By Senator Dean Smith and Professor Matthew Ogilvie
Just after last year’s Russian invasion, St Mary’s Cathedral hosted a vigil for the people of Ukraine.
It was fitting that parliamentarians and diplomats from different nations joined together to show their support at the Cathedral because the Church has always been an important part of Ukrainian culture.
It is said that St Andrew the Apostle travelled across the Black Sea and made converts in Crimea before travelling north over land to where Kiev would be established in the fifth century.
Later, in what became known as the “baptism of Rus’,” Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev, and ruler of Kievan Rus’ was baptised along with his family around 988 AD.
The faith was embraced in Kievan Rus’ by a people who Patriarch Photius on Constantinople had said in 867AD “took to Christianity with particular enthusiasm.”
The Church has been a part of Ukrainian culture and identity since Christianity was established in Kievan Rus’ in the 10th Century.
The Cyrillic Alphabet (used in Ukraine as well as in Russia) was devised by Christian missionaries following Saints Cyril and Methodius.
In later times, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Church established the Ukrainian Catholic University, which has a special mission to be a centre for Ukrainian culture and the development of a Ukrainian society based on the dignity of the human being.
The Church has always stood against tyrants and has been persecuted for it.
After a long struggle, in 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, signed the Tomos that recognized the self-governance of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its independence from Moscow.
The Ukrainian Catholic Church has also stood against authoritarians.
The best example is Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, the courageous Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church who was imprisoned for 18 years in camps in Siberia and Mordovia.
Despite long years of torment and torture and promises of rewards if he submitted to Soviet rule, he defiantly stood against Stalin and communism until his release in 1963.
At the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Slipyj spoke of the “the mountains of corpses and the rivers of blood” sacrificed by the Ukrainian people for their fidelity to their faith and to their culture.
His words inspired the young auxiliary bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyła, the man who later became Pope John Paul II, who would quote the Ukrainian Cardinal’s words on many occasions and who inspired him in his fight against communism.
The situation in Ukraine is dire. On March 6, 2022, Pope Francis said, “Rivers of blood and tears are flowing in Ukraine. It is not merely a military operation, but a war, which sows death, destruction and misery.”
The Church is at the forefront of relief efforts for the immediate needs of Ukrainians, but it is also there for the long term good of the people and advancement of Ukrainian culture.
When Stalin asked cynically, “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” he overlooked what political scientist Joseph S. Nye called the “soft power” of Church, which is seen in its moral and spiritual resources.
The answer to Stalin, and tyrants like him, is at the end of every Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic liturgy when countless Ukrainians sing their national hymn, which includes the line, “We’ll not spare either our souls or bodies to get freedom.”
Senator Dean Smith has represented the State of Western Australia in the Parliament of Australian since 2012. On 6 March 2022, he joined other Australian parliamentarians and foreign diplomats at a vigil for Ukraine at St Mary’s Cathedral.
Matthew Ogilvie is Professor of Theology at The University of Notre Dame Australia.