March Homily: Fr Mark Woodruff

Fr Mark Woodruff is a priest of the Diocese of Westminster. Having studied at College of the Resurrection at Mirfield, Fr Woodruff served in Anglican ministry before being received into the Catholic Church. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1995 and now serves as the Chairman of the Society of St John Chrysostom.

The Society of St John Chrysostom promotes greater appreciation of the spiritual, theological and liturgical traditions of Eastern Christendom, works and prays for the unity of the Churches of East and West, and encourages support for the Eastern Churches.

Fr Mark is the English Liturgy Chaplain and Co-Ordinator at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in London.

+ Glory to Jesus Christ!

Father Alan, whose birthday it is today – and we wish you many congratulations – asked me some weeks ago to preach on the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist from an Eastern Christian point of view and I prepared something. In light of the last seven days, I was not happy with it at all and I tore it up. So what I’m going to tell you about tonight comes straight from the heart of the Ukrainian Catholic Community in London, where I serve week by week, month by month.

I look after the Liturgies for English-speakers at the Cathedral of the Holy Family and I am a trustee of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy, on loan, so to speaks, as a priest of the Latin diocese of Westminster. I stand before you having come from that community in the most terrifying week since the fall of the Soviet Union when all hopes rose that the hell of communist persecution of Christians and the suppression of our Catholic Church was over for good. Yet now we face being back in 1944 when the empire of Russia at last managed to seize the whole of Ukraine and closed down our ancient Church and expropriated all its patrimony, its people, and martyred its bishops. In clear view of the threat to all Ukrainians, the Prime Minister came to us on Sunday to show his unequivocal support. Yesterday came the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall to encourage us. It has been an amazing week, as the priests have been absorbing the anxiety of the people and their worries about their homes, their family, their loved ones, as well as their land and their future.

What I want to tell you about today, in describing what they have been going through, is why they are who they are and why they are important to the Roman Catholic Church – because this is one of two dozen other churches that are much smaller than the Latin Catholic Church, but are full Churches in their own right in fullness of Communion with it and, through the Church of Rome led by the successor of Peter, all  with one another. I hope you will understand, as I set out some of the history and some of the recent stories of people, why this Church and our union of East and West is so important; and furthermore why it is the Blessed Eucharist that we share with each other as fellow Catholics (in the hope of Union with the Orthodox too) that is the centre of our lives, and why it is the shining light, bringing brilliance from another world into this dark period.

Most people tend to think that the East is a separate church – the Orthodox Church. Well, the lands that we now call Ukraine, along with other parts of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, were evangelised in the 9th century in a joint mission from Rome and Constantinople – the Church of the East and the Church of the West together, but from out of the Greek Christian culture. Part of the reason for this was because the Slavic people did not want to be dominated by the Western Christians rulers in Germany, which would have been easier if they were to become Latins like them. They wanted a Christian religion, culture and form of worship of their own. Thus it was that in the year 868 Pope Adrian blessed the books in the Slavonic language that had been prepared by SS. Cyril and Methodius, whom you may remember were made joined patrons of Europe along with St Benedict by Pope St. John Paul II. 

This evangelisation had been under way, extending well into Ukraine when In the year 987, the Grand Prince of Kyiv, which is at the centre of the land called Rus’ (a word from which we later derived both the name of Ruthenia and Russia, even though it was appropriated by a new empire around Moscow to the exclusion of the original people around Kyiv), Volodymyr (also known as Vladimir) decided to pacify and unite the people under his rule in a single faith, and decided that, after decades of living and ruling as a pagan, he and they would be baptised as Eastern Christians. I am sure you have heard the famous story that he sent emissaries across the known world to assess which religion would be right.

He no longer saw that the love that the people held for their many and rival gods was a true and loving faith, as it was rooted in fear and violence rather than peace and good law. The emissaries examined the religion of the Muslims and Volodymyr rejected the prohibition of pork and alcohol. They considered the faith of the Jewish people, but reported that it not only prohibited pork but seemed to be missing the heart of its own religion with the loss of Jerusalem. They went to the Latin rite Germans and so no great beauty there. But from the Great Church in Constantinople – the vast Cathedral known as Hagia Sophia, that is now a mosque again, they returned with a report that, having witnessed their Divine Liturgy, “We no longer knew whether we were in Heaven or on Earth, nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it. We only know that God dwells there among the people, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.”

