A Brief Reflection On The Urgency Of Language And Inculturation Within The UGCC Abroad

3 June 2013, 15:56 | Analysis | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

John Alexander Reves,

Subdeacon Mag. Theol.

Reves.jpgIntroductory Remarks

This question of language and inculturation is most certainly one of tremendous importance for the future of our Church outside of Ukraine (that is to say in the so called “disapora“), yet it is a very emotional question that certainly requires a great deal of pastoral awareness and sensitivity. This question is not necessarily new to communities in North America, where it has been dealt with to great extent.  However, in Western Europe there is still much work ahead in this respect.  In this Article I would like to make a few remarks concerning this issue based on my observations and experience in ministry in a small center for Eastern Christian spirituality as well as in my Ukrainian parish in Salzburg, Austria.  I am painfully aware of the limits of my vision in this matter, nonetheless the subject of language and inculturation are central in my own life.  I am a Ukrainian Greek Catholic without Ukrainian roots, and an American married to an Austrian living in country where my native tongue is not spoken and serving in a Ukrainian parish, whose traditions, language, saints and culture are very dear to my heart.

A Particular Church Gone Global: Statement of the Problem

Why is the question of inculturation and language so urgent or for that matter important?  In 2008 while addressing an international academic conference concerning the roll of the Eastern Catholic Churches in the Universal Church at the International Theological Institute in Gaming (Austria), Kyr Yaroslav Pryriz (at that time the auxiliary bishop of Sambir-Drohobych), asserted that the UGCC has become a "global Church."  That means that the UGCC has established itself all over the world. Ukrainian Catholics are not at all geographically limited to their historical homeland.  In the course of many decades this Church has built communities in very distant places (Europe, Asia, Oceania, North and South America, etc).  Some of these communities have been established in the 19th century, others in last century, and new communities begin in new places now in the 21st century.  Some of these communities are more inculturated where most members are rooted in the new country while other communities are more flexible with migrants who plan to return home to Ukraine.  Yet, while in many communities Ukrainian Language and culture are diligently preserved with great love and attention, the problem arrives that some who have established themselves in their adopted country are losing or have lost their native language and have adapted themselves to the life in that land.  The classic examples are the children or grandchildren of immigrants or children of mixed marriages who grew up in this new country and are completely inculturated in it.  This poses a question of great pastoral importance how to minister to this segment of the Church which has lost its connection to Ukrainian language. 

A second question concerns the Mission of the UGCC in the countries where this church is established.  In the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church, Ad Gentes (To the Nations), the Church declares: "The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature, since it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she draws her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father."[1]  As a particular Church united in the Catholic Church, the UGCC certainly has a share in the responsibility in the mission of the Church Universal to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In his famous speech, Das Konzil—ein neuer Beginn delivered just days after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council[2], the German theologian Karl Rahner boldly challenged the Eastern Catholic Churches to engage in the missionary activity of the Church:

The Eastern Catholic churches must first demonstrate that they have will and strength for mission activities of their own initiative, and the Latin Church must first demonstrate that it does not treat and judge these churches as some sort of venerable museum relic from the past.[3]

If the Church present throughout the world is to reach out to men and women seeking Christ, then it will be important to find ways to encounter them and guide them to Christ.

Therefore, I believe it is necessary to continue to contemplate ways of translating and inculturating the tradition of the Kievan Byzantine Rite of our Church in the lands where it is now present.

