Patriarch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church: «In every totalitarian system there will be a temptation to abuse power»

Monday, 29 November 2021, 19:26
I must say that in Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries, we still feel the consequences of decades of totalitarian rule. In a totalitarian system, every bureaucrat can become a dictator and try to psychologically, financially, even sexually abuse those under his control. And this is a wound from the past that continues to be reproduced. In every country, group or totalitarian system, or even in a sect in which someone has unrestricted control over others, there will always be a temptation to abuse their power.

Although we have a large Ukrainian Catholic community in the states of Paraná and Santa Catarina, Brazil, we don't know much about the Eastern Churches. So, to start our conversation, I would like His Beatitude to explain to us: what does it mean to be a Greek-Ukrainian Catholic?

The history of our Church began in 988, when the prince of Kiev decided to accept Christianity not only for himself, but for the State. This happened before the Great Schism between West and East, which resulted in the birth of the Catholic and Orthodox Church. We received our faith from Constantinople, and from this Mother Church came our identity, our tradition and our rites, which include not only the ceremony but the theological and liturgical traditions, our cults and the canonical succession of bishops.

After this sad division between Constantinople and Rome, for many centuries the city of Kiev was kept out of this conflict, which my predecessors literally saw as an argument between Greeks and Romans. For us, it was not such a clear division: an example of this were the many marriages between our prince Yaroslav Mudryj's family and Latin Catholic royal families.

So in 1596, after the fall of Constantinople, our bishops sought a broader communion, because our lands were taken over by many Protestant groups. Trying to find their place in this new situation after the Tridentine Council, they decided to enter into communion with Rome.

Today, we are more than 5 million Ukrainian Catholics inside and outside Ukraine. We are nicknamed “Greek Catholics” because when Ukraine was divided into three different states – Russia, Prussia and Austria – the Austrians wanted to clarify the distinction between Roman Catholics and Byzantine Catholics. So, we became Greek-Ukrainian Catholics (or Greek-Ukrainian Catholics), but we are not Greeks!

Outside Ukraine, even in Argentina and Brazil, our correct name is Ukrainian Catholic Church. And by Ukrainian we mean not only our ethnic origins, but also our Byzantine tradition, which we still retain as our fundamental mark of the Church's identity, even though we are in full communion with the Holy Pope Francis.

We are living in a so-called postmodern society  some say we live in a post-truth society. In theory, Catholics have a duty to proclaim a truth that is quite objective, contrary to relativism. What kind of contribution can Byzantine traditions make in this regard?

First of all, we need to think about what it means to be Catholic? Being Catholic does not mean being linked to just one tradition, a Latin one: the Catholic Church is much bigger than that. Second, while we have been blessed with a millennium experience of being Christ's disciples, we must face the ongoing challenge of interpreting and embodying the richness of our faith in new circumstances.

My first question when I came to Latin America was “what does it mean to be an Eastern Christian for Latin American culture?”. Because, you know, even these geographic parameters – East and West – don't work south of the globe. This is a typically European orientation, and Latin America has its own charm, its own identity. So how can we be attractive to everyone? What kind of language should we adapt to communicate well?

We Catholics – Byzantines or Romans – always run the risk of becoming a museum for immigrants who brought to Brazil a handful of strange things from the old world and, among these folkloric traditions, a different form of religiosity. That's not enough. How, then, can we be vibrant Christians? That was my challenge of continuous inculturation: the incarnation of the Christian faith in the new reality.

The third point – which I think is very important – is that we as Christians believe in the incarnation of the Word of God. The Son of God became flesh, participated in the story of concrete people. And the Church is the continuation of that. We have to be very sensitive to new languages, to ways of expressing their religiosity, which is completely different from what we do in Eastern Europe. And when we find this meeting place, this specific connection, between past and present, divine and human, East and West, Christian history and Christian future, we will be able to fulfill our Christian mission in today's world.

The Latin Catholic Church is about to start a Synod that intends to include the widest consultation ever held, in order to hear the most urgent needs of leaders, parishes and communities; while the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has just closed its last Synod. As an observer, what kinds of challenges do you think might arise from the West that are not so familiar to the Eastern Churches?

Perhaps I will surprise you with my answer, but I must say that we, as a church with a Byzantine tradition, hold Synods very often, to the point where we understand ourselves as a synodal church. And there is a historical reason for this. When I grew up, still under the rule of the Soviet Union, our church was illegal and literally functioned in the catacombs.

