Notre Dame Stories: A Conversation with Commencement Speaker Archbishop Borys Gudziak

Author: Liz Harter

Mc 6


On May 15, 2022, Archbishop-Metropolitan Borys Gudziak will receive an honorary degree and serve as the principal commencement speaker at the University of Notre Dame’s 177th Commencement Ceremony. 

Archbishop Gudziak currently serves as the Metropolitan-Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy in Philadelphia and the head of the Department of External Church Relations. He left Ukraine for Philadelphia shortly before the war began and moved his offices from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to help communicate the truth of what is happening in the conflict to political leaders and others.

He spoke with the Henri Nouwen Society’s “Henri Nouwen, Now & Then” podcast to discuss the harsh realities facing the Ukrainian people, and how their faith and strength of character have already given them the moral victory during the Russian invasion.

“In the last 250 years, every time there’s been a Russian occupation of part of Ukraine, where the Ukrainian Catholic Church ministers, the Church gets strangled. It can take a year or two or sometimes a decade or two decades, but sooner or later, the Church gets strangled and even rendered illegal.”

Though Archbishop Gudziak said it felt like the Russians were “extinguishing” the Church as it shrunk from 3,000 priests and almost 4 million faithful in 1939 to 300 priests in 1985, he said it was the largest illegal church in the world.

In 2022, the Church has recovered.

“Now we’re back at 3,000 priests,” Archbishop Gudziak said. “We have 800 seminarians for the global community of Ukrainian Catholics. This is a sign of miracles, of the power of prayer, of the grace that comes from the sacrifice of people who give their lives for the ultimate love.”

Ukrainian Catholicism is often referred to as a “Church of Martyrs,” as it was illegal from 1946 to 1989 in the Soviet Union.

Archbishop Gudziak became a seminarian in the Ukrainian Catholic Church in 1980.

“It was like becoming a seminarian for a diocese on Mars,” he said. “You couldn’t go there.”

In 1992, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and biology from Syracuse University, a theology degree after studying in Rome at Holy Sofia College and the Pontifical Urban University, and his doctorate in Slavic and Byzantine cultural history from Harvard University, Archbishop Gudziak moved to Ukraine where he founded the Institute of Church History in Lviv.

While there, the archbishop was visited by his close friend Henri Nouwen twice.

Nouwen was a Dutch-born Catholic priest, professor, psychologist and prolific writer. He taught psychology at the University of Notre Dame and pastoral theology at the Divinity Schools of Yale and Harvard before leaving academia to become the pastor at L’Arche Daybreak, a community for people with intellectual disabilities.

That close friendship partially inspired Archbishop Gudziak to place two M’s — for the martyrs and the marginalized — at the heart of Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), where he serves as organizer and president.

“The martyrs were those in the 20th century who carried the faith through the totalitarian tunnel,” he said. “They met the greatest challenges of the 20th century, which was the totalitarian attempt to crush the human dignity of the person.”

UCU embarked on an oral history project to capture the stories of those martyrs. 

“We thought if we can look closely at that, we can learn how to face challenges in the 21st century,” he said.

UCU is also built upon the pillar of the marginalized, with the creation of the Emmaus Center on the UCU campus, a place where people with developmental disabilities and their families receive spiritual support and share their lives with students.

“They live in the dormitories, they help in the cafeteria. They helped in my office when I was a rector and president of the university, “Archbishop Gudziak said. “They’re part of our community and I think it’s the first university in history that has placed the mentally handicapped at the heart of the identity of the university. Not as a social project, but at the heart of the identity.

He considers the developmentally disabled to be “tutors of human relations at the university.”

“Our friends with special needs help build trust. They break down those walls and facades and help us take down our masks,” he said.

While UCU is academically competitive, the inclusion of the Emmaus Center ensures that the competition is “not against the Beatitudes.”

“It’s a competition to build each other up, not bring each other down,” the archbishop pointed out.

That’s why the Russian invasion of Ukraine is so disheartening, he said. 

“In light of that Gospel vision, this war is just complete devastation because it’s killing, it’s marauding, it’s destroying.”

He likened the steadfastness and resilience of the Ukrainian people to those marginalized who are placed at the center of UCU. 

“The Ukrainians right now are tutors of human relationships for the world,” he said.

“That’s why during this crisis we as a church in North America are asking people to do three things: to pray, because prayer moves mountains; to be well informed; and to help where they can.”

As he explained the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Archbishop Gudziak highlighted the peacefulness of the Ukrainian people.

“There were 15 million people killed through the world wars and the totalitarian regimes, of course, first and foremost the Soviets, the communists, but also the Nazis,” Archbishop Gudziak said. “[The Ukrainian] people didn’t want to go back to that totalitarianism. They wanted democracy. They wanted transparency.”

In 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine had the third largest nuclear arsenal after the United States and Russia. In 1994, it unilaterally became the first country to disarm that nuclear arsenal.

Archbishop Gudziak said that he believes the true reason for the Russian invasion is not the threat of NATO, or the fear of an uprising of the Ukrainian people. 

“[Ukraine] had a very dangerous disease for Russia — the virus of democracy,” he said.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has had a long-term desire to quash democracy in Ukraine. To quash that virus of freedom, and to actually reconquer the country for the new Russian empire. We’re seeing the aggressive, brutal manner in which he’s trying to do it right now.”

Archbishop Gudziak is in contact with many people across Ukraine, including the bishops still on the ground in cities providing prayer and humanitarian aid, citizens, and UCU students and relatives.

“Yes, Ukrainians are shaken, but most of us when we call Ukraine are really inspired by the fortitude of the people.”

He cites the civilian volunteers and paramilitary groups who have grown Ukraine’s troops from 150,000 to more than 200,000, according to reports from Ukrainian officials.

“People are defending the country,” he said, which draws people together and provides inspiration to the rest of the world.

“In the 21st century, we live in a time of great subjectivism, of great deconstruction. We’re kind of a confused lot,” he said. “We question many of the things that have been fundamental for society and civilization for centuries and this witness is giving great clarity. 

“There’s something special when someone gives their life for their friends. Jesus calls it the greatest love.”

Still, even if Ukraine is winning the war morally, Russia seeks to sow discontent across the world and the humanitarian crisis caused by this invasion could help its cause. Already more than 4 million Ukrainians have fled the country, according to Bloomberg. That’s close to 10 percent of the population. Archbishop Gudziak said the number could continue to climb closer to 10 million as the war continues and more cities are destroyed.

“It’s destabilizing,” Archbishop Gudziak said. “When 1 million Syrians came into Germany, it shook up society and the political system. If 10 million people pour into the European Union, the European Union will have great problems and that’s what Russia wants.”

The archbishop reiterated the need for prayer, information and support for the Ukrainian people.

“The world’s focus on Ukraine is going to change, but trauma has already been inflicted and might get much much worse,” he said. “These people are going to need the support of the world for a long time.”

He encourages the spread of truthful information to combat the vast amount of disinformation and misinformation, especially in global politics, that is backed by Russian influence and funding.

“This is a global issue, and Ukrainians are the ones who are confronting it and they’re paying the dearest price for it,” he said. “I think they deserve the support of the world for a long time to come in the future.

Originally published by Liz Harter at on April 06, 2022.