I write this in great humility and deep gratitude, foremost to our Lord Jesus Christ, for leading me to the point where I'm able to share this news. I am also grateful to the Christian witness of my parents, my dearest fiancée Summer, and loved ones for being the faces of God, teaching me to love, to pray, and to listen to the people around me. It is through that close prayerful listening—to the will of God, to the needs of my neighbors, and to the witness of my Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church around the world and throughout history—that I have discerned my vocation to the priesthood.
It’s often said that there are two kinds of Christians: “converts” and “cradles”—those born and raised in a Church, and those who discovered a Church later in life and became initiated into it by their own choice. Being born in the United States, I can’t help but think I am a little bit of both. The prayer rule of four hundred years of religious life in my family, spanning back to Job and Theodosius of Manyava, was interrupted by world wars, migration, and the challenges of secular life. God is calling us to Him now more than ever. In our modern, globalized, individualist, and materialist world, listening to Him is increasingly seen as a choice. Every day we are tempted to choose new lifestyles—subcultures and ideologies—that imitate the love and providence of God, instead of submitting to His will as He reveals himself in the faces of all sorts of different people.
I have found God not only in the Ukrainian diaspora environment I was born into, but through going out into this wild American world and encountering my neighbors. In some ways, it is a choice to go out, but doing so through God is an opportunity to receive, an opportunity to thrive, and an opportunity to live. In this quickly changing world, it is not enough to simply follow a historical trend—mimicking the devotions of my ancestors—but to experience conversion of heart towards God as new situations and challenges emerge. The future of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in America, one I intend to be a part of, depends on a conversion. Yes, it will require a faith and commitment to the witness of our Church throughout the ages, but also a conversion towards new life. Conversion, in this sense, is a matter of survival. Turning towards God not only gives us eternal life, but also returns to our Church its essential missionary character.
We’ve seen what happens when our Church doesn’t encourage active conversion, or when we don’t take worldly and spiritual challenges head on: my generation, third-generation Ukrainian Americans, have lost their faith. Other initiated Ukrainian Greek-Catholics and their loved ones are left similarly untended to. They live in a cynical world. They are terrified. They are hungry. Fr. Alexander Laschuk, the Canonist from Toronto, said we are the “lost generation.” And it’s not because this generation has lost Christian values, it’s that we, the Church, haven’t been able to adequately listen. Listen to the ways in which our common Christian values are actually challenged every day. Listen to the pain, loss, and isolation that our contemporary economy is wont to normalize. Having listened, we then must act with the utmost of Christian compassion and empathy. In English, the word “compassion” comes from the Latin word for “suffering.” We could stand to “co-suffer” with people too. In his letter to the clergy in 1901, Venerable Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky called on the priests to learn how to “self-sacrifice,” a call that has never been more real than today.
A quote ascribed by many Orthodox theologians to St. John Chrysostom (perhaps apocryphally), says that the Church is a hospital for the soul, not a courtroom. We, the faithful, simply cannot afford to judge people too harshly. Few have experienced the Church’s healing potential. Much of the Church has been critically absent to them, or at the opposite extreme, impose impossible standards on people. No wonder our Church in America can’t survive past a generation or two!
Church is a hospital for the soul, not a courtroom.
To quote Chrysostom again, the scales are uneven: “just as a balance, if its beam be unsteady, moves round, and does not show accurately the weight of things placed in it; so the soul, if it has not the beam of its own thoughts fixed, and firmly riveted to the law of God, being carried round and drawn down, will not be able to judge aright of its actions.”
The experiences of people who have come and gone to our Church are many. There is no one-size-fits-all way to do our common evangelical and pastoral work. This is why I’ve been so inspired by Metropolitan Borys’s mantra of living our faith “from heart to heart.” I’ve been so blessed to have countless opportunities to speak with my peers (really people of all ages!) heart-to-heart on matters of faith, the mystical, the eternal, and the divine. Again, there is a deep need for the Church to once again become accessible, personal, and most importantly, joyful. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, critiquing Nietzsche, once said that “the Church lost the world when it forgot how to be joyful.”
