A few years before he died, Francis Cardinal George (1937-2015) wrote about a widely circulated comment he had made during a conversation about the secularization of our nation:

“I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

But, he writes, an important part of his remarks were left out:

“What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: ‘His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.’”

Those circulating Cardinal George’s remarks missed the larger picture that he could see: Throughout the ages, and to the benefit of civilization, the Church has endured because of courageous men and women who stand firm in the faith despite the winds of their times.

Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (1865-1944)

Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (1865-1944)

On July 16, Pope Francis issued a decree recognizing the heroic virtues of eight servants of God who displayed such courage. Among the eight elevated to the status of “Venerable” in their journey to sainthood is Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (1865–1944) of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Sheptytsky can teach us much about how to stand firm in the faith despite forced secularization and the tyranny of the state.

Recognized for his role in protecting Jews from the Nazis during World War II, Sheptytsky, who served as Metropolitan from 1901 to 1944, displayed heroic virtue in every aspect of his life.

Despite the great obstacles thrust in his path during the extremely difficult years he shepherded the church, Sheptytsky emerged, in the words of Vasyl Laba, in his monograph Metropolitan Sheptytsky: His Life and Accomplishments (out of print), as an:

“. . . exemplary apostle, who worked among wars, hatred, and the evil of men, and who knew among these how to find the road, along which the Lord guides people.”

Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (1865-1944)

Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (1865-1944)

Sheptytsky in many ways is the Saint Pope John Paul II of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, not just because of his long tenure as Metropolitan, but because he unified and built up this particular church during a time when evil men attempted to crush it.

Sheptytsky was a missionary; a language and theology professor; a founder of seminaries; a man who stressed education of priests and arranged for more than 200 to earn degrees at western universities; creator of a Ukrainian theological faculty; founder of a theological academy; and the formal organizer of the Studite Order.

A Basilian monk, as Metropolitan he wrote a monastic rule for the Studites. A revision of the rule he made with his brother, Blessed Hieromartyr Clement Sheptytsky — who died in a Soviet prison — became, Laba writes, “a comprehensive manual for monastic life in the Eastern Church.”

In his years as Metropolitan, Sheptytsky held the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church together, built it up, and prepared it for the grim future it would face under communism.

In his book Christian Social Ethics in Ukraine: The Legacy of Andrey Sheptytsky, Andrii Krawchuk writes of how Sheptytsky anticipated the hostility of Soviet Russia and so firmly stated his policy in a 1939 pastoral letter:

“… we will comply with the civil authority; we will obey the laws insofar as they do not contravene the law of God; we will not meddle in politics and secular affairs, nor will we cease to work tirelessly for the Christian cause among our people.”

He demanded that his priests pay closest attention to the spiritual life of their flocks and to their own. While contending with the forced secularization of the atheistic Soviets, priests would find the strength to be pastors, he believed, in scripture, prayer, and in administering the sacraments. They would become beacons of light for the people.

His priests and bishops would need this strength in the years after his death, when hundreds were either murdered or imprisoned in the Gulag because they refused to join the state-approved Russian Orthodox Church. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church survived by going underground in Soviet Russia, where it remained until 1989.

Yet because of the foresight of Sheptytsky, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church endured in Ukraine and flourished throughout the world, including Canada and the United States.

Sheptytsky’s legacy includes the ordination or consecration as bishop of four men who are now blessed, the last step before sainthood, and a fifth whose cause for canonization is underway: Bishop Blessed Martyr Vasyl Velychkovsky; Bishop Blessed Martyr Nykyta Budka; Bishop Blessed Martyr Grigorij Chomyszyn; Bishop Blessed Martyr Josaphat Joseph Kocylovskyj; and Josyf Cardinal Slipyj.

Communist Russia did all it could to destroy the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, but Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky shored up the Church against their ruins and ensured that evil would not prevail.

The life of Sheptytsky, the exemplary apostle, gives us hope in our own dark times.