He doesn’t like cameras, and if he has a choice between an interview or a conversation with students, he’d rather the latter. His schedule is full of meetings where the priority is UCU staff and students. He admits that he dreams of traveling to the mountains for a few months and wants to devote more time to research. When he jogs or goes for a walk, he prays the rosary for a good interior mood. And, when looking for balance, he recommends following a precise schedule. Where Fr. Bohdan Prach appears, large new projects are often happening. Finally, he confidently continues the tradition of the founders of the Ukrainian Catholic University, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky and Patriarch Josyf Slipyj, who said “Aspire to greatness” and, most importantly, don’t be afraid of big challenges.

In June 2021, his five-year term as rector of UCU is finishing. In the following interview, Fr. Prach talks about his service as rector, his significant projects, how the pandemic has influenced the university, and why he decided to be a candidate for another term as rector.

What’s it like to be rector of the only Catholic university between Poland and Japan?

UCU is the experience of the wonderful ministry of a great team. When God let me take on the leadership of the Ukrainian Catholic University after Archbishop Borys Gudziak, I well understood that we have a very strong and well-formed team. So one of the tasks of my ministry here is not to lose what’s been achieved. Archbishop Borys, reviving UCU’s activities in Ukraine, for years looked closely at each person he took for the team and formed them.

I joined the UCU management team as Vice-Rector for External Relations. Archbishop Borys placed me where I could understand my further ministry. And this was truly a wonderful human feeling: you know that this team needs you, but, at the same time, it is never, finally, known what awaits you further in ministry.

I think that Archbishop Borys at the beginning did not himself entirely understand what the Ukrainian Catholic University would be. But he chose people who knew how to find talent, who were prepared to give up anything, who were always ready for great tasks and goals, great sacrifices and dedication. Really, a management team formed at our university that was ready for anything and not afraid of new challenges.

I had a similar experience at the Lviv seminary, as rector, forming a team from nothing. [Fr. Bohdan Prach headed Holy Spirit Seminary in Lviv from 1998 to 2007. – Editor] When I saw that a person had a greater desire to realize his or her ambitions than to work for the common good, I understood that he or she wouldn’t be on our team long. It was not easy to carry out a form of ministry like this, so at the beginning people didn’t last and changed often. But we weren’t discouraged and continued to look for staff who were ready to serve. After a long search, four or five years, a leadership team formed at the seminary which lasted for a long time with a single goal. The years have passed, but we still get together: we celebrate birthdays, exchange ideas, and support one another.

To return to UCU: Archbishop Borys managed to create, using business language, a strong administrative council at the university, the Senate. From the first days, when I was seminary rector, I also was a senator of the Theological Academy and later UCU. I had the task of keeping UCU and the seminary together.

Already when we starting thinking about building new premises for the UGCC [Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church] seminary in Lviv, we dreamed of building the seminary and the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy on the same territory so that both institutions could take part in a single process of forming the spiritual elite. This is a common practice in the world, where seminaries and theology faculties closely cooperate. In Ukraine this approach has been successful. Today we have much in common: we work on the same territory, both buildings were designed in one style and are integrated. Our teams also work in union, because we work for one Church, one community, Ukraine.

What does the workday of the UCU rector look like? 

I get up fairly early, at 6:15. At 6:25 morning coffee, at 6:30 prayer, then Liturgy. In an hour I have breakfast and at 8:55 I sign documents. My full-fledged workday begins at 9:15. 

The rest depends on my schedule. Generally in the first half of the day two-three meetings, and I then I have personal meetings with five to ten people. This lasts until 18-18:15. Then, if possible, I have time for a brief evening prayer, after which meetings often continue until 20:00, and again prayer. Then I go home, where the evening calls begin, also from the USA and Canada. I also need to look at the mail, an average of 50 to 80 letters per day. Of course, a schedule like this is tiring. Sometimes I dream of the mountains and long walks with a dog. But these are dreams [he smiles]. I love all people and am glad for them. I’m glad that God allows us to work and be necessary in this world, to do something good.

In addition, in this full schedule I have to allow time to make well-grounded decisions: to read, think, and understand situations. There are some matters for which I have to make maximum efforts, to do my own research, to somehow minimize mistakes. People listen to the rector regarding various questions. But perhaps I don’t need to comment on everything. Still, people are expecting your thoughts, and I can’t say I’m not interested in something, because that’s not the attitude of a rector. To form my position, I have to invest a lot of time in studying topics. And it’s good to have time for this not only at 1:30 a.m. [smiles].

Why have you decided to again apply for the position of rector?