The Historical Question of Language

The question of language and inculturation is not a new to the churches of the Byzantine rite.  While all of these churches derive their tradition from the Great Church of Constantinople, the Byzantine Rite found its own incarnation (or better: inculturation) within each national Church.  One can rightfully speak of the Byzantine rite of the Greeks, of the Ukrainians, of the Bulgarians, of the Romanians, of the Russians etc.  In fact one can easily speak of a certain universality of the rite of Constantinople.  Each church possesses its own recension with local characteristics and adaptation of the rites.  In the ninth century the Apostles of the Slavs, Cryil (+869) and Methodius (+885), two Greek brothers from Thessaloniki journeyed into the Slavic east to bring the Gospel of Christ.  Their labors paved the way for a language (the foundations of Church Slavonic) that would inculturate the Rites of Byzantium into a Slavic form for these peoples.  They did not wish to impose the Greek language on the newly baptized but rather to bring the truth of Christ in a way that could be understood.  Later with the Baptism of Kievan Rus in 988 the fruits of the labors of these two saints would be harvested through subsequent missionaries in the Christianization of Ukraine and beyond. 

Yet old Slavonic, while deeply relevant to the development of Ukrainian and other Slavic cultures and languages, is not the language spoken by people in Ukraine.  In the 20th century some in various Slavic Eastern Churches suggested the need to adapt the local language for the Liturgy.[4]  In the inter-war period in our Church, the Blessed Hieromartyr Omelian Kovcz (1884-1944) championed the use of Ukrainian in the Liturgy so that it would be understood by the faithful.[5]  During the terrible persecution of our Church under the Soviet regime (1944-1990) the urgency of translating and implementing the liturgy of the Ukrainian Church into Ukrainian became all the more urgent for the preservation of the Church’s religious and cultural tradition.  With the advent of the Liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council and its insistence on Inculturation as well as the tremendous work of renewal by Patriarch Josyf Slipyi, the UGCC championed a broad use of Ukrainian in the liturgical celebrations.  The Council also paved the way for the use other local languages in the Church.

Since the Second Vatican Council Church, the UGCC now has many parishes outside of Ukraine particularly in North America in which the local language of the country is used. However, there are parishes in North America which maintain Ukrainian as the liturgical language.  Certainly the danger however, with the maintenance of strictly Ukrainian language where migration has slowed or even stopped, is that younger generations who do not speak Ukrainian may feel alienated and not at home within their parish.  Some could have the feeling that their church serves merely as an institution or museum for the preservation of Ukrainian culture and language rather then the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Several years ago I read a letter posted on the official website of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) in which a woman voiced her concern that her Ukrainian Orthodox parish was more concerned with Ukraine than Christ.  For this reason she stopped going to the Orthodox Church and started going to a Roman Catholic parish instead!  While cultural events, dance groups, Plast associations etc. can make a very valuable contribution to parish life, they should however, not overshadow the vital mission of the Church to proclaim the saving message of Christ to the world.[6] 

It seems to me that there are several wonderful examples of parishes of the UGCC outside of Ukraine that minister to Ukrainian migrants in Ukrainian and to those who are either North Americans of Ukrainian decent, converts or those who are drawn to the beauty of the Eastern tradition in English language and have rich programs of spiritual nourishment and fraternity as well as a lively cultural life with the treasures of Ukrainian culture.  Such an example would be for me the parish of St. Elias the prophet in Brampton, Ontario (Canada).[7]

Experiences in Austria

After completing my theological studies at the International Theological Institute in Gaming, my wife and I came to Salzburg at the behest of Fr. Nikolaj Hornykewycz to found a center for Eastern Christian spirituality (the Byzantine Prayer Center of St. Nicholas of Myra and St. Mary of Egypt) together with Fr. Andreas Bonenberger, a bi-ritual Roman Catholic priest. This center which opened in 2008 in the Ukrainian Catholic Church of St. Mark's in Salzburg is dedicated to bringing the tradition of the Byzantine Rite to the German speaking people in Austria. Here we keep a full schedule of prayer during the week in which we pray vespers, the hours, the Divine Liturgy and various devotions such as the Akathist to Christ or to the Theotokos and in Lent the Great Canon of St. Andrew all which in German.[8]  We are without a doubt one of very few places (whether Catholic or Orthodox) in the German speaking world with regular German language Byzantine services.[9]  Our center utilizes the liturgical forms of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (rubrics and usages) and uses predominately the Galician/Samojilka chant in German.  The goal of our center is to make known the tradition of the Eastern Church and through them to draw people closer to Christ.[10]  Therefore, our center is a place which is active in the "New Evangelization," as we are convinced that the traditions of the Eastern Church have something to give people living in the west.  Aside from the program of prayer and liturgy, the Byzantine Center offers seminars and days of encounter in which people can learn more about the Jesus Prayer, and other subjects such as icon painting.  The center is also place of ecumenical meeting drawing together Orthodox and Oriental Christians and engaging in a lively encounter.  For me the work of our center is a positive contribution of the UGCC on a local level by making known the richness of our tradition and drawing people to Christ and his Gospel.

