Patriotism, Secularism, and Eastern-Rite Identity in Ukraine
Today, an historic meeting between Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and Pope Francis takes place in Havana, Cuba. The Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC), largely at the center of the tensions between the ROC and Rome, at times finds herself struggling against nationalist and secular influences. While certainly not as widespread as the ROC falsely claims, nonetheless these influences may not only threaten to dilute the UGCC’s Christian identity, but may also complicate the ecumenical work of Pope Francis. The Catholic (Universal) Church is the Bride of Christ—charged first and foremost with evangelizing the world, calling all to growth in holiness, and defending each individual’s transcendent dignity as made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, the faithful will be impoverished and scandalized—not enriched—when the identity of any Catholic institution is usurped by ethnic passions.
For the particular Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC), as for all Eastern rite churches, the liturgical dimension of life is of crucial, identifying importance. The very language of the Liturgy, the prayers of the faithful, and the activity of this particular church leaves no doubt for which nation and which people the UGCC prays as an expression of her particular piety—even as she also prays for and witnesses to people regardless of ethnicity. A fundamentally important element of Greco-Catholic identity is its unity with the pope of Rome. That is its identity.
It is impossible to separate liturgical life from daily life for Eastern Catholics, and this manifests itself in all aspects of life outside the physical bounds of a church: saint days, all sacramentally related activities, the liturgical calendar, crossing oneself when passing a church or other holy place, the multi-sensory aspect of the Liturgy itself, the greeting “Glory Be to Jesus Christ!” rather than the mundane “hello,” etc. Contrast this to the situation in the United States for which periods of the year are generally based on major league sports or ecological seasons; in Ukraine it is the Liturgical Year that largely contextualizes seasonal time—influencing even civil life. The “liturgy of life” with which a society resonates profoundly influences its identity, hence what it values.
In this context, sensitivity and understanding ought to animate the encounter with the long-standing (at times, debilitating) fear of the “Latinization” of Ukrainian Greco-Catholic spiritual life and the admittedly demoralizing effects of Pope Paul VI’s policy of ostpolitik in dealing with the realities of believers under former communist regimes. The dilemma the Holy See faced was whether to resist or negotiate, and the potential risks and sacrifices each presented. Negotiation or “dialogue” was chosen with its concomitant silence regarding persecuted Christians, in the hope that worse evils would not be provoked. In other words, the various particular Catholic churches (of which the UGCC was by far the largest) and other churches and denominations were forced underground into a lonely catacombed existence, with its believers facing constant persecution and repression.
While this policy served well the view of “progressive” Western Catholics who viewedostpolitik as a necessary means for reconciling the Church with the so-called “human face of communism,” those in the East who were left to fend almost for themselves under communism viewed it as a direct betrayal. That the Eastern Catholic rites were not … well … Western, only exacerbated and complicated the sense of betrayal—including the experience of Ukrainian Greco-Catholics in the United States where they suffered humiliations and limitations upon their particular Eastern practices (such priestly celibacy, pressures to “Latinize,” and the ownership of church property).
Quite close to Ukrainian Catholic University’s (UCU’s) collegium (dormitory) is the traditional wooden Church of the Blessed Martyrs, whose cornerstone was blessed by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Ukraine in June 2001, and whose symbolism rejecting ostpolitik was lost on no one. Nonetheless, perhaps prompted by angst over the upcoming meeting of Pope Francis with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana and a statement by the Holy Father last year, Greco-Catholic believers can’t help but sense their particular church may be thrown under the ecumenical bus:
[T]he pope has been careful to avoid taking sides on issues like Ukraine, where he has never defined Russia as an aggressor, but has always referred to the conflict between the government and Moscow-backed rebels as a civil war. That approach is intended to ensure he remains more credible with countries like Syria, Russia or Cuba, all nations where Francis feels he can help local Christians best by steering an independent course.
In this regard, statements made last year by Pope Francis, perceived as under the influence of the so-called “Putin Factor,” angered Major Archbishop Shevchuk:
The Head of the UGCC, His [Beatitude] Sviatoslav Shevchuk, expressed regret that the Pope of Rome Francis called the war in Ukraine “fratricide,” noting that the words of the Holy Father particularly painful and “a reminder of Soviet propaganda”… [Shevchuk] emphasized that what is occurring in Ukraine is not an internal civil conflict but that present is external aggression from Russia. The Head of the UGCC also expressed regret that during his statement to the Ukrainian bishops [on their quinquennial visit ad limina apostolorum] the Pope did not concretely name Russia but merely called the “situation a difficult conflict.”
To be fair, Pope Francis has voiced strong support for the UGCC. In a recent article, George Weigel summarized what the UGCC faces: an almost constant barrage of vile hatred directed against it by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)—the latter which led the charge in helping Stalin to drive the former underground and usurp its property. Can one imagine Pope Francis telling Catholics in the United States that they are no longer obligated to obey the “godless” American authorities—in effect, using religious faith to instigate betrayal? Yet Patriarch Kirill, Head of the ROC, did just that—officially making the proclamation on 24 May 2015 in a direct challenge to Ukrainian sovereignty. Such a drastic—if not desperate—act has the potential not only to complicate Ukraine’s ability to defend itself militarily against Russian aggression, but will provide Moscow a further means to block Ukraine’s moves toward Europeregardless of what happens on the battlefield.