His Beatitude Sviatoslav (Shevchuk): The church must go beyond the boundaries of its temples

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church primate on the challenges of time, public outreach, and interdenominational relations

The primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) says that when he served in Lviv, he read our library project’s Wars and Peace and the publication of this book was in fact hitting the bull’s-eye, for there was a debate going on about Ukrainian-Polish reconciliation. Later, in Argentina, he used to read the newspaper’s online version. As the UGCC primate, he has been closely watching the coverage of religious subjects in our newspaper over the past year. The week before last, His Beatitude Sviatoslav (SHEVCHUK) visited Den/The Day.

We are living in a situation that prompts us to ponder more and more over the importance of ecclesiastical influence on the public mood. Besides, we remember very well the times when the previous system adopted the idea of Dostoevsky: if God does not exist, everything is permitted. Unfortunately, a lot of representatives of the former nomenklatura and the nouveaux riches are behaving as if they adhere to this postulate. As societal regulators do not have much effect on them, how can the church influence the atmosphere in society?

“I would like to disclose some clerical maladies that can help understand the behavior of certain ecclesiastical communities and clergymen in the present-day realities. In the Soviet Union, priests were considered ministers of religion. That was just an instance of presence in society. Whenever a priest tried to influence society in some way by turning to his faithful, he was persecuted. We know a lot of historical facts when priests were forbidden to teach children catechism, i.e., the foundations of faith. So it is difficult now for the Orthodox clergy, who were educated or even served in the Soviet conditions, to go ‘beyond the boundaries of the temple.’ And it is not their fault. They were just the object of certain guidelines. So they are ready today even to execute ideological orders rather than assume responsibility for educating society or cultivate Christian values in it. Maybe, from this angle, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is somewhat happier, as it used to function underground. Influencing people remained the only way of our presence. In other words, we would administer sacraments and offer liturgies to meet the spiritual demands of the faithful.

“Now about the present day. The church is now facing a very important task to go beyond its ‘boundaries.’ Otherwise, society will sweep religious and spiritual life away from its horizon. You can see this especially when you mingle with youth. Many young people who have major religious requirements are afraid to cross the threshold of a temple. Once there, they find themselves in a strange reference frame and do not know how to behave, immediately being rejected by local women. This triggers a conflict of generations – the one that grew up in the temple and the one that grew up outside the latter. So the church, in particular ours, aims to be present in civil society. For the society you are speaking about is a multi-valued notion: the government, politics as a whole, civil society. Civil society is supposed to be, by rights, a source of both the government and political life.

“I can remember an early 2000s debate on whether there is civil society in Ukraine. I am convinced, wich is thanks to various denominations, that Ukraine has this kind of society. Actually, our church considers itself part of it. We are saying all the time that, to keep our identity intact, we do not want to be part of either the government or the political class. Other churches will perhaps answer this question differently.

“I think the UGCC has made by far the most notable contribution to the construction of the Ukrainian state in the past 20 years. Entire generations have grown up, which were educated at Greek Catholic temples and have a different vision of themselves, their dignity, and the society they are living in. These people do not find it easy to go around. They often lose confidence and leave Ukraine. So I am trying to persuade them to stay behind.

“I therefore believe that the Church can fulfill the task you asked me about.”

Speaking of clerical maladies, we perhaps cannot but inquire about your opinion of the events now underway in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), even though we are aware of the delicacy of the situation. But, on the other hand, should the public and heads of the other churches not react to the cynical attitude to Metropolitan Volodymyr inside the UOC? For he, a highly-educated person, has an impact on the faithful of different Christian denominations.

“The faithful of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church consider the faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church their brethren and sisters. So we are not indifferent to what is going on in the family of a brother or a sister. First of all, I would like to express my personal respect for Metropolitan Volodymyr. I had the privilege of meeting him. I have been watching the way he performs as church primate and, after all, as clergyman. I think his spirituality is still to be an object of longtime study. For this reason, I am convinced that His Beatitude Volodymyr is a great treasure for the entire Christian world, not only for the UOC.

“A primate is very often rated by his managerial efficiency. However, it is the signs of secularization when even the clergy themselves view the church as a human being and, if someone is unable to perform the functions of a good manager, they announce that he cannot run the church. By contrast, the really ecclesiastical people are taking a different look at this situation. Metropolitan Volodymyr is an ecclesiastical leader rather than a manager. We can draw a parallel between the last months in the life of Pope John Paul II and what His Beatitude is going through now. (Incidentally, they share the same disease.) As the Pope was approaching the end of his lifetime, he breathed through a tracheotomy but still did not relinquish the Roman Catholic Church throne. I can remember it was painful to look at him because every word he spoke inflicted suffering on him. But why did he do so? To challenge the widespread opinion that an infirm and suffering person is a burden for society. So even today, when His Beatitude Volodymyr is in hospital, he remains the spiritual leader of his church. And those who consider a church as a church, rather than a human being, must respect and help him.”