In the parish, services on Sunday are always in Ukrainian.  Our community in the parish of St. Mark's is very mixed.  We have a sizeable population of immigrants from Bosnia of Ukrainian decent who immigrated to Austria during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990's. There are a few people from Ukraine who are economic migrants as well as some Polish Ukrainians and a handful of Austrians.  The older generations, particularly from the Bosnian group are very tied and connected to their Ukrainian traditions.  They are very concerned that some of the younger generations (particularly from their children and grandchildren) are not so involved in parish life and are losing their cultural roots.  I myself have experienced first-hand through visitations with families in the parish whose children often want to speak German to their parents who speak Ukrainian to them.  These children attend school all day and hear only German from their classmates.  This is the world in which they are growing up.  On one visitation I encountered a young adult who spoke flawless German with an Austrian accent.  I have never seen her in Church, but I met her while accompanying the priest during the Jordan blessings.  She told me that she can speak Ukrainian but is ashamed to do so as she was always mocked at school.  I told her that it is a great gift to speak a second language. 

Recently I spoke to a Ukrainian from northern Poland, whose family was displaced in the tragic events around Operation Vistula.  He expressed to me his concern that the younger generations preserve their Greek Catholic identity.  He argued that it would be important in Poland for example to provide more services for the youth in Polish as this is the language that many are speaking.  He fears that if these steps of inculturation are not done then the Church runs the risk of losing the youth.  I found this commentary to be extraordinarily deep since it reaches over the chasm of recent historical wounds between Poland and Ukraine and touches the reality of life among Ukrainian youth in “the diaspora“ in Poland.[11]

As I have said, I also observe the fear of the older generation that Ukrainian language and culture will be lost.  This is always a painful situation for the older generation to see, one that is certainly a legitimate fear.  However, I ask myself if it would be far more disastrous to lose the Ukrainian Greek Catholic faith which can exist without the language if need be, as is evidenced in North America.  If our parishes had to make the transition one day, albeit slowly, to the local language abroad we would not lose our tradition, because the Byzantine Tradition is deeply universal and can be, and this is historically proven, transplanted into another environment.  I also believe that the particular tradition of the Byzantine Kievan Rite of our church has this flexibility.

In Salzburg[12] other Eastern Churches are confronted with similar problems relating to language and inculturation.  I would like here to cite an example from an Orthodox parish which I know well.  The Orthodox parish of St. Michael the Archangel is a large community of Romanian believers.  However, there are some children from mixed marriages in the parish who do not have a great knowledge of Romanian.  Fr. Viezuianu, the pastor uses a bi-lingual Liturgicon in Romanian and German, he very freely goes between one language and the next.  He often has the readings in both languages and preaches in both languages, perhaps this could serve as a model in many of our parishes abroad, particularly in some places in Western Europe.[13]

