With the fall of communism in eastern Europe, I thought I saw a way of putting my knowledge of philosophy and of the Russian language to use by contributing to the revitalization of Catholic intellectual life in the former Soviet Union. At the same time, I wanted to see what I and others at St. Thomas could learn from Catholics in former communist countries.
Kiev Dominicans In 1996, I delivered a series of lectures on philosophy in Russia, the Crimean peninsula in Russian-speaking southern Ukraine and Belarus. My hosts included a new Catholic college in Moscow and the Catholic seminary in Hrodna (formerly Grodno). Two years later, on a similar visit, I spent extra time in Ukraine and got to know the Dominican priests who run the St. Thomas Institute of Higher Religious Studies in Kiev. The following January I returned to Kiev to deliver a weeklong series of lectures on the theory of knowledge at that college. The institute is an evening program for day students from other universities as well as for teachers and professionals educated under the communist system but now looking for a different perspective on philosophy, theology and social issues. Although Ukrainian, and not Russian, is the official language, Kiev is a bilingual city and thus my lecturing in Russian presented no difficulty.
The Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas subsequently formed a strong relationship with the Kiev Dominicans. I was able to return to Kiev to give a series of lectures half a dozen times over the next few years. In addition, St. Thomas provided funding for three other St. Thomas professors, all from the Theology Department, to make similar visits.
Study Abroad We soon also found a way for UST students to study in Ukraine. St. Thomas theology professor Michael Hollerich and I developed a January term course called Catholicism and Orthodoxy in Ukraine, which has now been taught three times with a total of five St. Thomas professors and 60 students participating. During their month abroad, students learn from local scholars and clergy about Roman and Greek Catholicism, about Catholicism and Orthodoxy and about Christianity under communist persecution as well as in post-communist Ukraine. They also hear talks from men who served as priests in the former Soviet Union, including one who spent 10 years in the Gulag, and from those now confronting the problems of contemporary Ukraine. On a visit to one institution, the vicerector showed the students some photographs: “These are alumni of this institution who are now beatified martyrs,” he explained.
Yet another opportunity to take students to Ukraine arose when I received an invitation from St. John Vianney college seminary to lead a trip abroad for seminarians. This invitation led to contacts with the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. In 2002, I accompanied two seminarians to Ukraine for a month to work as teachers in the Ukrainian Catholic University’s English summer school. In addition to fulfilling their teaching duties, the students had the opportunity to participate in the Greek Catholic spiritual life of the summer school. St. Thomas alumna Cathyrn Sprynczynatyk is currently teaching for a year in this program.
Expanded Opportunities St. Thomas’ contacts with Ukraine as well as other central and eastern European countries continue to develop. Last January, Professor Steven Hoffman of UST’s Political Science Department and I taught a course abroad on the politics of the new Europe. Twenty-six students from St. Thomas and other area colleges spent a month in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania studying the new political realities of eastern and central Europe. They heard talks by scholars, journalists, clergy and government officials, including the archbishop of Lublin, the U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Vytautas Landsbergis, who played the leading role in re-establishing Lithuania’s independence in the early 1990s.
Over 100 St. Thomas students and half a dozen faculty members have now had the opportunity to visit and to study in Ukraine and its neighboring central and eastern European countries. They have been privileged both to witness and participate in the reconstruction of Catholic intellectual life and culture in post-communist Europe.
About the Author – Dr. Kenneth Kemp is a fellow of the Center for Catholic Studies and has been a philosophy professor at St. Thomas since 1984. He has helped establish teaching and exchange programs with Catholic and other institutions in Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc countries. The above is an account of his work with these institutions and the growing involvement of St. Thomas students and faculty teaching and learning in postcommunist Europe.