The Voice of the Christian Conscience: A Note on the Popularity of His Beatitude Major Archbishop Joseph Cardinal Slypyj

The following article was originally delivered as a commentary on the “Voice of the Ukrainian Community,” the Ukrainian Radio Program broadcasted every Sunday over WIBF FM Radio in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. It was subsequently revised for publication and published in the journal Looking East, a quarterly published by the Archpriest John J. Mowatt, Director of the Byzantine Center, Fatima, Portugal. Because of its relevance we are reprinting it here from Looking East, Vol. No. 13, pp.17-19.

Perhaps one of the most interesting questions for many Christians, both Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian, who have followed the recent tour of His Beatitude Major Archbishop Joseph Cardinal Slipyj through Australia, Canada, and the United States is “what makes this venerable Primate of the Ukrainian Catholic Church so immensely popular?” Especially those people who have witnessed the receptions accorded to His Beatitude in Melbourne during the Fortieth Eucharistic Congress and more recently in the cities of Canada and the United States can not help but marvel at the charismatic attraction which this man seems to exercise on people of all ages and generations. In the United States, particularly in the cities of Cleveland and Pittsburgh, the former prisoner of Stalin was received by Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian populations and by the respective city and state officials not just as a visiting Church dignitary but as head of state. To the average person the magnitude of the various receptions, the spontaneous outbursts of enthusiasm, the tears of women, the joyous shouts of men, and the cheers of young people must remain puzzling if not incomprehensible. Again and again the question is raised “what is so special about him? how can one man move and unite so many people of different ages, of diverse backgrounds, and frequently of opposing social and political convictions?” The answers to these and other similar questions vary, but one thing does appear to be certain now: today even the most devoted supporters of the present Vatican Ostpolitik will have to admit that the movement for a Ukrainian Catholic patriarchate headed by His Beatitude Joseph Cardinal Slipyj is not the work of a small group of the so-called “separatists” or “nationalists” or “provocateurs” or whatever other labels Vatican spokesmen and Soviet officials have used to characterize the Ukrainian Catholic faithful. As a matter of fact, after the recent triumphant tour of His Beatitude, there can be no doubt that the partriarchal movement is an all-Ukrainian movement which includes also, many faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In view of this, one can not behold to the opinions of those who feel that the patriarchal movement is merely the work of nationalists and that the creation of a Ukrainian Catholic patriarchate today would be a “hostile interference in the internal affairs of the USSR” as we recently stated in a secret memorandum. (1)

Be it as it may however, some of the reasons for Cardinal Slipyj’s popularity lie in the meaning that he has for his people. The Confessor of Faith is a living symbol. He is a cogent symbol of the unity and survival of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, particularly of the Silent Church of the Catacombs. At the same time he is also the symbol of Ukraine, a representative of those millions of exiles in the slave labor camps of Siberia with whom he shared his fate for eighteen years. The very presence of His Beatitude among us today constitutes a divine message: “A message about the power of faith, the value of truth, the benevolence of unity and about the significance of tradition—both Christian and national.”(2)

In addition, the Cardinal is a powerful personality. As Professor Thomas Bird of New York City University once pointed out, “to converse with the Cardinal is to be transported on the one hand to an earlier era which still esteems and respects personal integrity—on the other hand one can not talk with him long without being deeply impressed with his extreme modernity. He is the epitome of a responsible conscientious head of a local church. You are never in doubt that you are in the presence of the Primate of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.”(3)

All these things, however, do not completely explain why thousands of third and fourth generation Ukrainian Americans, most of whom do not even speak Ukrainian anymore, as well as numerous non-Ukrainians display such fervent love and veneration for him. Hence one must seek the explanation for the “phenomenon Slipyj” elsewhere. Perhaps an explanation will suggest itself if we examine our attitude to the modern world and its values, if we analyze, however briefly, the basic fabric of our society.

We live in an age where “convenience,” “efficiency,” and “time-saving’ ’ have become passwords to the utopia of the full-color adds, flashing neon signs, the roar of engines, and the cacophony of what is described as modern music. Ours is a society of excesses which have deprived our life of authenticity. In politics, for example, as John Keenan, the editor of the journal Four Quarters remarked, “we are getting all too familiar with the candidate who comes prepackaged in a plastic bag labeled ‘Image,’ needing only the hot lights of television for defrosting and serving. In entertainment we have the manufactured musical, the formula TV show, the pseudo-profundity of many song lyrics. In publishing, the best seller list is generously sprinkled with ‘non-books by non-writers for non-readers’ as someone had described such books as those by Doctors Reuben and Atkins.”(4)

In this shoddy, sham-reality of our day, in which even the highest circles of Church and government appear unfree of baseness and corruption, many people seek frantically for something or someone who is authentic, who is truly human; someone who can not be broken nor bought, neither for rubbles nor for dollars. Peter Worthington of the Toronto Sun (April 19, 1973), said it best when writing about Cardinal Slipyj he stated: “Here, for the record, is one of those special people who can not be broken and whose inner strength and purity is such that it raises him above his peers. Cardinal Slipyj is without equal: Small wonder the Soviets were plagued by him for 18 years in the camps. Somehow it seems fitting that the Vatican bureaucracy too, has found him immovable in his integrity.” The meaning of these words is clear: By remaining steadfast and loyal to his principles and his faith during the times of greatest adversity and by speaking out courageously on behalf of truth and justice, the Ukrainian Patriarch has become the voice of the Christian conscience in a secularized world. His importance today is not limited to the Ukrainian Catholic Church alone; his words and deeds bring solace and inspiration to all Christians who have remained loyal to the teachings of Christ.

And herein, it appears, lie the answers for the “phenomenon Slipyj.” In a world where absolutes are sadly lacking, where people compromise their principles on a daily basis, Cardinal Slipyj reminds all of us that man has truly been created in the image and likeness of God. His presence rekindles the divine spark in the human heart and assures us that the great qualities of spirit, which are a part of the Christian tradition and of the Ukrainian cultural heritage, can and will once again triumph over the sham reality of our age.


(1)     The memorandum is entitled “Quelques considerations sur la question ukrainienne (Notes personnelles—Pas por publication).” It bears the signature of the author.
(2)     Miroslav Labunka, “On the 80th Birthday of Our Archbishop Major, His Beatitude Josyf Slipyj,” Za Patriarchat (March, 1972), Vol. VI, No. 1, p. 32.
(3)     As quoted in Looking East: Quarterly of the Byzantine Center Fatima, Portugal. (1972), Vol. 6, No. 12, p. 29.
(4)     See: “Marginalia…” (Four Quarters Spring 1973), Vol. XXII, No. 3, p. 48.

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