Dakhabrakha. When the student said their music sounded like “Earth, Sun, and Moon Worship,” Fr. Myron asked, “What else do we know?”
Years ago, he accused me of being caught up in the future, and not enough in the present. Many have reminisced about the past, and we hold onto our nostalgic memories of Fr. Myron. It is one of the things he leaves us with. Of course, though, the present was Fr. Myron’s favorite place to be, without care and in the company of friends or absorbed in the meditations of Dakhabrakha. Then only he began reading about climate change, in the last two years, did he begin to think about proactivity. What will the world look like for his nieces, his godchildren, his friends? He found parallels between the Holodomor, Chornobyl, and today’s dangerous denial of climate change. He’d hoped to write an additional final chapter to his dissertation about the concept of “Ecocide” — genocide through the destruction of the environment. With your help, perhaps we can finally publish his work, as he wished, into a book. As he neared death, he really began to wonder about the future, writing a column in the church bulletin titled “Quo Vadis?” Where are we going? It’s something I asked him all the time, especially when frustrated with the dysfunction of our community.
If there were one concept he could be summarized in, it was Trauma. He bore so much on his shoulders—the weight of the whole community, and even marginalized people outside it. That’s a lot of pressure. Everybody else must take it on now. His talk about trauma wasn’t theoretical. He did so because he felt that we all needed to to find ways to heal our faults that we’re not even conscious of yet. This is an imperative to our survival. To heal, one must be willing to admit there is trauma, and that there are some deep, deep issues in our community that we need to ask penance for. He died at the beginning of Lent, a 40-day introspective journey we should all take advantage of.
Fr. Myron always stood up to the bullies, and he always stood up for me when nobody else would. He was the last advocate I had in a Church that, over the years, has been increasingly alienating to me. He admitted to me that the Church was sometimes alienating to him too. When I often shared my frustrations with him, he told me it was good to feel alienated. That is, after all, how one gets in touch with one’s soul and God — how one begins to find liberation.
I think I had more in common with him than either of us knew. Both of us were oldest siblings. Even though he was a patriot of Ukraine, he was a third generation immigrant. His mother, like my mother, was born right here in Chicago. There aren’t many people who are able to uphold a Ukrainian consciousness for three generations, in this colonizing world that demands all of our assimilation.
It was largely through the love and support of Fr. Myron that I am where I am in my professional life today. He said, “our community needs filmmakers,” so I studied film. He said, “our community needs journalists,” so I got a job at one of the biggest radio networks in the country. He said, “our community needs more academics,” and I earned a Master’s degree. I did exactly what was expected of me; something he tried to do. Go into the world. Engage with people intellectually and critically. Tear down the self-defeating barriers that our community has built around itself, and learn how to liberate from others.
When my father died, a priest asked me if I’d follow in his footsteps. At the time, I categorically denied the path to ministry. But when one good minister dies, and few, if any can fill their shoes, one of us needs to pick up the mantle. Fr. Andrew Onuferko mentioned on the first day of Fr. Myron’s funeral, that the Ukrainian community of Chicago has only raised two priests in the last century. How sad is it, that there has been so little priority our community has given to ministry. Please, see the value in the work Fr. Myron did. Now that Fr. Myron is dead, Fr. Andrew asked all of us who will follow in his footsteps? I didn’t think I would, but now I do. Maybe you can too.
And if life prevents you from taking a path of ministry, then at the very least you can, in your own way, seek truth. Fr. Myron was a fearless truth-teller. People say he was one of a kind. That’s a problem. We all have to be fearless truth-tellers. Truth, honestly, is the only path towards liberation. Openness, collegial criticism, love, and generosity. Could there be any more Christian principles? Do that. Please. If not for our community, then for him, Fr. Myron, and do it for God.
In one of my last conversations with Fr. Myron, I accused him of not being compassionate to some of my personal struggles. We cannot forget that he, like every priest, too, was human. I quoted Freud to him, like he was wont to do to me: “Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.” He told me, in his utmost humility, “are correct when it comes to my lack of compassion sometimes. I can't speak of colleagues because you need to talk to them.”
I’d like to ask you now, Fr. Myron, for your forgiveness; for a compassion that I wasn’t always ready to accept, but that you were so full of.
Now to his colleagues, all of you, and all of the clergy, I invite you to an ongoing dialogue of how we can best practically implement Fr. Myron’s radical theory of liberation, so that all of us might find internal, and eternal peace.