In general, throughout certain periods of life it was interesting for me to change my surroundings and responsibilities, to accept new challenges. At the start of my career, I planned to radically change something in my life every six or seven years, and I often managed to do this. But this time, after a number of years of ministry at UCU, I decided to again apply for the position of rector, to finish my plans. For me, it’s important that we see positive processes and changes, and I happily want to give this feeling to others in my ministry. Nevertheless, I haven’t abandoned my goals – eventually I want to begin a new project, while I have the strength. 

What is the greatest joy in being rector?

My greatest joy is to meet people who want to do some good, full of ideas and ready for great sacrifices. There are meetings that leave you with an unpleasant aftertaste, but the majority are meetings with good people who want to lend a hand. They expect advice and are proud of their work. I’m glad when I see that our community is dynamic, creative. This is the best motivator for further work.

About an empty university at the start of the pandemic and personal experience of new realities

When they announced the quarantine, I went to the university every day. At first we had countless meetings with the team: we sat at our screens for six or seven hours. Now I’m not sure if we need to discuss everything so much [smiles]. In a few days, in our meeting room I started to go around the table: I listened, spoke, and walked. I walked 15 miles a day. Online interaction is more difficult. When you have a usual meeting and a person is sitting next to you, the meeting is very different: personal contact, eyes, movement, but now there’s only a screen.

In two or three weeks, everything became monotonous… I sat in an empty building and heard a fly buzzing in the next room. You look through the window – nobody there. The Sheptytsky Center and university campus, always populated and noisy, were empty. This was a difficult experience for each of us. I think that those who stayed home felt even worse, because I at least moved around, kept my usual schedule and traveled to my place of work.

When everything slowly started “returning to life,” I was incredibly happy. If even two or three people today are sitting in the office for a meeting, I’m very happy. But the situation continues to be uncertain. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

We all understand that the world community has still not finished with the pandemic, and a full exit from the crisis remains far from us. At UCU, we have adapted to new realities as possible. We are among the few in Ukraine who succeeded in introducing a hybrid (mixed) format of education, when the student and the teacher, according to rules we’ve established, can themselves choose how to study: in a classroom or online. Also, maintaining all norms, we were able to return students to campus and try out students lodging in the new Collegium. Now all professors and staff who want can receive vaccinations as part of the third wave of vaccinations.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that, finally, we cannot embrace these new realities which everyone faces. Above all, this is about interaction, because no virtual meeting can replace real contact. When you are not really walking a hallway, when you don’t see a person or even an open window, you are not entering into this world. 

At one time, every Monday I regularly met with students on campus. We brought a guitar, sang, talked – and for all of us this interaction was a great joy. Recently, perhaps for the first time in a year, I again met with students. I saw their eyes! That evening I returned home so energized that my wife was surprised: “Where were you that you’re so happy?” [smiles] “I met with the students!” – I responded. We both laughed and each understood how we missed this.

The consequences of the pandemic are a deep trauma that we will long need to treat. After the pandemic, the world will be entirely different: a part of us love gadgets and don’t want to leave this; a part cannot distinguish truth from lies, because excess information is overwhelming and we don’t go into the details to analyze them. I myself see that I don’t have time for some well-grounded article, because I need to look at news clips. While I watch the news, I could read two good articles which would much better explain the situation to me. We use “fast food” information, and it’s like a narcotic to which we become addicted. In a fast, virtual world, we forget what’s really important: values, relationships, health, and our relatives.

Technology becomes better and better. Algorithms adapt to us, choosing the information which we want to use. And that’s only the beginning. Instead, we should leave our screens and get back our freedom and, when needed, breathe fresh air: return to the sources, to nature, to real things, look for things which will truly strengthen us. Because we very quickly get used to “a warm bath” and closed houses where everything is delivered to us. Our whole world is contained in a small screen, and every time you leave the house becomes a harder and harder trial. Open your doors to see another person, with needs, joys. Go to church, the theater. Enjoy nature: visit parks, go to the forest.

On the feeling of community online

The community is an important feature of UCU. It’s very hard to maintain this feeling online. We are trying with all our might: practically every day we have meetings and discussions with each department. We think about how to pull people from their computers. We constantly ask: Are we adequately and creatively thinking about how to formulate our ideas in a new way, to promote values so that they will be attractive to people? We must constantly inspire our staff, again energized by us, to raise up the whole community. We also strive to have our eyes wide open and, above all, our hearts.

Wherever I am, I’m always building something.

Before becoming rector of UCU, Fr. Bohdan was rector of Holy Spirit Seminary in Lviv for nine years, and he also organized the first and only official visit of a pope to Ukraine, St. Pope John Paul II in 2001. Another passion of Fr. Prach is scholarly work and the renovation of Ukrainian churches in southeastern Poland. 