This story has a lot of instructive points for us. In particular, the announcement of the expulsion of the Metropolitan’s Secretary Oleksandr (Drabynko) from the UOC Episcopal Synod says that one of the reasons is his contacts with the mass media which the episcopate thinks are taking a dim view of the church hierarchy. [The interview took place on February 22. – Ed.] And what about the freedom of speech and public communication? Den/The Day often focuses on the aggressive and sinister policy of “Russian World” ideologues towards the Ukrainian world and the Ukrainian church. So it seems to us that the sufferings of Metropolitan Volodymyr, who can see what is going on in his church, should arouse sympathy and support, but the overall public reaction to UOC developments should not be neutral.

“You see, whenever a church is being robbed of freedom, this does not necessarily mean it is being eliminated. Instead, it is often attempted to instrumentalize and use it for a purpose which does not fit in with the goal of its existence and vocation. The church is inside, not outside, the world. And when the church is being torn away from its eternal roots to be made an instrument for a new ideological project, this amounts to an act of violence. I think the figure of His Beatitude Volodymyr is the example of violence against his church which somebody may be wishing to use as an instrument for a new geopolitical project. Obviously, the UOC is and will be suffering. Maybe, it will be feeling the pain of the wounds of this slavery for many centuries ahead. But, nevertheless, we must speak about this. Ukraine may be a very interesting context today – we have been free for 20 years, after all. All the churches in Ukraine have had an opportunity to freely develop, and it will be difficult now to instrumentalize some of them again. Yet I would love the UOC not to be an instrument for anybody, for any government. I wish it to remain the living body of Christ, the heir to Volodymyr’s baptism, rather than be forced to carry out any geopolitical projects. This is exactly what the faithful and Ukrainian society are expecting from it.”

There was a joint prayer on Unity Day. The UGCC was not present, as it was not, incidentally, the year before. Why?

“Thank you very much for this question which is quite in the context of the discussion. As I have already said, the UGCC has always considered itself part of civil society. Every time there is a manifestation of the latter, we try to be present. On the other hand, we are trying not to be drawn into political struggle. Last year His Beatitude Liubomyr (Huzar) spelled out our position: On Unity Day, when the Ukrainian political society remains disunited, it would be impossible and dishonest to be simultaneously at all the places where politicians gather. This year I continued my predecessor’s tactic. We did so not because we wanted to scorn or pass judgment about some political forces but because we wanted to show our aspiration to stay clear of political struggle. This is why I was not among the other primates who joined the president in laying flowers at the monuments to Taras Shevchenko and Mykhailo Hrushevsky, nor was I on St. Sophia Square, where representatives of traditional Christian churches stood under the flags of various parties. We only attended the State Act of Sobornist (Unity) to show that the Greek Catholics were also celebrating this day. Explaining in what way we were marking this event, I said it was spiritual unity that must lay the groundwork for the Ukrainian people’s unity. So we initiated the Week of Prayers for Christian Unity on January 22.”

The question of the UGCC Patriarchate, which His Beatitude Josyf Slipyj used to raise persistently, still remains topical. When can this problem be solved, if at all? Incidentally, word has it that Pope Benedict XVI sympathizes with you.

“Thank you for this compliment.

“Let me say this: the patriarchate question is still on the agenda. It is just going over to a new phase. In other words, we are building the patriarchate.

“Why did Patriarch Josyf Slipyj, the 120th anniversary of whose birth we are marking this year, emphasize so much the necessity of a patriarchate for our church? This was not a demand for some special honors for him personally. On coming to Rome after an 18-year exile, he saw there were so many Greek Catholic bishops in Canada, the US, Brazil, Argentina, Australia… He had had no idea that the UGCC had so many branches abroad. He began to seek a way to unify this episcopate. But there were no canonical grounds at all to convene the bishops to synods because each of them belonged to the Latin Episcopal Conference of the country where he served. It was clear to His Beatitude Josyf Slipyj that if no possibility were found to rally our church, which was scattered all over the world, it would face the danger of vanishing and assimilating. For this reason, he spoke at the 2nd Vatican Council on the patriarchate as an indispensable condition for preserving the UGCC outside Ukraine. Not to break the fledgling ecumenical dialogue (Pope John XXIII played a colossal part as an intermediary between the US and the USSR in the so-called Caribbean Crisis), the Vatican bestowed the title of Major Archbishop on His Beatitude Metropolitan Josyf. A major archbishop enjoys all the rights of a patriarch but does not bear the title. Thus, in that period of statelessness, so to speak, he laid the groundwork for the preservation and development of Greek Catholicism for centuries ahead. It is a pity that he did not live just five or six years to see us go from the underground. For there was a reason why he could not become the patriarch – he stayed out of his canonical territory.

