This is the first of three articles examining the life of Patriarch Josyf Slipyj, a confessor for the Catholic Faith in the face of Communist persecution.
This past September marked the 35th anniversary of the repose of Patriarch Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, a fearless champion of Catholicism who spent nearly 18 years in Soviet captivity for refusing to renounce the Faith. Born in 1893 in Zazdrist, Galicia (the modern-day Ternopil Oblast, Ukraine) to a devoutly Christian family, Slipyj aspired to become a university professor while also answering God’s call to the priesthood. Though he initially feared his academic studies would interfere with his vocation, he was counseled by Metropolitan Adrei Sheptytsky—then head of the UGCC—to continue his studies at Innsbruck in Austria before studying further in Rome. After returning to Galicia in 1922, Slipyj was appointed Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Greek Catholic seminary in Lviv and wrote on a range of topics, including addressing Eastern Orthodox objections to Catholic dogmas such as the Immaculate Conception and commenting upon the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Slipyj became rector of the seminary in 1925 and then, in 1929, the rector of the Lviv Theological Academy—a position he held until 1944.
A Period of Turmoil
Patriarch Slipyj came of age during a great period of turmoil for the UGCC and the Ukrainian people as a whole. During World War I, Russian Czarist troops had occupied Galicia (western Ukraine) and kept Metropolitan Sheptytsky arrested from 1914-17 for encouraging his flock to stay true to Catholicism and not join the Russian Orthodox Church. It was another chapter in the long history of Russian persecution of Catholics in the region. In the centuries after the 1596 Union of Brest, which brought the Church of Kyiv back into communion with Rome after centuries of on-and-off estrangement, the Russian Empire coerced Greek Catholics into the Russian fold, sometimes violently. Even though the UGCC enjoyed a period growth and cultural refinement beginning in the 18th century under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was constantly at odds with the Russian Orthodox who dominated the eastern part of modern-day Ukraine. The 1917 Soviet Revolution would bring new dangers to the UGCC and by 1939 most of the country was under communist control.
Knowing that his time on earth was drawing to a close, Metropolitan Sheptytsky appealed to Pope Pius XII to appoint Slipyj as his coadjutor and successor. With the Pope’s approval, Sheptytsky consecrated Slipyj Archbiship on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and, in response to the Soviet Union’s anti-Catholic persecutions, appointed Slipyj as exarch over the remaining Catholic peoples of eastern Ukraine. While the UGCC was given a brief respite from the communists in 1941 following German occupation of Galicia, the Soviets returned in 1944 with a vengeance. Later that year, Metropolitan Sheptytsky went to his heavenly reward and it was left to Slipyj to lead the UGCC. The next year, Slipyj requested the Soviets to recognize the rights of the UGCC, though he was told they would only do so if the Archbishop encouraged the faithful to give up the fight for Ukrainian independence from the communist yoke. He refused and, along with his brother bishops, was arrested in April 1945. By this point, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Catholics had been forcibly removed or murdered by the Russians with many priests being tortured and killed as well.
Liquidation and Imprisonment
With the Ukrainian Catholic hierarchy imprisoned, the Russian Church moved swiftly to mislead the Catholic faithful into Orthodoxy. Without the participation of any of the legitimate Ukrainian bishops, the Russians staged a pseudo-synod in Lviv in 1946 which ostensibly liquidated the UGCC and joined her faithful to the Russian Orthodox Church. For more than four decades, the UGCC was to be the largest persecuted religious body in the world. Despite the belief that Greek Catholicism had been eradicated in the Soviet Union, an appeal by Pope John Paul II to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev led to a lifting of the ban on the UGCC in 1989. At that time, more than a million faithful, along with 1,000 priests, emerged from the catacombs; like their imprisoned hierarchs, they chose to persevere as Catholics rather than submit to false union with the Orthodox.
During this period, Slipyj endured his passion. Like Christ in the desert, Slipyj was tempted with worldly comforts in exchange for turning his back on the Truth. Should he renounce the Catholic Faith, Slipyj would be made Metropolitan of Kyiv, the highest office of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. He refused, leading to the Soviets conducting a show trial in which he was sentenced to forced labor. Here is an excerpt of Slipyj’s own account of his sufferings.
I had to suffer imprisonment by night, secret court-rooms, endless interrogations and spying upon me, moral and physical maltreatment and humiliation, torture, and enforced starvation. In front of the evil interrogators and judge I stood, a helpless prisoner and silent witness of the Church who, physically and psychologically exhausted, was giving testimony to his native Church, itself silent and doomed to die.
As a prisoner for the sake of Christ I found strength throughout my own Way of the Cross in the realization that my spiritual flock, my own native Ukrainian people, all the bishops, priests and faithful—fathers and mothers, children, and dedicated youth as well as the helpless old people, were walking beside me along the same path. I was not alone!"
While Slipyj’s initial sentence was for eight years, the Soviets tacked on additional sentences rather than release him. While much of the Catholic world outside of the Ukrainian diaspora had forgotten the plight of the UGCC, Pope Pius XII issued two encyclicals defending the rights of the Ukrainian Church. In 1962 the Soviets again tempted Slipyj to renounce the Faith, this time offering him the Patriarchate of the entire Russian Orthodox Church. At this time, Pope John XXIII, in concert with United States President John F. Kennedy, pushed the Soviet government to release Slipyj to the Vatican. In February 1963, Josyf Slipyj, his body broken and worn but his spirit resolute, arrived in Rome, finally free to lead the UGCC once again.
The Battle Continues
As the next two installments in this series will detail, Patriarch Slipyj’s hardships were far from over. Tasked with leading the remnants of the UGCC dispersed throughout the world, Slipyj found the Vatican less-than-supportive of his efforts and the efforts of the Ukrainian Church to speak out against the Soviet Union. In the words of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Slipyj, along with other Catholic bishops who had resisted communism in Eastern Europe, were “embarrassing to . . . Vatican diplomats” who had pursued a path of appeasement with communist authorities (An Open Letter to Confused Catholics, p. 94). Moreover, Slipyj fought for the privileges of the UGCC, including its right to be recognized as a patriarchal church and he as its patriarch.