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Youth in the Church: Considering Our Future in America

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

On June 6th, 2019, I had the opportunity to present on a youth panel during a conference at the Catholic University of America. All of us were supposed to consider the future of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in America. I spoke on behalf of the St. Mary of Egypt Social Justice Fellowship, at the invitation of Fr. Mark Morozowich, dean of theology at CUA, and Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak, who had been enthroned as the Archeparch of Philadelphia and the United States two days earlier. Patriarch Sviatoslav, head of the UGCC, and many other bishops, clergy, and laypersons were in attendance at the conference as well. Here are some of the points I made, summed up for the internet.


I explained that The Fellowship is a loosely-organized group, made up of skilled professionals embedded in fields that demand engagement with our secular, American environments. We seek channels for “social justice” within our Church, not only because it’s a longstanding Catholic/Jesuit value that’s been invaluable in an era of colonialism and, now, globalization, but also because it’s a useful philosophy to meet people where they are, understand what they need, and how to uproot systems that don’t allow for people to live out their free will, and thus freely approach God as full persons.

Likewise, we’ve been inspired by Patriarch Sviatoslav’s appeals to social justice—the understanding that Ukrainians, and likewise their Church, are often exploited in a manner that leads people to make moral compromises. As Christians, we must fight against social structures that enable moral compromise. We recognize that the United States has just as many challenges, if not more, to our morality and free will. We, The Fellowship, believe that Archbishop Borys is primed to bridge the social justice DNA of our Church in Ukraine back to America, where so much of it has been lost through assimilation.

Ukrainian Privilege and the Priest-Kid Head Start Aren’t a Formula for the Future

So speaking of social analyses, let’s begin with this one: I am an exception. I am privileged. In fact, most people showing up to conferences like the one at CUA are. We represent but a small fraction of the expressions of our faith in this country. We need to, as exceptional people, keep our ears to the ground more. Pay attention better. Serve more people.

What do I mean by privilege? In a technical sense, it’s a social head start on the general basis of a person’s perceived innate characteristics, often resulting in unjustified hierarchies of belonging and arbitrary limits on mobility. For one, I am the son of a priest. It’s something I can’t help. I grew up in the Church, with an appreciation for liturgy and service to one’s community and neighbor. Secondly, I am fluent in the Ukrainian language. That gives me the privilege to nominally understand the basic premise of homilies, services, and pastoral letters. But that said, I am three generations removed from my family’s immigration to America, and I feel that privilege eroding away. That’s good because I can fight for an inclusive Church that can and should still pastor me.

One of the most thorough studies on the experience of intergenerational language learning found that 83 percent of immigrant children (the first generation to be born in the United States) grew up speaking their native language at home. But only 35 percent of immigrants’ children report to speak and understand their parents’ native language well. By the third generation, like me, less than 12 percent report to speak a non-English language well. Among those whose parents were born in the United States, 97 percent report speaking exclusively English at home. By the fourth generation (so the demographic of my children) only 2 percent of people whose grandparents were American-born speak any language besides English. Now, I wish, hope, and pray, that I teach my children Ukrainian well, and that they identify with my values, worldview, and ethnicity. But we all have to admit that, if language is a prerequisite of ethnicity, the statistics are not in my favor.

Also, if our Church in America numbered around 100,000 immigrants in the 1950s, only 4,000 of their 200,000 great-grandchildren will speak the primary language of their Church. Language aside, surely a smaller percentage of that statistic will find much relevant to their daily American lives, and will also fall away from the Church.

I have seen hundreds of my peers fall away from the Church, not necessarily out of a lack of interest, but because basic levels of relevance and relatability weren’t met. A few generations prior, we’d expect people raised in the faith to fall into a more mainstream religion. But, perhaps not literally speaking the language of people raised in the Church, the UGCC in America is contributing to the rapid rise of “nones” in the world. Again, not because we don’t have a powerful social message, but because the Church can’t communicate it in even the most fundamental manner.