When he heard this, Volodymyr knew that he had found the path forward to lead his realm and people in the faith of Christ. The following year, in the Greek city of Chersonesus, at the south-western tip of Crimea, Volodymyr was baptised before his people and married the sister of the Byzantine Emperor. In other words, he had received the gift of faith and thus for ever formed the Christian identity of Eastern Europe, by the pledge of grace that would come for him from the sacrament of the Eucharist.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!” (John 20.29)  

Still at that moment, the churches of East and West in Europe were in union. Sadly, this disintegrated after the Great Schism began in 1054, and so developed a division of the Churches into Catholic and Orthodox. But the memory of the integrity of East and West remained foundational for both, and there were repeated attempts to achieve re-integration. Substantial misunderstandings grew about theology and language that have kept both traditions wary of what re-union might imply, as they seek to be faithful to the tradition they have received. In our century I believe we have become very close to solving them. There are semantic and doctrinal difficulties that need not, after all, be church-dividing and which can be put right with faithful mutual understanding.

Indeed, there was a major attempt at repair arising from the Council of Florence-Ferrara in 1439, but efforts to win its acceptance did not survive the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453.  It was not, however, forgotten. When the Church of Kyiv and the surrounding Rus’ or Ruthenian regions in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth found themselves variously threatened by Muslim forces from the south and east the other Orthodox, and also a new state that had freed itself from the Muslim yoke in the form of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, they strongly sensed isolation from other Orthodox churches and because of the missionary activities of both Latin Catholics and Protestants. They could not easily be in communication with the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, the ancient mother Church, because he himself was under the control of the Ottomans. So, in 1596, the Church of the Rus’, with the support of Constantinople, decided that its future security and development lay in the restoration of the unity that they had had with the Church of Rome in the beginning, and hope for better days when the unity of all Catholics and Orthodox might be recovered. So began the Eastern Catholic Church in the east of Europe.

Over time, this unity with Rome of the Eastern Church in Kyiv which had originally covered Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and parts of what are now Poland and Russia, dissolved. First, Muscovy became the newly named Russian empire and absorbed the Rus’ lands, and imposed its own form of Orthodoxy on the Rus’, Ruthenian, Ukrainian people, out of communion with Rome. By the time of the 19th century, the remaining Greek Catholics – Orthodox Christians in communion with Rome – were confined to the west of what is now Ukraine, no longer in Communion with their fellow Byzantine Christians in the rest of the historic lands. Going forward to the Second World War, although it survived in the diaspora and underground, the continuance of this Church body in its homeland was no longer possible. With the invading Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church is imposed upon the Greek Catholics of all Ukraine. A false Greek Catholic synod is set up in Kiev in 1944, but without the Church’s bishops, who are puts into prison and concentration camps. The Soviets force the clergy to accept union with Moscow and to abandon centuries of Catholic communion. The bishops are martyred; their churches are taken away from the people as well as the practice of their Eastern Catholic faith; the seminaries are closed; the hospitals that the Church ran, all the aid and social agencies that the Church had built up were destroyed, or expropriated and given to another Church, or else given to profane use by the Communists. This is in living memory for some people. It is also living memory for some of our priests who were ordained in the catacombs to serve the faithful, meeting in the forests and cellars at the risk of their lives.

Just this last weekend, the priests were once again in people’s basements, underground metro stations, or in forests away from the bombs, celebrating the Holy Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy, for the faithful. Once again, the bishops have not escaped the threat of evil or left their people, standing with them and ready for what may come. Once again the people’s faith, even though it be suppressed, is strong, believing not against other Christians, but in favour of Catholic unity and the solidarity of the Church. In Ukraine for many years, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has been at the forefront of building bridges and creating a “civilisation of love”, trying to make a just and truthful, independent and glorious society, that is not bowed under tyranny, but stands under the freedom of the rule of law, itself founded in the Christian virtues and goodness that our Church stands for and seeks to live by.

A few weeks ago, we managed to extract two of our seminarians, who are not Ukrainian – one British and one American – to bring them back here. They were meant to continue their studies here. Every day they have had their lectures and seminars from the seminary in a village outside Kyiv online. On Thursday, however, it became clear that the seminary could no longer continue on site. So we set up our own makeshift off-shoot seminary for them in London, and I am their spiritual director. They have been in daily touch with their confrères, and seen for themselves how the seminary has had to be abandoned for the time being in the face of the threat of invasion. The neighbouring village has already been destroyed, so this is a time of great danger for them. The villagers, who are mostly Orthodox, had turned to them because they knew they always had a welcome from the Greek Catholics; so the seminary has given the buildings over to the villagers as the basement can serve both for storage and a shelter from bombs. In return, the Orthodox people said to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic students, “Take our cars! Get away home to your family!” Some of the students have gone to Kyiv, just a few to the west, to be with our patriarch, the Archbishop, remaining with the people at the cathedral in Kyiv. Some of them have gone to seminaries in Ternopil and Lviv. Some others have joined units to fight for the defence of Ukraine, their homeland, thus to give spiritual support to the other soldiers. Some have gone to help at medical facilities, or to train as firefighters, or to other relief and rescue tasks. 

