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Interview with Maryana Hnyp


Hello Maryana, thank you for agreeing to join our team of forum writers. We first met when you were studying in Leuven. Would you tell us something about your background and academic training and interests? How did you end up in Leuven, and what did you write about for your dissertation?

Hello, dear Julie. First of all, thank you very much for your generous invitation to join the team of writers of the CTEWC Forum. It is truly an honour to become part of this fine company of brave ethical voices in Europe.

I grew up in a post-communist democratic society in Ukraine, which at that time was rediscovering its national, religious, and ecclesial identity and traditions. The Eastern Catholic church, to which I belong, was recovering and blooming, and I was fascinated by its every aspect. In addition, I have to say that I have always been intrigued by profound ethical and moral questions: what moves a person in their decision-making and how, if at all, is this influenced by one’s religious background? How do personal decisions influence social and structural developments? This search led me to a more thorough theological reflection, first in Ukraine, then in the USA, and later in Leuven, where I had pleasure meeting you.

In Leuven, my theological explorations evolved into a deeper search for holistic social and personalist ethics. In my doctoral thesis, I made an attempt to analyse through a modern lens the concepts of sin and conversion as individual and social phenomena, with a particular focus on a case study of remarried people. In addition, I pursued another interest in political studies: European diversity and integration with specialisation in values and fundamental rights in the EU. It has always been my passion to combine the two areas for a better understanding of contemporary issues and for working out solutions for complex and often very sensitive social issues. Whatever I find myself involved with, I try to find creative ways to approach contemporary situations, reflections, and challenges from an ethical perspective.

You are a psychologist as well as a theologian, with wide-ranging interests. For instance, you work with various ecumenical and inter-religious networks and groups. Would you tell us more about some of your activities? 

I am currently involved in a few parallel activities. By the time I completed my doctoral degree at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, I was already employed at the KU Leuven University Parish, where I oversaw internationalisation of the chaplaincy. After about a year into my work I noticed that there was a need for an honest and respectful dialogue between people of different religions and denominations as well as people with non-confessional and humanist worldviews. So, in 2013 I founded the KU Leuven Lifestance Network, a network of international representatives of many religious and non-confessional lifestance communities and groups active in and around Leuven and its university. In addition to my work for this network, which occupies me to the present day, I also worked as theological advisor to the legal advisor for fundamental rights and the legal advisor for institutional and social affairs at the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), and at Caritas Europa as institutional development officer, responsible for communion, participation, and the practical embedding of Catholic Social Thought.

Since 2013 I have been a member of the Malines Conversations Group, an informal group of Anglican and Catholic theologians from seven different countries, which seeks to renew the ecumenical unity between Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. This group meets with the blessing and support of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and Lambeth Palace.

A few years back, I was elected President of the European Network of Religion and Belief (ENORB), where my expertise in empirical interreligious dialogue was needed to navigate the questions and tensions involving religious diversity emerging within the UN and EU agendas. We often notice how religions are being instrumentalised to achieve certain political goals, which leads to more confusion and even enmity between people. In partnership with faith-based civil society organisations, at ENORB we try to combat racial and religious discrimination, hate crimes, and community harms, as well as bring to the fore positive narratives of the richness of religious diversity, to strengthen mutual understanding and harmony, and promote stronger, safer, and more resilient community responses.

You are as much a practitioner as an academic ethicist. Do you agree?

I like to think so, yes. It has always been my belief that our deeds reflect our thoughts, and so we usually act out of our deepest convictions. Thus, every thinker is somehow called to be a doer. Although I have moved on towards a more practical, political, and ministerial theology, the daily routine of research and interaction with persons, organisations, and educational institutions is still very much an active part of my life. My academic background provides the foundation and fuel for my striving to create a safe space for dialogue and encounter, where people of various walks of life may explore their identities, share their wisdom, and find solutions to complex social issues together.

Would you say something about your Ukrainian roots, and how life has changed for you since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022?

I was born and bred in Galychyna, the western part of Ukraine – a country of blue sky and yellow wheat fields, people with beautiful hearts and bright minds. Many got to know Ukraine or got to know it better only recently through the prism of what is happening now. For many it still seems to be terra malecognita: a diverse, complex, understudied and often badly understood country.

February 2024 marked exactly two years since the lives of millions of Ukrainians drastically changed. On 24 February 2022 Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and began its neo-colonial war on a sovereign and peaceful country, making an attempt to restore Russia’s imperial geopolitical blueprint. It sparked a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, causing serious concern for the integrity of Ukraine and to the neighbouring countries’ foreign and security policies. As we witness day by day, this war carries major and long-lasting consequences not only for the geographical, political, national, social, cultural, and religious transformation of Russia and Ukraine, but also a profound shift in the methodology of international relations.