I am very fortunate to speak Ukrainian, and be the son of a priest. I am able to basically understand how to participate and follow along with liturgical services even though nobody ever formally taught me how to pray them. The institutional challenges of teaching our Tradition don’t affect me as much because I had a head start. Likewise I’ve gotten past the barrier for entry for accessing 95 percent of what our Church offers because I understand Ukrainian. So let’s recognize the high barrier for entry that would be if I weren’t me: a person who just happens to be born into the right family, and learned the right language.

And yet, even that’s not necessarily enough to keep me around forever, because of the people I love, and the life I live. I need help. And if I need help, despite my privilege, I’m certain that thousands more do too.

Losing My Privilege

My dad, a priest, was killed by a reckless driver in 2007. So the special kind of access that his vocation gave me vanished. Everything I could have learned from him stopped when I was 15 years old, and everything I’ve learned about being Ukrainian Greek-Catholic in America since has been from my mother, or from things he left behind.

Some of our community in fellowship.

I’m also engaged to marry somebody whose ancestors did not come from Ukraine. She grew up Roman Catholic, so there is an apostolic foundation for her entry into the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, but she’s discovering Eastern Christian spirituality on her own. As much as she now identifies with the Church, can pray the liturgy by herself and freely participate in vespers, I realize that there are next to no resources for a person like her to fully integrate into this Church, no less help her raise our future children within our spirituality. She has picked up a lot from me, and it helps that some of my fading priest-kid privilege rubs off on her.

Suddenly, I’m having to start from scratch, as though I were not the son of a priest and is if I weren’t ethnically Ukrainian. I am stuck having to grow in my faith as a layperson from a lay family, having to learn about church events as a member of the public, and having to fend for myself for access to books and other resources. It’s up to me to find my own way towards salvation, just like anybody else in the pews. Knowing Ukrainian helps, but even still, the lived experience of people who just speak Ukrainian isn’t uniform or immediately relatable.

This gives me a unique perspective on how our Church is doing at retention and evangelization.

Our Church is In Crisis

The problems I pose above aren’t insurmountable. We can work together, especially with our new Metropolitan, to implement solutions.

We must first recognize, though, that the status quo links ethnic identity and language to belonging in our Church. There is nothing wrong with this, in theory, if it’s done right. If faith is the ultimate expression of your ethnicity, then I welcome that. But we know, statistically, the reality of assimilation based on the above data.

Likewise, I am thrilled at the new wave of immigration from Ukraine to the United States. That reality is keeping our churches vibrant in the same way they were alive in the early 1900s and after WWII. We know, from many parishes around the country, that if the conditions are right, new immigrants from Ukraine will be good stewards, generous donors, and dedicated volunteers.

But if we dig deeper, we realize that the only reason new immigrants come to America is because of successive social and economic disasters in Ukraine. We don’t want there to be any more trauma in Ukraine, so why would we want to rest our hopes on growing our Church in America on a steady out-migration of Ukrainians from Ukraine? Likewise, it is important to preach to them on the basis of that personal, lived trauma, instead of on the more cerebral national trauma of war front. Some will be literal refugees or soldiers who lived through that trauma, and they need to be individually cared for, not just harrowed as heroes. Some will just be caught up in a difficult new life in America. Instead of nationalist platitudes, they deserve individual care and attention, just like they do when they’re named while partaking in the Eucharist.

We are commemorated by name in the Eucharist.

But the Churches are full, and there are communities that want Church. This is good. We should celebrate. But we should also think about what’s next: how can we build a spiritual foundation for the children and grandchildren of these immigrants that will inevitably, increasingly become separated from Ukraine, the country? How can we learn from past immigrations? What about spouses of immigrants, their children and grandchildren? How much should the immigrant experience inform their spirituality, and how does the Church foster that? These are questions that must be answered in tandem with prospects of evangelization to non-Ukrainians.