You can imagine the frustration of our two seminarians in London. One of them, who was a journalist in the US before he began in seminary, asked for a blessing to go back to be with his fellow seminarians in what they were doing, but to offer his skills as an interpreter and journalist, so that the international press could show what is going on and the evil that is being perpetrated. The English seminarian is doing his part in supporting our London cathedral parish, helping the faithful in their prayers and hopes, and joining in the preparations for the many displaced people that we are expecting.

Why is all this important? It is not just a tale of exile. On Sunday, we heard that Father Maxime, an Orthodox priest, belonging to the Ukrainian, not the Russian-linked Orthodox Church, was found by Russian soldiers. When his identity and his Church was revealed, they killed him, a martyr for the sake of Christ, a priest who ministers at the Altar and feeds the faithful with the Body and Blood of Christ, which we have come here today to celebrate and to venerate. They did not even allow his body to be taken away for burial. Then yesterday, as the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall came to our Cathedral, we heard that a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, one of the brethren of the priests that I work with, was confronted by a soldier dressed up as a monk with a rifle, who said to him, “Renounce your Catholic faith and become Russian Orthodox. If you don’t want to become Russian Orthodox, it makes no difference to us if you give up Christianity entirely and become a pagan. We don’t care, as long as you are not a Catholic.” Thanks be to God, this man was a rogue and, when the people arrived, off he went and the priest’s life was saved. Also yesterday, after the Royal Couple had gone home, somebody turned up at our door -a refugee priest. He had been here to see his family in Manchester, and was now trapped able to get home to his wife and children. He speaks excellent English, so we are going to keep him, and try and get his family to England to be with him. But it gives you some idea of what is so deeply at stake.

Now I just want to end by adding this point. I know a lot of traditional Catholics in this country have admired Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin for his apparent alignment with the Orthodox faith, and his commitment to traditional Christian values, when he describes the West as abandoning them. The statistics on the protection of unborn children, marriage and divorce, poverty and the treatment of minorities and state repression of freedom and justice do not, however, bear out this presentation of a national Christian spirituality. So here is what a senior bishop, working in eastern Europe, has said of Putin and his deadly régime:

It is not that these people are intelligent. It is not that they believe in anything that they tell you. It is that they are very well trained, such that they know how, without conscience, to tell the truth as if it were a lie, and to tell a lie as if it were the truth. Nothing gets in the way of the purposes of raw power. And you realise that, looking into the face of such men, you’re looking into the face of pure evil.

This is why His Royal Highness the Prince Charles yesterday, just as he left the door with all the children there who had sung songs and all the people working on the relief that is going to Ukraine as we speak (in just four days that community has raised two million pounds, a poor community, from their own pocket!), he turned back and said, “I almost forgot – Slava Ukraini!”, Glory to Ukraine, to which they responded with pride, “Heroiam slava”, Glory to the heroes who have given their lives in the cause of freedom, peace and justice. It echoes the salutation that we give so very often, and that I gave at the beginning: “Glory to Jesus Christ: Glory forever!” And it is in his life and spirit that we extend it, just to and for all, especially for this devout nation, where there are so many good believers in Christ, denied their happiness by cruel invaders sowing division not of their making.

Nothing I say today is against the Russian Orthodox Church, or its faithful, in whose name none of this is taking place, and who also seek their own independence, security, goodness and prosperity in their own country land. It’s for their deliverance that we pray too. On the radio on Sunday, our Bishop Kenneth, prayed for Victory and the interviewer said, “Victory? Are you sure a Christian priest should be praying for Victory in a war?” He said, “Yes. If we do not pray for Victory, if we do not pray for the victory of the Christian people, evil will be victorious, and then the Dark will truly have descended on the world.”

So for that reason, dear friends, thank you for your patience in listening to me. Thank you for your understanding, and sharing with your prayers in the plight of the Ukrainian people. Thank you for your faithfulness to Catholic unity. Thank you for your devotion to the Most Blessed Eucharist, and the way in which the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the Mass, opens up to us Heaven on Earth, as we receive Jesus Christ in His Body and Blood. Thank you for your faithfulness and your persevering in goodness. Thank you for your hopes, and thank you for your loving adoration of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world that He gave His life for. To Him be “Glory for ever”.

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