The spiritual leader of Ukrainian Catholics in South Jersey said “it really is unsettling” right now for his parishioners as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine.
Borys Gudziak, Archbishop-Metropolitan for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, is “hoping for God’s intervention,” he told Gannett New Jersey in an interview.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the attack early Thursday, claiming the objective of the attack was to defend Russian-speakers in Ukraine.
“(Thursday) was a very sad day for Ukrainian democracy, deemed assailed by a psychopathic man who wants to create an empire,” Gudziak said of Putin. “He has power over 11 Russian time zones, but that must not be enough.”
Gudziak has served as Archbishop-Metropolitan since 2019. The Archeparchy of Philadelphia serves 12,000 parishioners in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC
It has South Jersey churches in Cherry Hill and Millville.
A Facebook page for St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Cherry Hill carried messages of support for Ukraine.
“We believe that in this historic moment the Lord is with us!,” said one post. “He, who holds in his hands the fate of the whole world and of each person in particular, is always on the side of the victims of unjust aggression, the suffering and the enslaved.”
Gudziak said about 60 percent of his parishioners are either Ukrainian immigrants or children of immigrants from the last 25 to 30 years.
“Most of Americans have not had to deal with violence like this, and violent death in their own lives,” Gudziak said. “They see people traumatized by it, but it’s somebody else’s tragedy, it’s next door. This has been a background story for Ukraine the last eight years.”
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Anxiety has grown among Ukrainians since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, the archbishop added.
And why is Russia attacking now?
“The real answer is Ukraine is a democracy with freedom of press, religion, a vibrant civic discourse,” Gudziak said. “(Putin) is very afraid that culture right at his doorstep could spill over, could affect his authoritarian state. Dictators are afraid of freedom because they want control.”
Gudziak spent the first two weeks of February in Ukraine, where he said the mood of the people “was a combination of certain types of stoicisms.”
“They are used to hardships,” Gudziak said of Ukrainians.
“There was no panic when I was there, no one running out for toilet paper or groceries, no one pulling their money out of bank accounts,” Gudziak continued. “Life is tough. The people realize that and keep calm, keep a stiff upper lip.”
But Thursday’s attack by Russia changed that dynamic.
“Of course it did,” said Gudziak, adding “people are being killed.”
“The defense has been valiant,” Gudziak said. “Russian aircrafts have been shot down, invaders captured. I feel sorry for Russian mothers and the widows and orphans created by this. There was no reason for war.”
Back home, in the Philadelphia region, Gudziak said parishioners and community members had mobilized even before Thursday’s invasion.
Protests in Washington DC and prayer marathons at churches were already under way. Collection drives and charitable donations for the people of Ukraine were ongoing. And, according to Gudziak, parishioners were writing to congressmen and senators, pushing for more resolute sanctions and provisions against Russia “to stop this war.”
“It’s quite a grassroots effort; it’s a fabric of our lives,” he said. “These efforts help people deal with the anxiety caused. Our parishioners are very generous. Lots of pierogis have been sold to build churches and fund all kinds of charitable causes.”
In the meantime, Gudziak is praying that support comes Ukraine’s way.
He says the country needs help against Russia.
“Have you ever been in the subway when the hoodlum attacks the little old lady?” Gudziak asked. “For defenders of the little old lady to manage to put aside the hoodlum, they need instruments to do that. They’re giving their lives, but they need international support.”
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Gudziak, who spoke in a phone call from Paris, planned to return to Philadelphia to attend a service Sunday at the North Franklin Street cathedral.
“We hope to be together,” he said, taking a break to reflect on a baptism he performed for a boy earlier that day.
“It was kind of a beautiful, symbolic moment in the midst of all that’s happening,” Gudziak said.
A South Jersey native, Anthony Coppola has handled a variety of beats at The Daily Journal, Courier-Post and Burlington County Times, including award-winning work in sports and business coverage. Coppola, who joined the staff in 2008, now focuses on regional education reporting. Please consider supporting local journalism with a digital subscription.