Last night, I was privileged to attend a lecture at the University by Archbishop Claudio Gudzherotti, the apostolic nuncio to Ukraine. His topic was roughly stated as “Where are we going as Christians ? What are we trying to overcome in the post-soviet experience at the beginning of the 21 st century ?”
I’ve heard many similar lectures or homilies (including Pope Francis’s address to congress last year) which were addressed to Americans in general, or commenting specifically on the state of American culture. Bishops often have the perspective or moral insight necessary to speak broadly on the challenges we face not just as individuals, or as members of a particular party, but as moral agents interacting with the whole world. I’ve never had the opportunity to hear first-hand what a bishop has to say to another nation and culture with a very different set of problems. I felt Bishop Gudzherotti’s comments deepened my insight into the issues facing Ukraine.
What follows is my summary of the lecture prepared from the several pages of notes I took. These are His Excellency’s words and thoughts set down to the best of my understanding, but might not be exact, since they are all filtered through my perception. When I’ve inserted my own comments, I’ve tried to make it clear using parenthetical statements or personal pronouns.
First, His Excellency talked about the necessity of developing a sense of self that is separate from the unfortunate appellation “post-Soviet”. Soviet culture silences reflection and breeds artificial conformity. It thus squelches the ability for self-reflection and self-analysis. Post-Soviet peoples, Bishop Gudzherotti believes, are not proud of themselves. Lacking a natural self-confidence provided by self-knowledge, they have a tendency to buy self-confidence when it is “sold” to them by extreme nationalists or power-seekers.
The solution, then, is self-expression. Ukrainians (and other post-Soviet peoples) need to get in the habit of describing and discussing themselves and their culture. They will thus develop self-knowledge and, out of that, a healthy sense of self-confidence. One should look at oneself both critically and with mercy. The university provides “critically”, the Church should provide “with mercy”.
(Side comment that I thought was funny: “The way a culture asks for the toilet is the way it addresses its problems”. Cultures where they ask, “May I wash my hands?” are circumspect. I suppose a hearty American “Where’s the crapper?” would be the opposite extreme.)
People become manipulators, the Bishop said, because they feel lacking in affection. We manipulate others first for affection, and then for money or power.
He then spoke about the issue of “propaganda”, which is of great concern to Ukrainians, who feel particularly threatened by pro-Russian propaganda in both the East and the West. Rather than specifically addressing the problem with Russia, however, the Bishop spoke more broadly about the dangers of propaganda in general, and how the Ukrainians may find themselves hurt by their own propaganda as well as the Russians’.
Propaganda, in his view, is the building of a system that kills internal freedom. It is easy for us to see our enemy’s propaganda for what it is. It is much harder to see propaganda from our own side. Propaganda can very easily be the illusion of being better than we are, so that we avoid the work of becoming good.
Propaganda is also the use of character assassination or mud-flinging as a weapon against our enemies. Propaganda seeks to destroy a man’s whole reputation. The Soviets, if they arrested someone for a particular crime, would also seek to paint him as a coward, or a sexual libertine, or any number of things. Justice demands penalties for particular crimes, not the destruction of character as a whole.
Furthermore, even when we make propaganda out of our good feelings, we destroy those good feelings, ultimately corrupting them. (If the Bishop expanded on this thought, I missed it. My interpretation is that this ties back into the “illusion of being better than we are”, and was a caution to the Ukrainians against lionizing their good qualities to the point it becoming a counter-propaganda).
Jesus, he said, preached religion without propaganda. His silence, before Pilate and before Herod, is the refutation of propaganda. Propaganda is endless talking, whereas silence allows reality to be heard.
On the point of “don’t use propaganda for good”, the Bishop said: “No good will come out of evil. Good is the opposite of evil, not a development from it.”
He then spoke a little about the idea of freedom, seeing that he has never seen a perfectly free country–some might be closer or farther from freedom, but complete freedom is not of this world. If you want to be free, he repeated, you must know yourself.
Side comment (my paraphrase): “When you are in pain, you are put in touch with your deep self.” There is no perfection without pain. Words to live by.
Furthermore, said the Bishop, perfection is never finished. The saint says to himself, “I need much work.” Young people are inclined to be become disappointed when perfection is not immediate, and disappointment becomes despair. Those who are in despair are easily influence by those who offer easy solutions.
The Bishop turned his words back to the Cross. The Cross, he said, is not a “must”. It is a choice. If we reject the “weakness of love”, and pursue power by any means, we have rejected the Cross. Even the Church is continually tempted by power. Even a history of martyrdom and persecution may lead a people to feel power is owed to them.
(I don’t believe His Excellency made this explicit, but my interpretation of that last remark is that the Ukrainian people should be cautious when trying to understand the evils perpetrated against them. The Ukrainian cause is not made just simply by the fact of the Holodomor [the Soviet-produced famine that killed millions in the 1930s] or their history of Russian oppression in general. They must acknowledge and mourn these evils without being pushed into self-pity.)
His Excellency moved on to some remarks about the University. To the students, he said that if their professors were not killing them with the discipline of study, they have betrayed you. Students must be pushed.
Furthermore, false historiography attempting to show the Ukrainians as the best people in the world (the most religious, the inventors of writing, etc.) must be avoided. No one needs to be the best–only human.
Finally, His Excellency enjoined, avoid corruption. Corruption begins as a crude kind of decentralized government (his explanation for the origins of the Mafia), but soon becomes mere stealing. Do not be too quick to accept the authority of the European Union or any other power–Jesus did not flatter kings. Be proud of who you are and of what you can be.
I’m struck by how, in the classic style of bishops and popes, His Excellency shifted smoothly from the political to the moral and even spiritual, and from the national to the personal. It makes me reflect that the affairs of nations are really just the affairs of individuals in aggregate.