Some Conclusions

The work of inculturation may seem far away in many parts of our Church, particularly in Western Europe due to the influx of many migrants from Ukraine.  For these migrants the use of Ukrainian language is vital as the Church is their "home away from home." The Church is a place where they can meet and pray and find their dignity as children of God in a West where conditions are not always friendly to them as outsiders.  However, for the sake of future generations of believers who will grow up in Western Europe (and elsewhere) and adapt to the culture and way of life present in those countries, it is important for the Church to contemplate ways to minister to these people.  Such ways could perhaps include the celebration at least once a month of the Liturgy in the local language and the possibility to provide catechism in the local language, or as I have mentioned above with the Romanian Orthodox example to celebrate the Liturgy bi-lingually.[14]  I believe that the translation of the Catechism of our Church, Christ our Pascha, in the languages of the countries where our church is present is also needed.[15]

This project of inculturation and adoption of the local languages seems to be an important issue for our Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk (who has extensive knowledge of this question through his service as the UGCC bishop in Argentina). In an interview on the internet site risu.org.ua (Religious Information Service of Ukraine), the Patriarch commented:

And the next question, which I really pushed as we developed this strategy[16], is the question inculturation. Maybe this is so important to me because I ended up in South America and asked myself what it meant to be an Eastern rite Christian in Latin American culture. What we here consider east, for that side of the world is north; that is, these geographical orientations are completely different. That’s when I saw the extraordinary interest in our church, and that entire time I preached in Spanish, translating into Spanish the traditional Greek, Old Slavonic spiritual concepts, expressions, and phrases. That culture was in great need of the treasure of faith and spiritual traditions that we have in our Byzantine Eastern spirituality. We as a church descended from the mission of the Slavic Apostles Cyril and Methodius — great translators of the Scripture and liturgy — have an extraordinary mission to continue this translation so we may pray properly and profoundly in English, in Spanish, in Portuguese, in Ukrainian.[17] That is why the question of inculturation is very important.[18]

In conclusion, my hope is that our Church will open its heart more and more for the life of the Church in foreign lands and that the traditions of the UGCC will become more and more imbedded and inculturated in the local realities in which the church finds itself.  As Sts. Cyrill and Methodius brought to the Slavs the Byzantine Rite and found ways to inculturate it, may the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church find ways to do likewise in the worlds where she is present and to proclaim the Good News to all who hunger and thirst for Christ.  It is on the one hand important to minister to those who have sadly lost touch with their Ukrainian roots and on the other side to work for the New Evangelization to draw all to Christ.[19]  My hope is a vision of the UGCC as a truly global and inculturated family in the Catholic Church, a church rooted and at home all over the world in many languages but professing the same Catholic faith and keeping the Kievan tradition in the multiplicity of local languages and being presided over by the Patriarch of Kyiv-Halych in communion with the Successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome who "presides over the Church in love." I believe that this is possible, it make take years.  Our Patriarch Sviatoslav however gives me great hope for this vision: during a visit to Winnipeg, Canada in 2012, Patriarch Sviatoslav was asked by a young man where he fit into the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as neither he nor his parents spoke Ukrainian.  The Patriarch answered: "This is not a church of Ukrainians, it's a church of Christ . . . We are a global Church. We are a church of the Ukrainian tradition."[20]

For this hope and vision of a global Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church ready to embrace the challenges of language and inculturation, I would humbly like to propose the witness of one of our new Hieromartyrs, Blessed Petro Verhun (1890-1957).  This great saint, served among Ukrainians in Germany before and during World War II.  Aside from his work among his own people he ministered to German people and helped to reveal to them beauty of the Eastern Traditions in celebrating the Divine Liturgy for faithful in the Abbey of Niederaltaich where he even became a Benedictine Oblate.  May he accompany the work of this New Evangelization in his Prayers before the Holy Trinity in Glory.


[1] Decree Ad Gentes: On the Mission Activity of the Church, Paragraph 2

[2] Rahner delieverd this address on the evening of December 12, 1965 to an audience of church dignitaries, academics and politicians in the Herkulessaal in Munich.  Among those present was the Ukrainian Greek Catholic exarch of Germany, Kyr Platon Kornyliak (see Rahner, Das Konzil—ein neuer Beginn. (Herder Verlag, Freiburg, 2012),63).