Possible Solutions

Archbishop Borys encouraged us to be critical stewards of our Church, and brainstorm some possible solutions to the crisis at hand. Here’s my attempt at fixing some of the systemic issues within the American UGCC. It’s not enough to have an open Church, but, more importantly, the Church must be welcoming, and rooted in a sense of place. It takes work to intervene on a human level—from heart to heart—to care for a person’s full self, and their salvation. In hostile mission territory, “good enough” is far from good or enough.

Here’s the (incomplete) list of recommendations:

1. Church leadership must act intentionally.

  • This especially applies to language. The question shouldn’t be between English and Ukrainian, it should be about how any language is used, and whether it’s to the benefit of the “least of” Christ’s followers. As such, the UGCC should translate everything (and I mean, everything) into some of the more universally-understood languages. Liturgical texts should be clearly enunciated, and everybody present at liturgical services should have access to the same copy of text that the clergy is using.

  • Leadership of the Church, but really anybody, should feel empowered to ask for help in expressing cultural references and meeting social needs. This should be a two-way street, where intentional listening translates to constructive and actionable movement on an issue.

  • Every initiative must have an end goal. Members of the Church should have an individual utopic vision for what the Church should look like in a generation, and should feel empowered to share that utopia with others.

  • Avoid creating segregated communities—the phenomenon where there are “two parishes in one church.” Language may be a determining factor in this, but it doesn’t have to be. Likewise, never assume something about a person’s approach to the faith based on demographics (like that English-speakers might prefer to celebrate Pascha on the Julian calendar). Sometimes bold, new initiatives are needed to bring new groups into the Church, but there must be an off-ramp to integrate those new groups into existing groups.

2. The Church should develop a more palpable social consciousness.

  • I wrote above about the need to apply the experience of the Church in Ukraine to the needs of the United States. This means that Church leadership should be up to date on the news in their neighborhoods, taking into account power relations, and the dignity of all human beings, especially the defenseless and marginalized.

  • The Church should articulate its unique anti-colonial nature, just like it does by condemning Russian claims over Ukraine. By that same logical vein, the Church in America should take a stronger stance against racism. The Church has already rallied in defense of Romani minorities in Ukraine. Many Ukrainians have experienced anti-Ukrainian xenophobia in Europe and Russia—by that same token, Ukrainians can use certain privileges of life in America to condemn racism against other ethnic, racial, and linguistic groups.

  • The Church must acknowledge the challenges of immigration, assimilation, and respectability. Our Church in America has been described as an ethnic club, and our social consciousness is often filtered against White American culture, or by appealing to liturgically conservative Latin Catholics. Both groups bear certain privileges, and imitating them erases the trauma of our Church, the fullest witness of our martyrs, and the distinctness of our Tradition. We are a Church whose immigrant faithful are mostly working class and live with intense personal trauma, for which there is little room for consideration in privileged circles. We can either engage in an honest conversation about how assimilation affects those of us who take on privilege in America, and how that might compromise our values as Eastern Christians. Likewise, we can continue assuming that our spirituality is somehow entirely congruous with that of our grandparents’ or people in contemporary Ukraine, when it is not.

  • Church leadership must not be afraid to face down hard realities of class, economics, and poverty. This especially includes the struggles of young people in America today—both in the “legitimate” economy, but especially for undocumented people in the shadow economy. This has been underscored by Patriarch Sviatoslav. The assumption, popular in Ukraine, that the United States is a land of equal opportunity and meritocracy, has little root in fact. In 2018, we surpassed an unfortunate benchmark: adjusted for inflation, basic living expenses like healthcare, food, and housing have surpassed the average full-time wage. That means we can’t always donate. We can’t always be well-rested and fully present during prayer. People my age average over $42,000 in debt, and 20 of people my age will die without paying it off. The median wealth of a typical Black American household is on track to hit zero by 2082.

