John Burger is a journalist and the author of At the Foot of the Cross: Lessons from Ukraine. An Interview with Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk (Our Sunday Visitor, 2023). It is a moving and timely read right now, as the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is less than a month away. I am grateful that John agreed to this interview about his book.
Nadya Williams: Your book is really a book-length conversation with Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk. I found his story to be deeply moving. It reflects powerfully the suffering of Christians under Soviet rule and after. I was familiar (through my own family’s history) with the suffering of Ukrainian Jews over the course of the past century, but I did not realize the extent of the persecution through which the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, for instance, went as well. It has now been a year since your book’s publication, and longer than that since you had first started talking with Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk. Have you kept in touch with him since then? Do you have any updates to report, or any questions that you wish you could ask him at this time?
John Burger: It’s actually been six years since we first started speaking. My first interview with him was in the summer of 2018. That’s what led to the conversations in 2019, which make up the main part of the book. We spoke again by phone in 2022, six months after the full-scale Russian invasion.
That was a difficult first six months for His Beatitude Sviatoslav. In the early days of the invasion, before Kyiv was secured, he was in an undisclosed location rather than his cathedral residence, because he was on a list of government, military, and civic leaders to be eliminated if Moscow toppled Ukraine’s government and occupied the capital. This hit list consisted of people who Moscow believed would rally a Ukrainian resistance if the Kremlin got its way in Ukraine.
Shocking news when it first came out, but not surprising, when you recall that in 1945, when the Soviet Union conquered Western Ukraine after defeating the Nazis there, one of the first things they did was to round up the bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and many of its priests.
We’ve seen a lot of repetition of history these past two years.
Sviatoslav proved the Kremlin to be right. Even though the Ukrainian military was able to beat back the Russian forces from Kyiv, His Beatitude immediately began to rally his people–and all Ukrainians who cared to listen to him. He was able to broadcast a daily message of five minutes or so through Youtube. He said that at first it was to reassure his flock that he was still alive. He gave an update on the invasion, on where Russia was attacking and how the brave Ukrainian military was defending. He provided a spiritual message, and regularly thanked God and the Ukrainian army that he and all those who listened were alive for another day. He began to use a phrase, “Ukraine is standing, Ukraine is fighting, Ukraine is praying.”
This past year it’s been encouraging to see that Sviatoslav has been able to travel more, to get back to something of the schedule he had before the war. At first, he made pastoral visits to as many areas as he could where his flock was suffering — particularly in places like Bucha and Irpin, where some of the first Russian atrocities against civilians came to light. He visited the wounded in military hospitals and bereaved widows and scared children. He began to get an idea of the scope of this unjust aggression and the impact it was having on ordinary people.
And so, he is very focused now on the need for healing and is encouraging members of his Church to participate in the healing of those who are wounded, physically and psychologically, those who are bereaved, those whose lives will never be the same.
Then he was able to travel further afield. At first, he visited Pope Francis several times in the Vatican to add his voice to those seeking the pontiff’s support and hoping to inform the pope of what’s going on. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church held the annual gathering of its synod–all the bishops of the Church from around the world–in Rome last fall, so he spent several weeks there with them. From there, he traveled around Western Europe, visiting various groups of refugees from Ukraine and speaking on behalf of the Ukrainian cause with Members of the European Parliament, with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and others.
Then, on January 19, he made his first visit to North America since before this began, to ordain a new bishop in Canada. I watched the proceedings online, and I have to say that he looked like a man who has a new appreciation for life after facing death.
I hope to speak with him on the second anniversary of the invasion, but we’ll see.
NW: Speaking of the second anniversary, I found your book a timely read right now, as we approach this second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What thoughts have been occupying your mind as this milestone looms? What takeaways would you like your readers to get from the book at this time?
JB: Well, for one thing, even though it’s two years since the full-scale invasion began, it still amazes me that this could happen in Europe in the 21st century. I mean, what are we, back in 1939 again? Was Ukraine really that much of a threat to Russia, with its huge territory and powerful army? Was NATO even that much of a threat to Putin? Ironically, his actions have encouraged an expansion of the Alliance, which is what he was fighting against.
Of course, we’re all concerned that Ukraine has the help it needs from the West to fight off this aggression and restore its territorial integrity. That’s not a sure bet right now. Ukrainians (and many of their friends in Europe) are doing their best to convince us that if Russia prevails — and even if the conflict is frozen with much of Ukraine’s territory under Russian control — Putin won’t stop there.
But another thing that really concerns me is the damage that has been done to the Body of Christ. The war has exacerbated tensions between several Orthodox Churches in the region–namely, the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and several “ally” Churches and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Relations were already fragile. But how can we work, ecumenically, with a Church that supports this aggression?
NW: What are the big questions that interest you in your reading, writing, and thinking?
JB: Aside from Eastern Christianity, which is what led me initially to interview His Beatitude, I’m interested in what effect the digital revolution is having on us, particularly on young people. There have been some serious studies showing alarming rates of depression and even suicidal thinking among the young in recent years, and the figures began spiking around the time that smart phones were introduced. That really needs to be examined.
I look at a lot of teens and young people and feel quite sad when I see how restricted their lives can be. We feel that the internet has brought us so much freedom and new horizons. But in many ways, it’s brought us to a point where we feel we can’t really live without it. So, have we become slaves to it? I think young people are particularly vulnerable, because they haven’t had the experience we had when we were growing up, so they might not know that there’s life outside the digital world. Real life.
I think, for example, of how kids usually interact with their peers these days: through text messaging or video games or other electronic means. There seems to be so much less face-to-face, in-person interaction.
Then, it seems to me, the overuse of computers has deprived many young people of the pleasure of sitting down with a good book and actually turning pages.
In short, I imagine the world of childhood to be a very cold, impersonal world these days.