[3] „Die orientalisch-katholischen Kirchen müssen erst noch zeigen daß sie Wille und Kraft zur eigenen missionarischen Tätigkeit haben, und die lateinische Kirche muß erst noch beweisen, daß sie diese Kirchen nicht bloß als ehrwürdig-museale Relikte aus der Vergangenheit einschätzt und behandelt (Rahner, 42).“

[4] A  well-known example in Russian Orthodox Church is Metroplotian Evlogy Georgiyevsky of Paris (1868-1948), who as Orthodox bishop of Kholm championed the use of modern Russian in the Liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

[5] Kowcz-Baran, Anna Maria. For God’s Truth and Human Rights (ASAP Print and Copy System, Ottawa, 2006), 46.

[6] Certainly these cultural programs in a parish should in fact contribute to the mission of the Church.

[7] This parish has a rich internet presence which makes there life available to those living beyond Canada notably, their rich collection of video of liturgical celebrations on "youtube.com."

[8] for further information see (in German): http://byzantinischesgebetszentrum.blogspot.co.at

[9] Two other notable places that should be mentioned in the German speaking world are the Benedictine Abbey of Niederaltaich (whose celebration of the Byzantine Rite goes back to its friendship with the Blessed Hieromartyr Petro Verhun) and the Collegium Orientale at the Catholic University of Eichstätt--both of which are in Bavaria.

[10] It must be noted, however, that our goal is not proselytism.  Many Roman Catholic friends of our Center are active in their own Roman Catholic parishes and find at our center extra nourishment for their prayer life.

[11] The thoughts of this man who is a father of three are extremely open minded.  I had the occasion to speak to a young Polish law student who comes from Polish and Ukrainian decent and was studying Ukrainian language in Lviv, who commented that he found the Ukrainian diaspora in Poland rather nationalistic and closed minded.

[12] In Salzburg there are Eastern Christian communities of Romanian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Syrian (Oriental) Orthodox communities.

[13] Here I would like to mention that Greek Catholics in Austria are all under the jurisdiction (irrespective of national Church) of the Archdiocese of Vienna, whose current ordinary is Christoph Cardinal Schönborn.  In September 2012, the first priest retreat was held in the Norbertine monastery of Geras in Lower Austria.  This monastery features a Byzantine rite chapel where the Abbot Fr. Michael Prohazka O.Pream. celebrates in German the Divine Liturgy.  As the priests present were from different churches sui juris (UGCC, Romanian Greek Catholic Church, Melkite Greek Catholic Church, Hungarian Greek Catholic Church etc.) it was necessary to chant the Liturgy, vespers and hours in our common language, German. Furthermore, I would like to note that as of March 2013, our jurisdiction started a German language church newspaper which will appear ca. four times a year with articles about news and spirituality.  This newspaper is made possible by the generous financial help of the Austria Ministry of Integration. 

[14] It would be worthy project to consider the question of how the local church could help immigrants integrate into their new surroundings.  This seems to me to be an important aspect of the social work of the Church.  Perhaps the limited use of the local language in the Liturgy could help as well to serve in this matter?

[15] This would be extremely important for the Church in the German speaking lands! Hopefully this will happen, it will be very necessary!

[16] Here the Patriarch is referring to the strategic planning of the UGCC for the next twenty that was recently prepared by the Synod of the UGCC.

[17] Even a new German edition of the Divine Liturgy has been prepared with the blessing of His Beatitude Sviatoslav and is being printed at this time.  Hopefully it will see a wide use in Germany.

[18] "New Head of Ukrainian Catholics: We Want Our Church to be Alive", Interview, 31. March 2011

[19] Once again this not about proselytism, but mere to share the Gospel of Christ with those who are searching.

[20] Barb Fraze, "Ukrainian Catholic Leader Shares Favorites, Faith in Winnipeg“, Catholic News Service, 8. September 2012 ()

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