There are men who embody the deepest virtues and values of a people. Such was Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, major archbishop of Halych and Lviv of the Ukrainians, the 130th anniversary of whose birth is being celebrated just as his homeland is experiencing an enormous new tragedy.
Born on February 17 1892 in Zazdrist, western Ukraine, at the age of nineteen Josyf Slipyj entered the seminary of Lviv, where he was ordained a priest on September 30 1917 and then sent to Rome to complete his studies at the Oriental Institute and the Gregorian University.
In 1925 he was appointed rector of the seminary of Lviv and in 1929 of the theological academy of the same city. Ukraine had in the meantime fallen under the Soviet yoke, and Stalin, between 1932 and 1933, requisitioned all agricultural production to impose forced collectivization on the country through the famine known as Holodomor (cf. Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Doubleday, New York 2017).
As war drew near, the Greek-Catholic metropolitan of Ukraine, Andrey Sheptytsky (1865-1944), who had ordained him to the priesthood, asked Pius XII to appoint him as his coadjutor with the right of succession. So in 1939 Msgr. Josef Slipyj was made exarch of eastern Ukraine and at the death of Metropolitan Sheptytsky, on November 1 1944, became head and father of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. It was a terrible time for his country, caught in the grip of the Nazis and the Communists. On April 11 1945 Metropolitan Slipyj was arrested by the Soviets and sentenced to eight years of forced labor in the gulags, while an illegal synod was staged to proclaim the “reunification” of the Ukrainian Catholic Church with the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, dominated by the Soviet regime. The churches of the Greek-Catholics, around 3,000, were given to the Orthodox and almost all the bishops and priests were killed or imprisoned. In 1953 Archbishop Slipyj received a second five-year sentence to Siberia and in 1958 a third to four years of forced labor. In 1962, at the age of seventy, he received his fourth sentence, consisting in deportation for life to the grim camp of Mordovia. In all, the heroic prelate spent 18 years in the prisons and gulags.
The Jesuit father Pietro Leoni (1909-1995), a survivor of the Soviet concentration camps, describing the horrors of the Kivov transit camp, recounts that one day some prisoners were put in his cell. “At dusk I heard an unknown voice calling me: an elderly man, with a beard, was standing in front of my place; he offered me his hand and introduced himself: Josyf Slipyj. It was both a joy and a sorrow to know that I had been brought together with my metropolitan” (Msgr. Giovanni Choma, Josyf Slipyj, padre e confessore della Chiesa ucraina martire, La Casa di Matriona, Milan 2001, p. 68).
Pius XII repeatedly intervened on behalf of the Ukrainians and their metropolitan, encouraging them to resist persecution, especially with the encyclical Orientales Omnes Ecclesias of December 23 1945. Nonetheless, in 1958, after the death of Pius XII, relations between Russia and the Vatican began to change. When John XXIII announced Vatican Council II, he wanted representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate to take part in it. The Kremlin authorities imposed the condition that the Council remain silent on communism. A secret agreement was signed in August of 1962 in the French town of Metz between Cardinal Tisserant, representing the Vatican, and the Orthodox bishop Nikodim on the Russian side. The grand assembly convened to discuss the problems of its time would be silent on the greatest political catastrophe of the twentieth century (R. de Mattei, The d Vatican Council. An unwritten story, Loreto Publishing, Fitzwilliam, NH, 2012, pp. 149-151).
In those years the communist gulags overflowed with prisoners sentenced for religious reasons, especially from the Ukrainian Catholic Church. It would have been a scandal if the bishops who were victims of persecution had been absent from the Council hall while the Moscow Patriarchate was instead represented by delegates who supported the butchers. A negotiation was therefore held between the Holy See and the Kremlin to allow Metropolitan Slipyj to participate in the Council. The head of the Ukrainian Church did not want to leave his country, but obeyed the pope and before leaving Moscow secretly consecrated as bishop the Ukrainian Redemptorist priest Wasyl Welyckowskyj.
He arrived in Rome on February 9 1963, but did not remain silent. On October 11 1963 Slipyj spoke at the Council of Ukrainian Church’s witness of blood and proposed that the see of Kiev-Halych be raised to the patriarchal rank. He recalls having addressed this request numerous times to Paul VI but always being refused for political reasons. The recognition of the Ukrainian Patriarchate would in fact have hindered Ostpolitik and the ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox Church of Moscow (Memorie, Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv-Rome 2018, pp. 512-513). However, on January 25 1965 he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, who raised the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church to the rank of major archbishopric of Lviv of the Ukrainians.
Between 1968 and 1976, despite his advanced age, Cardinal Slipyj undertook long and tiring journeys to the communities of the Ukrainian diaspora in the Americas, Australia, and Europe, continuing to play the role of pastor of his people. In 1976 he launched an appeal to the United Nations on behalf of the victims of communism and in 1977, in dramatic remarks before the Sakharov Tribunal, once again denounced religious persecution in Ukraine. The world looked to him and to Cardinal József Mindszenty (1892-1975) as to two great witnesses of the Catholic faith in the twentieth century.
To ensure the future of the Ukrainian Church, Cardinal Slipyj did not shy away from extreme actions. Peter Kwasniewski recently recalled how on April 2 1977 he clandestinely ordained three bishops, without the authorization of Paul VI, automatically incurring the canonical censures provided for by can. 953 of the Code then in force. However, unlike what would happen for Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, excommunicated in 1986 for the same infringement of canon law, no measure was unleashed ipso facto against Cardinal Slipyj (https://onepeterfive.com/clandestine-ordinations-against-church-law-lessons-from-cardinal-wojtyla-and-cardinal-slipyj). One of the bishops he ordained was Msgr. Lubomyr Husar (1933-2017), whom John Paul II appointed, after Slipyj, major archbishop of the Greek-Catholic Church and cardinal. He was succeeded as primate by Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who at this moment finds himself under the bombs in the besieged city of Kiev. In 2004 the see of the major archbishopric was moved to Kiev and changed its name to the current one of Kiev-Halych.
Cardinal Josef Slipyj died in exile in Rome at the age of ninety-two on September 7 1984, and is now buried in Lviv, in the crypt of St. George’s Cathedral, next to Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky. John Paul II called him “a man of unconquered faith, a pastor of firm courage, a witness of heroic fidelity, an eminent personality of the Church” (L’Osservatore Romano, October 19 1984).
While the religious and political identity of his land is once again being brutally trampled, the memory of the heroic resistance of Cardinal Josyf Slipyj helps us to be trustful for the future of Ukraine. Kiev was the place of the conversion of the Russian people to the Catholic Church, and it is from Kiev, not Moscow, that the second great conversion of Russia announced by Our Lady at Fatima is destined to begin. Cardinal Slipyj was a great devotee of the message of Fatima. In 1980 he presented John Paul II with two million signatures collected by the Blue Army, insisting in a long conversation with the pope on the need to consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary (John Haffert, Dear Bishop! Memoirs of the Author Concerning the History of the Blue Army, AMI International Press, Washington 1982, p. 229). This consecration has not yet taken place in the manner required by the Most Blessed Virgin, whom Cardinal Slipyj addressed in his testament as follows: “Seated on the sled and making my way to eternity…I recite a prayer to our protector and Queen of Heaven, the ever Virgin Mother of God. Take our Ukrainian Church and our Ukrainian people under your sure protection!” ( Memoirs, pp. 524-525).
Making his words our own at this tragic moment in the history of the world, we cannot help but proclaim aloud: “Honor to Cardinal Slipyj and to his martyred people.”