We didn't have temples to worship, and for me as a child, being in the Church meant being with the community. It was not the structure, nor the visible temple, but the vibrant community that celebrated the same faith, especially at the time of the Eucharist. This was my first impression of the very meaning of the Church.

It is clear that this community has its own dynamism that ends up producing new structures, new ways of meeting and organizing everyday life. In the Orthodox Church – the Church that is not in communion with Rome – they have a stronger synodal culture: in the past they elected their bishop, their priests and so on, very similar to Protestants in terms of life administrative church.

As Eastern Catholics, we are in the midst of Orthodox democracy and Roman monarchy. It is important to remember that a Synod is not a Parliament: the Church is not a liberal democracy. There are certain ways to organize the life of this community, but all are included. In our parishes, the people are expected to cooperate with the priest. The priest should never see himself as a single ruler, who says what everyone else has to do.

And it is very interesting that many times, in different countries, such as Brazil, our Roman Catholic brothers ask us to share our experience. Everyone has the right to speak, but everyone also has the duty to proclaim the word of God and to embody the Christian faith in their own lives. I believe that if we did not have this culture of co-responsibility for the life of the Church, we would not have survived the time of communist persecution.

What are the biggest challenges that the Ukrainian Church and the Oriental Churches in general must face today?

The first is the challenge of secularization. Especially among the richest, people are becoming less and less sensitive to transcendental issues. And this is a challenge, because it is necessary to constantly evangelize in this new way of being a Christian.

On the other hand, as the Ukrainian Church, we intensely experience the consequences of globalization, as our people are always migrating. We are experiencing a profound transformation from a static Church to a dynamic Church.

The first wave of globalization of our people was the 19th century, when the first immigrants went to Brazil, Argentina, Canada, the United States and so on. The Metropolitan Andrej Sheptytskyj at the time needed to reach these people, he was forced to convince the Holy Father and the local bishop to accept Ukrainian priests, and that was not an easy task because most of our priests are married. Having a married clergy among the Roman Catholic community and having them considered authentic priests was a profound challenge to the mindset of a hundred years ago. In fact, it's still a challenge today.

Furthermore, today our people are spread all over the world: to Africa, to the Muslim countries of the Gulf, to the entire territory of the Middle East, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, etc. It has been very challenging to stand at the head of this global church and respond to the needs of those people who beg me, "Please send us a priest." It is also important to consider that, many times, for these immigrants, our Church is the only space that protects them and that speaks out in favor of their rights.

In the face of this entire globalization process, the biggest challenge is to maintain unity. If we are Christians, we must not only spread out, but also stay together, because Church means communion. Communication does not always mean communion. This is even the theme that we will discuss at our next Synod, whose main slogan will be: “Your Church is always with you, wherever you go”.

How does His Beatitude interpret Pope Francis' recent decision to limit the celebration of Masses in Latin? Where is the balance between reforming the rites and preserving their inner value?

This has always been a challenge for the Church: to discern what is forever and what can be changed. To answer her question: Of course, there are some things in the celebrations that must remain untouchable – things that are not human decisions because they come from divine law, they were divine decisions. Jesus Christ offered himself as bread and wine, for example. And this is how He gives Himself to us in the Eucharistic species.

But we must also consider that, in the different traditions of the Church, ecclesial celebrations have different meanings. In the Byzantine rite, the Eucharistic celebration is an icon of heavenly reality. It is not a simple human ceremony, invented by the court of some ninth-century king. It is like an icon that represents what we will experience in the celestial reality. So when you visit a Byzantine Church, you have the feeling that you are visiting Heaven on Earth.

To represent our faith to the third millennium Christian, we often have to use the local language and music. We have to adapt some symbols to express ourselves better. Let me give you a few examples: To give a blessing, we use a special combination of fingers to create a pictograph of four Greek letters that make up the name of Jesus Christ. We make the sign of the Cross by composing fingers like this (His Beatitude makes the gesture, with the thumb, index and middle fingers together, with the ring finger and the little finger next to the palm). The three fingers connected together signify the three Persons of the divine trinity and the two connected to the palm signify the two natures of the incarnation of Christ – human and divine. I learned this from my grandmother who, in secret, taught me how to make the sign of the Cross.

This is how we must incarnate our faith in different cultures: sometimes, adopting specific new ways of moving our bodies, our gestures, to worship. I've already noticed that the Latin American people are very touchy: I remember when I was visiting a Roman Catholic cathedral in Posadas, Argentina, and there was an exhibition of the Eucharist at the altar. I was scandalized because people approached and touched the monstrance with their hands. I thought: “Wow! How can that be?" But that was how they got in touch with the sacred. I would say that the natural instinctual religiosity of people from different countries must be taken into account.