These past two years have been very difficult for me and my people. It has been a period of terror, suffering, pain, grief and loss; but also, a time of bravery, resistance, solidarity, care for one another, hope and faith that peace will prevail. As of today, more than 12 million Ukrainians have fled Ukraine hoping to find shelter for them and their children. Nearly 6 million have already returned home. People around the world keep standing in solidarity with Ukraine, symbolically and practically, joining their hands to strengthen the backline of this dreadful war, and offering their solidarity and support to the victims of war crimes, for which I am very grateful indeed.

For the Ukrainians time seems to have split to ‘before 22 February 2022’ and ‘after’. We now live on every piece of good news we can receive, any help we can organise, donate, or facilitate, helping our country and people to survive in every way possible. For me personally, the days have lost their names, we call them by numbers. My parents and my extended family are still in Ukraine, relatively safe. They choose to stay, so they can help those who need their help. They are my heroes, but I am totally heartbroken. My day no longer begins with a coffee or brushing my teeth. I wake up and in paralysing fear I check my phone for any updates to only see that each day more civilians – elderly, women, and children – are being cruelly killed by the Russian soldiers.

We live the scariest action movie plot imaginable. It is being told that our people have two armies: one courageously protects our people from the invader day and night, and the second one prays continuously.

I know you are involved in Belgian initiatives to support Ukrainian refugees in Flanders, please can you say more about your involvement in this work and what more needs to be done to meet the needs of the Ukrainian people who have sought refuge in Europe?

When the European countries opened their borders to welcome Ukrainian refugees, many people from our diaspora jumped to offer their help. In Leuven we initiated a dialogue with the municipality to strategize over a short- and long-term plan of settling displaced Ukrainians, erecting shelters, facilitating interpreting services, volunteering at the hospitals, schools, social services etc.

Once things settled a bit, I moved on to serving as transcultural psychosocial and psychoeducation consultant for the Ukrainians at the refugee team in the Vlaams-Brabant Centre for Mental Health. My desire to accompany people in pain, and to assist them in finding instruments to deal with grief, loss, and trauma, quickly turned into a two-way healing. Difficult times show us how much we need to listen to the stories of one another, how much we need to be embraced by understanding and empathy, how much we need and want to give, and how much we learn about who we are by the way we grieve.

How has the horror of the invasion affected your understanding of theology and ethics?

The horror of the invasion and its implications for the lives of people in Ukraine and far beyond it have stimulated me to take a serious look at both our convictions and on the way of living. Now it seems to me that there are more questions than answers, really. Many ethical principles, human and organizational values, rights, and freedoms are being tested against present reality. What is the architecture of our security, and who safeguards our lives? Is sustainable peace now possible, and if so, then what price are we willing to pay for it? What does forgiveness and reconciliation really mean, and where do we draw a line with what is unacceptable? How to deal with deep wounds that get inscribed into a collective memory?

This Russian war against Ukraine is not about the territory. Neither is it about the language, though often framed as such. It is about values and moral standards. It is the war between a distorted image of harsh and dictating leadership against democracy and the rule of law; between love of your people and hatred of the others; between freedom and slavery. At the gate of Europe Ukrainian people are fighting for those values that are so important to all of us now: companionship, integrity, respect, freedom.

A question that kept my particular interest, was how the phenomenon of recent migration is evoking awareness of vulnerability of the other and oneself, and how this understanding translates into a concrete action. As we observe day by day, the implications of migration go far beyond that of merely crossing geographical borders. Migration underscores the turbulence on the crossroads between national security and human insecurity, between (supra-)national sovereign rights and human fundamental rights, between citizenship and discipleship. We find ourselves living at the intersection of cultures amid astonishing differences, which contradict, complement, and often merge. As interesting and enriching as it might be, it is also challenging to find a perfect recipe for peaceful and enriching flourishing. Limiting the discourse on migration only to the economic, political, or juridical issues is thus, in my view, a step backwards, as social order is not merely an intellectual matter, but ultimately a moral issue – the just and loving treatment of our neighbors. It brings the issue of migration to the most fundamental level of personal and social ethics, recognising the desire and commitment to solidarity and charity as part of the person’s fundamental disposition towards good.

It is rarely possible to solve new issues with old methodologies. Today we need to find new approaches that would combine a better understanding of ourselves and of our foundations with deep and profound interest in the other. What we also need, is to learn to be a gift to the other and to accept other as a gift, as a witness against contemporary cancel culture. It is a means of really getting to know the other and to rediscover our own identity and dignity. It is fundamentally a mission of building a civilisation of solidarity, not as a mere activism, but as a genuine testimony of God’s undivided, unrestricted, and universal love to humankind.