I was born and raised near the Carpathians, on Polish territory. I studied at the seminary in Lublin, at the Catholic university. I served as a priest in Jaroslaw, and from there I traveled to Lviv to give lectures at the Lviv Theological Academy (now UCU) and the seminary. Those were difficult times: I travelled to Lviv every two weeks, and spent 13 to 15 hours at the border each way. They called us visiting professors “parachutists” at the seminary, because we came for two to three days, gave lectures for six to eight hours, and then went back home. That was tiring, because you were neither here nor there. Because of this schedule I was not able to work productively, and there was more and more work to do. So my wife, Ewa, and I decided, at the invitation of His Beatitude Lubomyr Husar and then-Father Borys Gudziak and then-Rector Fr. Dr. Mykhailo Dymyd, to move to Lviv. We thought it would be for one year.

I never thought that I would head some institution in Ukraine, or build something, creating it from nothing. I dreamed of scholarly work and teaching, because there’s a great need for that. I particularly enjoyed work in archives and libraries; with a sandwich and coffee I could stay there all day. But there was a great contrast of the conditions in which the seminarians in Lviv lived and studied compared with what I saw working in the USA, Europe, and living in Poland. I understood that the future elite could not be formed in such conditions. We needed radical and quick changes because, the longer we stayed in the forest, the quicker we would lose our chances. [The UGCC seminary at that time was located in the town of Rudno, near Lviv, on the territory of a former Pioneer (Soviet scout) camp near a forest. – Editor]

Archbishop Borys and I understood that land in Lviv would not always be cheap, and so we decided, first of all, to buy some for the construction of a seminary and a new corpus of the Catholic university…

We had big dreams, and we did everything to realize them. We managed to convince partners abroad that the project of constructing a new seminary and corpus of UCU was crucial. In three years we built the seminary on Khutorivka Street. I headed that institution for nine years.

It seems to me that many men have a flair for construction. I love to go on the site, “in the mud.” I have an inexpressible joy from creating something that remains, that will serve someone.

I had no less joy in repairing old churches, my former parishes. When I see a ruin, an aging church which in a year and a half returns to life, this is inexpressible beauty…

Even the Pope got wet from Lviv’s rain

In June 2021, we’ll mark the 20th anniversary of the first and for now only official visit of a pope to Ukraine. St. Pope John Paul II visited Ukraine from 23 to 27 June 2001. He celebrated four liturgies in Kyiv and Lviv (two in the Roman and two in the Byzantine rite), with more than 1.6 million pilgrims participating. During his visit to Lviv, the Pope consecrated the cornerstone of UCU’s new campus, and later Pope Benedict XVI donated 100 thousand euros for its construction. 

We lived with great expectation and hope that the Holy Father would come to Ukraine. At that time I already had the experience of organizing a papal visit, because I served on a committee that organized a pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to Poland. The Ukrainian team was looking for someone who understood the processes and was acquainted with people in Vatican circles who were responsible for John Paul II’s trips…

From the moment we found out that the Pope was coming to Ukraine, we had less than half a year, and much work to begin. This was incredible work, non-stop, for many people, and now it’s difficult for me to imagine how we managed it. And we had passed this difficult path, thought out thousands of details, and, the night before the meeting with the Pope in Lviv, incredible rain began. How it poured… In the evening we organized volunteers who watched over the whole territory of the perimeter of the hippodrome. At 2 a.m. I went to check the situation. The volunteers were up to their knees in mud on the field; rain fell, thunder, lightning. “We did so much work, and all for nothing?” I thought. No one will come to meet the Pope in such rain and bad weather. I dozed that night for half an hour and at 5 a.m. traveled on Stryiskyi Street, which led to the place of the meeting with the pontiff. And what did I see? The whole street was full of people with backpacks, walking to meet His Holiness. I quickly telephoned the chief of police and asked for help with security, because the people walked, and walked, and walked. Then the military helped us maintain order. 

Blitz of questions for the rector of UCU

How many times have you crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border? 

I change my passport every two years, because there’s no room for stamps. And that’s lasted 10 years. One year I crossed the border approximately 110 times, sometimes even more often. Standing in line at the border, I’ve managed to do a lot of work, for example, answering letters, writing articles, etc. 

What food reminds you of your childhood?

Varennyky [pierogi]. I will love them to the end of my life. Varennyky with cheese, potatoes, and black pepper. I love them spicy!

What music do you listen to when you exercise? 

Perhaps I’m a little eccentric as I grow older, but when I walk, run, wander in the mountains, I pray. Prayer supports a good internal mood.

Mountains or sea? 

Clearly mountains, no question! In the mountains you see everywhere another perspective, colors. I’m bored from monotony after a few days at the sea.

Interview conducted by:

Diana Motruk

Mariana Karapinka

Veronika Savruk

Photos: Lesyk Urban, UCU Archive