One might say, rightfully, that there are many people who are confident enough to knock on the door of their local church. I can assure you, for the scores of people who go to bed every night fearing God, the people who haven’t stepped foot in church in years, or wouldn’t even know when it’s time to return, articulating faith does not come easily. That’s why we, people with a pastoral heart, need to be present for these people, serving in the communities that have been alienated most. In his 1901 letter to clergy, the Venerable Metropolitan Andrey wrote:
We must, venerable fathers, interact with people with love, approachability, and generosity, directing all of our efforts to fill that chasm that has, for one social reason or another, separated the priest from the faithful. In drawing closer to the people, we must, as citizens, but foremost as pastors, engage in every cultural-economic debate that our faithful participate in. To the extent of our abilities, we must participate in these debates, guiding people to enlightenment, and giving them every possibility to improve their material well-being and realize their civil liberties, which are not contrary to Christ’s teachings. In giving people this guidance, and organizing our labors to those ends, we must double our fortitude in passing along Christ’s Gospel to the people.
And, of course, passing along the gospel, “using words, only if necessary,” in the words of St. Francis of Assisi.
It will take time to rebuild people’s trust. I am confident it can happen with God. Many of my peers have shared that their experience with the Church has been generally negative. Again, this is why we can’t judge. So if we ensure that the Church can be a joyful place, a place of healing, and a place of beauty, then half of the work will be done for us. It pains me to hear how some people have gone their entire lives never having experienced something positive from the Church, but I’m inspired when they “accidentally” find Ukrainian sacred music on their Spotify, or when they recognize a church that looks familiar in a new city. We can—we must—receive these people.
When my father died, many people, including other priests, asked if I would follow in his footsteps by becoming a priest. At first, I refused. I didn’t think that was my calling. My father even insisted that I shouldn’t feel pressured to follow our family’s long lineage of clerical service. But the more stories I hear of people desperate for faith wandering alone in the scary, secular world, the more I realize that his ability to reach people was singular. And this isn’t just my impression: there are some people who, having but brief encounters with my father, felt just a little bit more loved, more joyful, more educated, and closer to God, and relay those experiences to me often decades later. I suppose I’m disappointed that they haven’t had many other moments like that in life. My calling to the priesthood was first revealed through their witness, though. And having been so close to my father, I know what has to be done to share that love again.
I have walked in the shoes of many, and hope to continue to; first, as a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic in a Roman Catholic world, learning about my faith, defending our Church’s dignity as a minority Church. In my Latin grade school I was told I was the illegitimate son of an illegitimate priest, so I learned about canon law. In my Dominican high school I was denied communion for not being “Roman Catholic,” so I learned about the constitution of the Church. My second experience is as a person who, though the son of a priest, has spent the last decade of my life as an average lay person about to enter a mixed marriage. As a bandura player, I’ve been to dozens of parishes across North America, and have seen the unvarnished truth of what’s out there. I’ve seen little examples of amazing work in action, so I’ve seen what’s possible. I have great hope.
If I am ordained as a priest, I promise to be driven by a spirit of empathy and co-suffering love, working towards the dignity of all people—especially the marginalized—and the joy of the martyrs whose legacy we inherit as Ukrainian Greek-Catholics. My lodestar comes from the Code of Canons of Eastern Churches: “among which are sincerity of heart, diligent concern for justice, the spirit of poverty, fidelity to promises, courtesy in acting, speaking modestly joined with charity” (Canon 346 §2 8°). I also take heed Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky’s call to hard work: from doing my own plumbing and getting dirty, to walking the last mile to make sure every last voice is heard.
The first mile begins this fall, as I begin my first course at the Three Holy Hierarchs seminary in Kyiv, Ukraine. Please pray for me, as I will for you:
Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.