3. The Church must begin to apply moral consistency to the American context.

  • When Church leaders condemn authoritarianism—communism, in particular—we have the obligation to condemn other forms of authoritarianism and violent repression. We, as a Church, have a unique experience of this. Our new martyrs faced death from multiple evil ideologies. It’s our imperative to use that witness to prevent more pain in this world. This means especially condemning paranoid theories of “white genocide,” “great replacement,” or politically-motivated and false claims of Christian persecution. Through the Holodomor, the Ukrainian people have experienced what real genocide is like. At this time, our non-White brethren in the Middle East are facing true genocide. We cannot let slide the trivialization of these real crimes, nor other proto-genocidal policies against the least privileged social groups in America and around the world.

  • The history of Ukrainian American communities is one where the social and economic “American Dream,” which can be understood as a tacit endorsement of white supremacy. The American Dream, as such, often takes precedent to the Gospel’s call to love one’s neighbor, visit the sick, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry. Church leaders must continue to preach that, with the wealth and privilege of assimilation, Christ teaches us to recuse ourselves from many of our privileges for the sake of our neighbors, even when it is unpopular in a world that emphasizes ever-expanding capital.

  • Certain issues are only considered as prerogative of the Church in Ukraine. For example, the Church’s voice on the global climate crisis is limited to the geographical and political scope of Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church and Ecumenical Patriarchate have struck a distinctly global approach to countering our planet’s destruction. Considering that the United States accounts for 15 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, while only home to 4 percent of humanity means that the UGCC in America has a moral obligation to act. Given our Church’s witness to war, we can oppose war by acknowledging that changes to the climate (that Americans had a hand in creating) will likely be a source of increasing global violence.

4. Forging the future is hard work. The Church must trust in God’s judgement.

  • Young people want to see a better world. A world where people can express their fullest free will without the silencing and marginalizing nature of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and other forms of hatred. The Church must minister with generosity, charity, and patience. Ambiguity can be an asset, trusting in the judgement of God and the mystery of salvation. Sometimes, issues are too complicated to have strong opinions on, especially when strong opinions can be alienating or unfounded. Otherwise, it’s okay to be critical. It’s even good, as long as that criticism isn’t about imposing shame or earthly judgement. At the same time, we need to constantly be learning more, and learn what we don’t know.

  • Transparency from Church institutions is of the utmost importance, especially in issues of personnel. Criticism of certain processes should be encouraged, especially in a controlled and good-faith setting, especially when it includes actionable proposals for solutions. People who are critical, like our Church Fathers, should be considered assets instead of liabilities. Chances are they have skills to improve the Church, or are crying out for pastoral care. Regardless, the only way corruption in the Church can be addressed is through good-faith constructive criticism.

  • This should go without saying, but the Church must continue to encourage prayer. Prayer got our Church through the underground, and through the evils of the 20th century. Only prayer can get us through the 21st century. Prayer groups should be encouraged, bearing witness to the martyrs and the underground Church. This is why The Fellowship often conducts readers’ vespers in home icon corners, as witness to the past, present, and future of our Church.

New Martyrs of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church

I have great faith and hope in our Church’s future in this country. The Ukrainian Catholic University’s motto, “Візьми і зроби,” roughly translated “take your idea, and run with it,” points to the great, optimistic resilience of our Church. But we need to work together to establish an infrastructure, here in America, to support—not demolish—people’s initiatives to build the faith. America is not a place lacking in initiative or entrepreneurship, but it is a place lacking in community, collaboration, and empathy.

People will always have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and doing what's right for our present and future as a Christ-centered community will certainly alienate some people. We cannot let their separation from God be complicit in others' displacement from the Church.

We can begin with social justice, as I, personally, have found most compatible with our Church’s lived experience. Or we can begin with fellowship, charity, alms, fasting, and other forms of sacrifice. This is our salvation. This is our future.

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