“His successor and my predecessor Myroslav-Ivan (Liubachivsky) came back to Ukraine. So we are present not just on our own canonical territory but in the historical heart of our church. Now we have a structure that helps us be a united church and, at the same time, be present throughout the world. In other words, the UGCC is beginning to function de facto as a patriarchate, continuing to finish a centuries-long construction of the structure to which His Beatitude Josyf Slipyj imparted a new meaning.

“Like all journalists, you want to know when this patriarchate will exist de jure. I can remember Pope John Paul II telling us that we were eligible for a patriarchate. He mailed to the other Orthodox Patriarchs that he had an intention to grant us this institution. He even set up a task force to study this matter. This suddenly revealed difficulties about the very mechanism of this procedure. The point is that even the Orthodox world does not have a clear-cut idea of who can bestow a patriarchy. An ecumenical council? A hierarch? So, on the one hand, the entire Catholic and Orthodox worlds are pondering these mechanisms. On the other, we continue to develop our entities. I hope the two vectors will converge one day, and the Christian world will see that Ukraine does have the UGCC Patriarchate. The only remaining thing to do will be to have the latter recognized.”

It is well known that, thanks to Patriarch Filaret, the unification of Orthodox churches is not a marginal topic. But it is difficult to say when this may occur, taking into account the current realities. Yet, should the unification occur, what place do you think the UGCC will occupy?

“You may have noticed that this terminology avoids such thing as Local Ukrainian Church. So far, it is about a single Orthodox Church. The difference is essential. Once, when I was reading some ideas of Patriarch Filaret, I saw that a change in terminology reflected, to some extent, a change in the goal he was setting. He said one must be a realist. After all, I have heard more than once from many UOC (Kyiv Patriarchate), including those in western Ukraine, that His Holiness is first trying to reconcile the warring Orthodox. Let us see to what extent this endeavor will be successful.

“This is a little sad for us. His Beatitude Liubomyr once set a much higher goal to establish a united Local Orthodox Church of the Kyiv tradition, which would rally together all the heirs to Kyivan Christianity: the UOC (Moscow Patriarchate), the UOC (Kyiv Patriarchate), the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and the UGCC. At the time, in 2004, he delivered a program speech titled ‘One Divine Nation in a Land on the Kyiv Hills.’ In my view, even our Orthodox brethren have not yet fully fathomed this program. What it proposes is aspiration for the Holy Communion, i.e., unity in the Holy Sacraments, not in the structure. This would be the closest unity the church has ever dreamed of. This would not be a union around the idea of, so to speak, exclusive ecclesiology: we are the righteous, and the rest must come and repent to us. No. The question is that everybody would bring over and put into the common basket his history, experience, and gifts. This idea of His Beatitude Liubomyr still remains promising.”

As far as penitence is concerned, has the Russian Orthodox Church ever repented to the Greek Catholics for abolishing their church, appropriating all its property, and deporting the Metropolitan and bishops to Siberia? It is common knowledge that when Pope John Paul II came to Ukraine in 2001, His Beatitude Liubomyr (Huzar) apologized for the Greek Catholics who may have done somebody any harm under various complicated historical circumstances…

“It is a very interesting and profound question which allows me to comment on what we have not yet discussed here. I think the ability to repent is the sign of a living Christian conscience and an indispensable condition for what is known as memory healing. For example, there was an act of reciprocal penitence and forgiveness between our church and the Polish Roman Catholic Church. We went through a unique moment which I hope will be studied and reported on. I know for sure that the Polish episcopate would like to have a similar act of mutual reconciliation with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). But when it comes to what the ROC should apologize to the Polish Roman Catholic Church for, difficulties arise.

“Nobody has been prepared so far to apologize to us, which is a very serious obstacle to memory healing and, hence, development of church-to-church relationships. We hear very often about an obstacle to a meeting with the Pope: Patriarch Kirill says the obstacle is Uniates in western Ukraine. This has been heard almost annually for 20 years now at various forums. But the true obstacle seems to be inability to admit one’s own mistakes, including the fact that the Stalinist regime used the Russian Orthodox Church structure to forcibly abolish the UGCC. All the debates on the Lviv pseudo-council still remain in a stalemate.

