Millennium of Christianity

By Robert McConnell
March 8, 2024

1990 – International Women’s Day in Ukraine – a story.  

First background – 1988 was the Millennium of Christianity in Ukraine. In Washington (the White House), preparations were underway for the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Moscow.  While Nadia, myself, and many others were working on projects regarding the Millennium of Christianity in Ukraine, the Kremlin was busy claiming the Millennium as its own, working to exploit the West’s inability to distinguish between Russia and Ukraine or the Soviet Union and Russia.  

The Kremlin had scheduled Moscow celebrations for the Millennium of Christianity in the Soviet Union and had invited religious leaders from around the world. It’s really a pretty audacious example of Kremlin propaganda – come to our atheistic, Communist empire to help us celebrate our Christian heritage, never mind that the Soviet Union was about 70 years old and Russia wasn’t quite 700 years old.  Nevertheless, as with much Kremlin propaganda, it was quite successful. We fought back.  Nadia was a Co-Chair of the Ukrainian Millenium Celebration in the United States and ran the Washington office working on the Millennium. Many from the Ukrainian-American community gave substantial amounts of time to the efforts. I mention one – Irene Jarosewich a dear friend. Any of you who watched the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s webinar on Tuesday saw moderating one of our panels.  

The  Millenium efforts were heavily taxed by needing to counter Kremlin propaganda and Gorbachev’s efforts to get President Reagan to Moscow’s phony “celebration.”  We were able to secure a Congressional resolution calling for no United States official to attend any Millenium celebration in Moscow unless the only two illegal churches in the Soviet Union – the Ukrainian Catholic and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church -- were legalized.  Pope John Paul II declined his multiple invitations unless he could also visit and celebrate the Millennium with his “flock” in Ukraine (The Pope never got that permission.) Gorbachev kept pushing for Reagan to attend. We made it our goal to see that did not happen.

I pushed my White House West Wing relationships in challenging Kremlin-suggested event that, for other reasons, were favored by senior staff. Nadia and I met with senior staff. I met several other times alone with senior staff and conferred on the phone.  My welcome was worn out when I emphatically opposed the President going to the Russian Orthodox Church’s Danilov Monastery, which had been a juvenile prison a year earlier as part of the Gorbachev celebratory plan.  Finally, seemingly to somehow placate me, Tom Griscom, director of White House communications, called to tell me they were going to include a presidential meeting with Refuseniks in Moscow.  OK, but  Refuseniks have nothing to do with the Churches whose millennium it is!!!  Why not representatives of the only two churches outlawed in the Soviet Union and the ones whose millennium 1988 is?  Eventually, Griscom asked for suggestions on who from the churches should be invited.  Nadia coordinated communications with Cardinal Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Rome. Others sought Orthodox names. Some suggested invitees came back to us via Helsinki Union. A letter with suggested invitees was sent to the President’s National Security Advisor, General Colin Powell. The suggestions were accepted, and all were invited to meet with the President in Moscow.  Some were taken off the train from Kyiv to Moscow by authorities on manufactured charges, but the others got to Moscow and met with the President at Spaso House.  Transcripts showed me a fabulous meeting – Reagan being Reagan.  

OK, now back to  International Women’s Day 1990 in Ukraine and on the road from Lviv to the region where Nadia’s family lives. As we drove through the small, poor, rural village of Medenychi, we saw men working on a church.  We got Nadia’s cousin Ihor to stop and got out.  On this Soviet holiday, across from the village school and its obligatory statue of Lenin, a number of men and boys were building a church.  As we walked toward the church we could see on the side of the hill beyond the construction site a very old wooden church leaning over so badly it could not be occupied. We learned it had been built in 1662. The new one of brick was to replace it. The foreman of this volunteer crew, proud of their work, took us inside.  

The church would have three altars.  We followed him up scaffolding to the roof, where work was underway on the dome. The workers wanted to pose with Nadia – an American right there on their roof!  Now, the foreman started telling Nadia the story of this new church.  Dispassionately, Nadia began translating: “ In 1939, the Catholic parishioners set out to build a new parish church.  The foundation was laid.  But then the Soviet Army moved into the area, an occupying force, and church building and religious practices were forbidden. The foundation was left untouched. Then in 1988 your President Reagan went to Moscow to meet with Gorbachev. While he was there, he met with religious dissidents at your Embassy, and the dissidents included  Ukrainian Catholics. We took that as a sign that changes were underway and began to plan the completion of our church.  Last year, we started construction on the old foundation, and we will finish this fall.”  I could not believe it. I looked at Nadia, there were tears in her eyes. Here in little Medenychi, we were being told that our struggle with the White House staff and our President’s actions had made a very real difference in the lives of the people in this little parish halfway around the world.  We had no words – there were no words.

In Washington, we had fought one more Washington fight and moved on without much reflection; there had been a Millennium of Christianity in Ukraine celebrations in cities across America; Pope John Paul II had led three days of religious celebration at the Vatican in July 1988 – we had moved on.  But, here in Medenychi, in the lives of the Catholics in this small parish, after 50 years of repression, word of a brief meeting in Moscow that we had fought to see would take place had given these people the sign for which they had waited.  

We could never have explained our role, we could only applaud their efforts and leave them a contribution to help pay for materials.  We met the parish priest who arrived and beamed as we admired their new church. Sometimes, God puts you in a place to learn that you can have consequences in the lives of others you may never know.

An ink sketch of the church in Medenychi I did for our 1990 Christmas card.