Ukraine prelate says Orthodox independence is ‘affirmation of rights’

Wednesday, 17 October 2018, 12:50
ROME - As the Catholic Church’s Synod of Bishops in Rome was meeting on Oct. 11, it was another synod across the Aegean Sea in Turkey that sent shock waves around the Christian world, as the Patriarchate of Constantinople announced it was moving to recognize “autocephaly”, or independence, for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

The move has been rumored, speculated about and pondered for decades, but even so, the actual moment of decision still feels momentous due to its unpredictable ecclesiastical, ecumenical and geopolitical consequences.

Predictably, reaction from the Patriarchate of Moscow, which regards Ukraine as its “canonical territory,” has been sharp, announcing a formal rupture of communion with Constantinople - which some observers believe, assuming it lasts, would be tantamount to the most dramatic rupture in the Christian world since the split between East and West in 1054.

Aside from ecclesiological and doctrinal motives, the Russian Orthodox have more practical reasons for objecting to autocephaly. Over the centuries, a large share of both the church’s priestly vocations and its faithful have always come from Ukraine, and the loss would undercut its claim to be the numerically dominant force in the Orthodox world.

Politically, there are fears the decision could provide a pretext for expanded Russian military activity in eastern Ukraine; ecumenically, some believe the move could fundamentally alter the calculus in Catholic/Orthodox dialogue, since, all of a sudden, the Russian Orthodox Church is no longer the 800-pound gorilla of Orthodoxy.

For His Beatitude Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, the declaration of autocephaly is a natural extension of Ukraine’s desire for independence.

“What Ukraine needs now is the affirmation of its rights,” he said. “It’s not just the right to have an independent country but also to have its own interpretation of its religious past, present and future.”

Shevchuk spoke Oct. 13 in an interview with Crux at the Ukrainian Pontifical College of Saint Josaphat, home to Greek Catholic priests and seminarians in the Eternal City.

While insisting that he can’t enter into the internal affairs of other churches, Shevchuk made abundantly clear that in the struggle between Constantinople and Moscow, he finds Constantinople’s reasoning more persuasive.

“Everyone speaks of the clash between patriarchs, of juridical acts that have been cancelled, everyone talks about canonical territory,” he said. “But no one underlines that this gesture has given communion with the Church of Christ to almost 20 million Ukrainians who, in this way, feel a caress from their Mother Church.”

Moscow, he said, appears to have a different logic.


“We’ve heard the language of threats, blackmail, and also ultimatums,” he said. “It’s hard for me to say what will happen, because for me it’s hard to enter into this logic of geopolitical debate. I think in terms of the logic of the care of souls.”

Shevchuk also said he’s “serene” about the fallout from the decision in Ukraine, because the country’s “simple people” have no desire for a religious civil war.

The following are excerpts from the Crux interview with Shevchuk, which was conducted in Italian and translated by Crux into English.

Autocephaly for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is a process with great relevance for the country, and it’s also a delicate process and one with a geopolitical impact. How is this being lived by the Catholic community in Ukraine?

I must say that in recent days we saw some historic moments that have not been seen in the Church for hundreds of years. I must admit that we haven’t yet completely understood what has happened. The Catholic community is a part of Ukrainian society, so the feelings that our faithful have are the sentiments of society. There’s a feeling that the Mother Church [Constantinople] has shown her healing instincts for her children. This is the feeling of the Ukrainian society.

I must say that as a representative of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, I don’t feel authorized to give a canonical or historic interpretation, nor am I authorized to enter in the internal affairs of the Orthodox Church to take a position on who’s right and who’s made a mistake.

But, from my observation as a shepherd to whom God has entrusted the care of souls, I must say that in these two weeks I’ve just witnessed two epochal events in Christ’s Universal Church, which, according to me, can be explained together. These are events which, without a doubt, will make history, and will be a new turning point in the life of the Church for this new moment we’re entering.

You will ask, what are these two epochal events? One is this fact that the Holy Father Pope Francis has given communion to the seven Catholic bishops of China who, until now, weren’t in full and visible communion with the successor of Peter. In fact, there’s a clandestine Church that is persecuted.

I remember still the tears of the Holy Father, who was moved during his homily in the opening Mass of the Synod [talking about the two Chinese bishops present]. Why was he moved? Because he understood that this is not about the bishops whom, as an act of mercy, he’s brought to full communion. It’s about millions of simple faithful, simple Catholic Christians in China who in this way have returned to the womb of the mother Church.

From a canonical perspective or a political perspective, many criticize the decision. But what is the sense of it? To put the well-being of the person as a supreme value above the observance of the rules. The person is more important than ideas.

The other event?

The other one is the decision of the synod directed by the Patriarch of Constantinople to give ecclesial communion to the two structures of the Orthodox churches in Ukraine which, until now, have been called ‘non-canonical’, meaning cut off from the Mother Church, that of Constantinople and all Orthodoxy.

Everyone speaks of the clash between patriarchs, of juridical acts that have been cancelled, everyone talks about canonical territory. But no one underlines that this gesture has given communion with the Church of Christ to almost 20 million Ukrainians who, in this way, feel a caress from the Mother Church.