“Obviously, there were misunderstandings for which we were in principle prepared to apologize more than once. But, to achieve reconciliation and heal memories, all the parties to that conflict must apologize. Unfortunately, nobody is prepared to apologize to us.”

Your Beatitude, how did you manage to mend fences with the UOC? Their representatives attended your enthronization, Bishop Filip was present at the inauguration of the Ukrainian Christmas Tree in the Vatican, and, finally, three primates made a statement on the sociopolitical situation in Ukraine.

“I do not know. I just try to seize any opportunity to heal, step by step, the wounds in the relations between our churches. I am a doctor by my lay profession. There is a whole system for a doctor to administer treatment. This very ancient procedure consists of the following parts: anamnesis vitae – you ask the patient about his life, anamnesis morbid – about the disease the patient complains about, then you examine the patient, give him tests, and then you can make a diagnosis. And only after this you can administer treatment. Where are our relations with the UOC on this path? I think we are now at the anamnesis vitae stage, where we should recall that we are brothers and sisters who came out of the same font of baptism. Then there will be the stage of our anamnesis morbid, i.e., we will see all the symptoms of the disease, the church schism, all those confrontations and misunderstandings. Later, we will analyze the current situation, make a precise diagnosis, and, still later, begin to heal our common wounds.”

The abovementioned address of three primates received unqualified support from the grassroots. What do you think will be the next steps to keep this important initiative afloat?

“I will tell you briefly about the original idea. The date of December 1 was not a mere coincidence because it was the 20th anniversary of the famous referendum, when over 90 percent of the Ukrainians showed a will to build an independent state. What prompted us to do so was the fact that, in our opinion, the 20th anniversary of independence was, for some reason, played down in society. As we had forecast, December 1 also went unnoticed. So we wanted primates of Ukraine’s three largest traditional churches to address Ukrainian society. We tried to say the spiritual word, so we expressed our opinion about the spiritual causes of the current, including economic, crises. I think we behaved as befits clergymen. What did we hope for? We hoped to be heard by the ones we addressed. I must say our expectations came true because we spoke, first of all, to civil society, not to politicians. I think the former heeded us and responded to our statement because there were a group of very different people who did not belong to the same denomination and did not have the same personal history. Incidentally, they called themselves ‘December 1 Group.’ I hope their response will trigger a civic, rather than a political, debate, which will help find life-giving sources for Ukraine’s political life and state formation. I have a feeling that everybody often forgets what the source of the former and the latter is. If we manage to continue and develop this debate, this will open up indispensable spiritual sources for us. Then we will be sure that our governmental and political bodies will also be able to draw a vital force from these sources, which will eventually rejuvenate the former. We are convinced that our Ukrainian people are fully capable of building a life, society, and state of their own. And the referendum was the first powerful manifestation of these sources.”

You will have been the primate of your church for a year on March 27. How would you assess it? How do you feel being under the same roof with His Beatitude Liubomyr?

“I have known His Beatitude Liubomyr for many years. He once taught at our seminary and was also the archimandrite of the Roman students who had just come from a Rome-based monastery to Zymna Voda near Lviv. I frequently met him in my lifetime. To look at, we are absolutely different – by age and by temperament – but we are working for the same cause. Incidentally, this is what His Beatitude is saying. So I personally consider this difference as, to some extent, the source of a spark that allows me to work actively. On the other hand, His Beatitude Liubomyr often chided me last year for taking no care of my health and actively accepting all kinds of invitations. But, you know, we are getting along very well, staying in touch, and praying together. For me, this was a year of extremely hard work. Comparing the two years of my service in Argentina and the year of my church primacy, I have a feeling that I was on a two-year vacation. In the past year, I have been trying to fulfil the promise I gave when I ascended the throne – to visit our church all over the world. I have twice gone to Argentina, once to Brazil, twice to the US, and once to Germany. I have visited almost all our dioceses in Ukraine, including our Odesa and Crimea Exarchate. Next in line is a visit to Canada, where we want to celebrate the centenary of the arrival of our first bishop there. For me, it was the time, when I tried to meet the people who had obviously awaited the opportunity to see the new church primate.”

Are there any important ideas that you have borrowed from the communities?

“You see, I consider all that has happened to me in the last while as a huge credit of trust – on the part of both our Synod, where I am still the youngest bishop, and the faithful. It seems to me sometimes that they demand too much from me in some cases and I am unable to come up to their expectations, even though I think I am trying, at least a little, to do what I can do today. And tomorrow, a new day will bring along new demands and challenges.”