t is with profound gratitude to God and to those who made my participation possible, that I reflect on the Assumption Readings conference in Kyiv in 2017. My own participation was providentially prepared for by my contact with Lidiya Lozova of the St. Clement Center in the Rome conference Toward an Integral Feminine Theology. I am deeply indebted to Constantin Sigov and the organizational committee of Assumption Readings for extending to me the formal invitation to be part of this life-changing event.

Even upon my arrival in Kyiv, I was moved by the kindness and warmth of every person I met and the beauty of the land. As we drove to the Thomistic Institute where we would stay, our driver gave us a rich historical overview of past and recent events in Kyiv. The many layers of architectural design of the city pointed to a history complex and multifaceted. The stunning beauty of the gold-domed churches stands side-by-side with the fortress-like might of Stalinist and Leninist buildings. As we drove through Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, it was stunning to think that the most recent Ukrainian revolution opposing corruption and insisting on human rights and freedom occurred only three years ago in this place.

That our first day of the formal conference was held at St. Sophia of Kyiv National Historical and Cultural Reserve, in the house of the Metropolitan, was a true blessing. It was my honor to serve on the opening panel of the conference with Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine, and Rev. Andriy Dudchenko of Kyiv. After their excellent presentations on diversity and unity in the church in Armenian theologians of the 12th century and on locality, nationality, and primacy in the ecclesiology of Alexander Schmemann, my own contribution on “Love Stronger than Death: Forgiveness as the Foundation for Freedom” was necessarily broader and more foundational. I was moved that in the response to my paper, Constantin Sigov commented that it went to the very heart of the conference’s purpose: to consider how mercy can lead to greater freedom and deeper unity amongst Christians. In the afternoon and evening sessions, diverse speakers from across Ukraine and Western and Eastern Europe explored many aspects of freedom, authority, and service, including practical applications to ecumenical dialogue and to education. Both the depth of the presentations and the profound respect between the participants illustrated the richness of the conference.

On Sunday, September 24, the day sessions were held at the St. Thomas Aquinas Institute for Religious Sciences. I felt very at home among the Dominican Friars who hosted us. The speakers from Poland, Belgium, and Kyiv shed much light on the connection between freedom and service, often adding the element of practical application. Perhaps most touching for me personally was the roundtable of the evening on the project Children of Hope. Since many mothers and children are suffering post-traumatic distress due to the events in the Crimean region and throughout eastern Ukraine, I was moved to hear of the work of providing regular human formation and assistance to these women and children. The program which enables the children to spend part of the summer months with families in Italy is evidently bearing rich fruit. Hearing both the young people and the mothers testify to the hope that is born within them from this program spoke to me profoundly that it is not enough to talk about the problems of our world, but that we must also seek concrete ways to serve so that more of our brothers and sisters experience the freedom of the children of God.

The discussions of the third day, September 25, of the conference, held at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, were once again a sign of the integration of thought and action. The presence of the Archbishop of Lviv and Galicia, Filaret, alongside political and theological thinkers from across Ukraine, Italy, and Belgium was a concrete expression of the possibility for fruitful interaction of church and state. In addition to the profound theological reflections of the day, the historical presentations regarding the Revolution of Dignity, as well as the martyrdom of numerous professors of the Kyiv Theological Academy in the repressions of the 1920s and 1930s, were enlightening and thought-provoking. Faced with the weighty and ongoing burden of human misunderstanding and persecution, it was refreshing to hear the presentation on “Dialogue in Action” as a project for fostering peaceful ways of conflict resolution through genuine dialogue.

Throughout the three days of the conference meetings, beyond the rich exchange of ideas fostered by the presentation of outstanding papers, I was deeply moved by the opportunity to pray together and to share meals in common with the conference participants. These elements created an atmosphere of a far more than intellectual exchange, one of rich human interaction and friendship. We at the conference represented a diversity of nations and religions, and by prayer and meals in common discovered a deeper unity that is a true work of the Holy Spirit and fruit of genuine human interaction and exchange of gifts.

I am also profoundly grateful that on the day following the conference a pilgrimage was organized for several of us to the monastery of Lavra, dedicated to the Holy Dormition of the Mother of God. It was an unspeakable blessing to visit the holy caves in which monasticism has been lived for centuries and to venerate the relics of many holy martyrs and saints. To begin the conference at St. Sophia, at the feet of the holy icon of the Mother of God as protectress of the people of Kyiv and to conclude with pilgrimage to Lavra marked participation in the conference not as a merely intellectual endeavor, but as a true pilgrimage, a journey which I pray was made in and through the power of the Holy Spirit. I continue to pray for blessings of peace and unity for Ukraine and for ever deeper unity amidst the followers of Christ. I believe that experiences such as the Assumption Readings conference are essential to the ecumenical movement and to the realization of the prayer Christ offered on the night before He died, that all might be one as He and the Father are one.

 

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