Our Hellenic Heritage | Ukrainian weekly


The story goes that a young American couple decided to visit the land of their ancestors. All they knew was that their family was Greek Catholic. So they booked a trip to – Greece.

Today, Greece offers a beautiful heritage. The philosophy, art, literature and science of classical Greece, not to mention democracy, are fundamental to our Western civilization. Certainly our understanding of classical Greek culture is colored by our own presuppositions. There is always the danger of distorting it in the prism of a modern world view (see Robert Royal, “The God that Did Not Fail”, 2006, chapter 1, in particular p. 8).

Our very language borrows heavily from ancient Greek, with its rock hard syllables creaking like pebbles underfoot, forming delightful words like ‘catastrophe’, ‘apocalypse’ and (my favorite) ‘apocatastasis’. Previous generations of Ukrainians studied Greek in school, as evidenced by their penchant for words like “korifei”, “palestra” (a word for “gymnasium” applied to the bar, where lawyers wrestled with their colleagues) and “Ehyda” (“” aegis “, a kind of shield, as in” Zeus the aegis “).

They also learned about Greek myths and legends. Tropes (figures of speech, of “tropos” – “turn”) like the Achilles heel, the sword of Damocles and the Trojan horse were part of everyday speech. When the Ukrainian cadets fell while holding the Bolsheviks at Kruty in January 1918, our ancestors immediately had to recall Thermopylae, where Leonidas and his Spartans perished while repelling the Persian invaders. Today, as semi-educated university graduates fail to distinguish “parameter” from “perimeter,” the language has lost some of its richness.

The main rival of Greek is, of course, Latin. Proponents of Homer’s idiom view Latin as relatively awkward and unrefined. What, after all, may correspond to the sophistication of a language in which, in the fourth century, the “iota” of the difference between “homoousios” (identical in essence) and “homoiousios” (similar in its essence) could spark acrimonies and political debates about the nature of Jesus Christ?

As esoteric as such questions may sound today, our “Greek” Catholic couple was on to something when they traveled to Greece. Because the stories of Greece and Ukraine are closely linked. Perhaps I felt part of this when, on a student trip through the Peloponnese in 1971, I felt an almost mystical feeling of having been there before. Greek settlers appeared as early as the 8th century BC in Crimea and along the shores of the Black Sea. Cities like Panticapaeum and states like the Bosporus Kingdom came and went, but the Greeks stayed, trading between cities like Miletus and Megara, where many of them originated from, and regardless of peoples. nomads or agriculturalists who currently inhabited the interior of the steppe. .

Christians were already present on the Crimean and Black Sea coast during the apostolic era. Roman capital from the 4th century, the “New Rome” of Byzantium (renamed Constantinople) sent missionaries to the barbarian regime born in the north in the 8th century and known as Rus’. We all know the story of the baptism of Rus’ in 987-989, which involved military aid from Grand Prince Volodymyr to Byzantine Emperor Basil II and the marriage of the former to the latter’s sister Anna. This brought Greek clerics to Ukraine and, along with a Greek-based Slavic alphabet developed by missionaries Cyril and Methodius and their followers, a liturgical language and literature created in Bulgaria for the Slavs. He also brought a wealth of Greek cultural influence that continued even after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, intensifying during the 17th century Orthodox revival in Kiev and ending with the subordination of the metropolis of Kiev to Moscow in 1685 (see Ihor Sevcenko, “Byzantine Roots of Ukrainian Christianity”, 1984).

Greek merchant Vasilios Vatatzes, who traveled to Ukraine, and Ukrainian Vasyl Hryhorovych-Barsky, who visited Greece, both contributed to the rich travel literature of the 18th century. Greek merchants flourished in Mariupol and Odessa in the 19th century, even establishing their own schools. The Greek independence movement simmered in Odessa after 1814. In the 1920s, there was a Greek cultural revival limited to Soviet Mariupol and Crimea, until the Stalinist repression in the 1930s. After World War II, the Russia’s continued association with the peoples of the Balkans encouraged a Communist uprising in Greece. Greek Russophilia remains a problem.

Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic Churches have strived to find the right attitude towards “pagan” Greek philosophy. As Ihor Sevcenko noted, the importation of Byzantine Christianity resulted in only limited elements of classical Greek culture (Sevcenko, op. Cit., 14). But some have criticized the “intellectualism” that Greek philosophy introduced into Christian teaching (Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Melody of Theology”, 1988, sv “Hellenization”). Saint Basil recommended to study the ancient authors, even if one did not accept all their notions (Ivan Kaszczak, “The Education of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Clergy (1882-1946)”, 2005, pp. 176-77) . Western Europe received Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, through Arab intermediaries, and St. Thomas Aquinas harmonized it with Catholic theology in the 13th century. By rejecting Thomism as too “Latin”, our Churches would seem to close the door to an important synthesis of Christianity with classical philosophy that our own tradition has failed to inherit from its Greek sources.

“Byzantinism” was a point of contention in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of the twentieth century, with Reverend Havryil Kostelnyk as its champion, Bishop Hryhory Khomyshyn his main adversary and Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky as the advocate of a moderate course. Relying on Greek rather than Moscow sources, the “Orientals” avoided the accusation of imitating Russian Orthodoxy, forging a “Kyivian Byzantine” tradition accessible to both our Catholic and Orthodox churches. Today, the Byzantine Greek liturgy remains our model. Meanwhile, the Greek Orthodox once again caught our attention, with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew creating a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church and prominent Greek clergymen supporting it. Some experts warn, however, that Ukraine should reject the Byzantine model of church-state “symphony” so faithfully copied by Russia.

In a sense, then, these young “Greek” Catholics were not mistaken. Greece is indeed an essential part of our heritage.

Andrew Sorokowski can be contacted at [email protected]

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