How do you explain these two together?

I cannot get into the mind of the Patriarch of Constantinople nor that of Moscow, but I see a similarity in the gestures: the well-being of the simple Orthodox Ukrainian has prevailed in the decision by the Patriarch of Constantinople. I can already imagine the tears of the Patriarch Bartholomew of all these people who, on Sunday, will celebrate this decision.

I don’t want to get into the internal affairs of the Orthodox Church, their diplomacy, nor their historical and canonical disputes. But what I perceive as a pastor is that, finally, this question has been resolved: will the members of these non-canonical churches have eternal salvation or not? Only the Orthodox had the faculties and power to respond to that. And the Mother Church of Constantinople, that is also our Mother Church, has responded in the affirmative way.

Are are you worried, serene, or a mix of both?

I am serene because from all sides, there even is an explicit point from The Patriarchate of Constantinople to do everything so that there is no violence. Everyone in Ukraine today understands that religious peace is not only important for the churches, but for our entire nation. Who today would be interested in provoking tension, dis-encounter? It’s the enemy of Ukraine, to make visible the “catastrophicity” of the decision that’s been taken. But from that which I can foresee, I don’t perceive in the simple people any will to combat.

We Ukrainians are a peaceful people. We value respect of the other as a supreme value. So, I don’t believe that without inspiration, without intentionally delivered provocation, there will be clashes in Ukraine. Obviously, this decision made by Constantinople will provoke many questions. Today, after this lifting of the excommunication, we have three churches, three parallel structures in the same territory, and this is an anomaly that must be healed.

For this reason, it is said that the next step is not the publication of the thomos of autocephaly, but a period or a process of unification, unity among these three churches.

You think what’s needed isn’t autocephaly but unification?

What Ukraine needs now is the affirmation of its rights. It’s not just the right to have an independent country but also to have its own interpretation of its religious past, present and future. It’s the right to have its own voice, that can make heard not only in global Orthodoxy but also in the Catholic Church the feelings, the joys and also the fears of the Ukrainian people.

Up to this point, the only authorized party to speak in the name of Orthodoxy in Ukraine has been the Patriarchate of Moscow. The other voice has been ours, the voice of the Greek Catholics, which has always represented a different vision, an alternative way of interpreting things. Now, it would be very interesting if the voice of Ukrainian Orthodoxy itself can be added to the symphony of the Orthodox world, so that they can give witness to their own identity and also their history.

Do you think the emergence of an independent Orthodoxy in Ukraine will help ecumenical dialogue with Rome?

I have to say, this step by the Church of Constantinople has destroyed certain schemes of ecumenical dialogue that took hold during the time of the Cold War. The primary and privileged interlocutor in this dialogue in the context of the Cold War and Ostpolitik was always Moscow. Dialogue with the entire Orthodox world was understood in this direction. Now, it has to be rethought, not only in terms of how to conduct the dialogue, which has to be updated, but the entire concept has to be rethought. There are various expressions of Orthodoxy.

Perhaps this will be interesting for highlighting various forms of ecumenical dialogue. Up to this point, we Catholics often have projected upon the Orthodox world an ecclesial form that’s basically Catholic. A single Orthodoxy doesn’t exist, like there’s a single Catholic Church. What you have are various local Orthodox churches. It’s a mistake to consider one of these churches as an exclusive spokesman for all. I think the one that really has to be respected, according to the rules of the Orthodox world, is the Patriarch of Constantinople, because, he’s the first among equals.

Therefore, this gesture is also a challenge. I’ve said that these two events will mark a new period in the history of the Universal Church. I don’t believe it will be an easy period, but definitely interesting, and also an impulse of the Holy Spirit.

How do you think Moscow will respond?

The Patriarchate of Moscow thinks in geopolitical categories. We’ve heard used so far the concept of canonical territory, not the territory of the human heart or the human soul, which is the territory where God lives as the temple of the Holy Spirit. We’ve heard the language of threats, blackmail, and also ultimatums. It’s hard for me to say what will happen, because for me it’s hard to enter into this logic of geopolitical debate. I think in terms of the logic of the care of souls.

The threats that have already been pronounced involve the rupture of communion between the two patriarchates. [Note: this interview was conducted two days prior to the official announcement of the rupture.] Some extremists of the Russian Orthodox Church already have warned since Constantinople has lifted the excommunication of the schismatic Orthodox in Ukraine, that the Patriarch himself ought to be excommunicated and a new Patriarchate of Constantinople should be created because this one has fallen into heresy. This is the language that’s appeared in the press.

We’re waiting for the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church, but the logic one senses isn’t that of pastoral care of souls but that of power. I can’t talk to this logic, I don’t understand it. For me, what’s more understandable is the logic of the Mother Church that’s worried about its children, that ought to be willing to sacrifice itself for the good of a person, not for the good of the institution.

In this moment, you can’t be fighting for public image or power, for possession or control of a territory. It must be about the maternal care of a Mother Church for her children in Ukraine. Can I condemn this logic? No.


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