In relation to the Latin Mass, I must say that this is not our challenge because we have been through this subject many years ago. The current challenge is to translate our liturgy into Portuguese in Brazil, into Spanish in Argentina, into different versions of English in Canada, Australia and the United States.

As for the restriction that the Holy Father has imposed on the use of the Mass in Latin, I would say that it is a kind of surveillance of the unity of the Church. People often say, “God will only answer you if you pray in that language,” and that couldn't be further from the truth. We must not be focused on preserving some liturgical relics from the past, as if they were necessarily more authentic than the way of celebrating the Eucharist that the Church proposes to us today. I think the Holy Father is trying to teach us to get to the inner meaning of divine celebration.

We've recently seen some dismal news about the Latin Catholic Church in Western Europe. In France, often described as the "eldest daughter of the Church", at least 200 000 cases of pedophilia are investigated. In Brazil, hundreds of cases arise every year. It seems to me that the Eastern Churches are less affected by this wound. How should we face this challenge?

I must say that the sins are the same in the West and the East, and that the phenomenon of pedophilia is regrettable. In the past, we didn't have a clear understanding of what it was and often these predators used it in different ways to approach children. We have to admit that many times this happened through the Church, because it was the easy way out. It has to be said that the bishops - and I can say frankly because I am one of them – have not always been able to deal with this issue properly.

Today, with the development of psychological sciences we can affirm that pedophilia is not only a sin and a crime, but also a mental illness that can be treated, but it is almost impossible to be completely reversed. Through this understanding, we can develop ways to prevent pedophiles from gaining access to the priesthood, as well as dealing with those who are our priests and their victims, making the Church a safer place for all.

These are very important questions and should not be considered by the Roman Church alone. Our tradition may have different ways of preparing candidates for the priesthood than accepting a married clergy, but that does not prevent the emergence of cases of pedophilia. We must not forget that statistics reveal that most of these cases happen in the family. Therefore, there is no direct link between celibacy and pedophilia. We need to learn more about human psychology and produce more effective policies to express zero tolerance for this behavior.

I must also say that in Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries, we still feel the consequences of decades of totalitarian rule. In a totalitarian system, every bureaucrat can become a dictator and try to psychologically, financially, even sexually abuse those under his control. And this is a wound from the past that continues to be reproduced. In every country, group or totalitarian system, or even in a sect in which someone has unrestricted control over others, there will always be a temptation to abuse their power.

This is why the Holy Father has often said that, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, clericalism may have opened this space to abuse of power, even though it occurs in different groups. You must know that we have been at war with Russia for over 7 years. With the constant invasions, the population is also a victim of abuse. That's why I say that we are human here in Ukraine just as you are in the West, with the same sins and problems.

The Western Catholic Church also suffers from a progressive shortage of priests, especially in rural or forest areas, reached only by Protestant missionaries. Whenever the idea of ​​making celibacy optional is raised, some conservative groups dismiss it as a profound affront to the church's mission. I would like to hear your opinion on this.

I will not criticize anyone or offer an easy solution to the different questions of the Latin Church, but I will give some testimonies from our own experience. Yes, in our church we have a choice between family life and celibacy. But I must say that both choices bring problems. There is a myth that a married clergy will bring more vocations and that is by no means true. Priesthood is a very specific vocation, as is family life, and bringing the two together is not an easy task.

For ten years I was vice-rector and rector of a seminary where most of my seminarians would later become married priests. And it wasn't easy to prepare them for the priesthood, to serve the community, and also to be a good husband and father. This discernment between celibacy and the family requires a lot of knowledge, a good counselor and spiritual director, and a lot of inner freedom, because there will be different challenges.

For example, as a bishop, I need to provide ongoing support and formation to my clergy. I have fantastic married priests, especially in the missionary territory, where the priest with his family, wife and children are like an embryo of a new parish, where everyone is added later. The missionary witness of this priest is something very authentic. On the other hand, in our society, the institution of the family itself is under intense attack. Can you imagine the consequences if this priest and his family fail? For a married man to be ordained to the priesthood, it is essential that the community support him, especially in this globalized world where aggressive individualism prevails.

But I must say that if you are living your vocation, you will never be alone: your Lord and Creator and those you serve will always be by your side. The Christian life requires swimming against the current. Whether in family or celibacy, it is a recipe against the loneliness of the third millennium.

Maria Clara de Aquino Vieira, Gazeta do Povo


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