In the midst of the unfolding societal, political and now international crisis in Ukraine, the Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has been a constant and courageous witness to the moral law, human rights and Catholic social teaching. The world has not seen such a tutorial on how the Church should defend peace and justice since Blessed John Paul II supported the Solidarity movement in his pastoral visits to his native Poland while it labored under a Communist regime.
Just as the Polish Pope’s first encyclical Redemptor hominis was addressed, not only to Catholics, but “to all men and women of good will”, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk has made common cause with leaders of the three Orthodox Churches in Ukraine and of the Baptist, Lutheran and Jewish and Muslim communities, as a member of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO), which has acted as a mediator between the Ukrainian civil authorities and the “EuroMaidan” protestors on Independence Square in Kyiv.
At the same time, the Head of the UGCC carefully instructed his priests about the fine line between ministering to demonstrators and leading a demonstration. On February 19 he issued guidelines to the Ukrainian Catholic clergy, emphasizing the priest’s role as the servant of a fellowship of faith, “the image of Christ the Good Shepherd, who is present and active among His people.” Since each member of the clergy is “the face of the Church”, he must live out his vocation according to her doctrine. The chief duty of a pastor of souls is the proclamation of Christ’s Gospel, the administration of the Sacraments, leading the faithful in prayer and serving the needy. “The Church is an active participant in social not political processes; therefore a priest does not have the right to be a leader of political actions or to make political speeches.”
“The vocation of the pastor in all issues of the day is not to abandon the faithful, and to be with them,” the Major Archbishop of the UGCC emphasized. Training for Ukrainian Catholic priests to become military chaplains was offered by ecclesiastical authorities in the city of Yaremche from February 25-27, 2014. Shevchuk then wrote a letter to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense offering the services of his clergy as military chaplains, if needed.
One of the remarkable gifts of John Paul II as a preacher was his ability to inspire the individual listener with the conviction that his or her prayers and sacrifices could make a difference in the greater scheme of things, despite apparently overwhelming odds. His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk has noted and fostered a similar transformation that is taking place among the Ukrainian people, thanks to the EuroMaidan protests in many oblasts [provinces]. In his Lenten Pastoral Letter, he wrote to the faithful: “Complicated times may await us. We must be ready to make economic sacrifices that will demand patience and perseverance on our part.”
Finally, as George Weigel shows in the biography, Witness to Hope, John Paul II bypassed the bureaucracy of the Secretariat of State and its established Ostpolitik [policy of dealing with the Eastern Communist bloc] and seized new opportunities for moral suasion and international diplomacy in the struggle against atheistic materialism and political oppression. Similarly, the His Beatitude Sviatoslav, speaking on public television, reiterated that “We have to use every opportunity for a peaceful regulation of the conflict…. [Yet] every citizen must be ready to stand in defense of the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine.”
Contrary to the worldly wisdom of commentators who recommend partitioning Ukraine into a “Russian-speaking East” and a “Ukrainian-speaking West”, the Head of the UGCC calls for national unity. “We are different, but we are not divided,” he often says about the different languages, ethnic groups and religions in that nation of 44.6 million. Throughout the past three and a half months he has been in constant consultation with other religious leaders in Ukraine in the AUCCRO, which has not only become a peacemaker but also strongly opposes separatist propaganda. Although support for Ukrainian national unity is a prudential decision (and not intrinsically a matter of moral law or Christian doctrine), it is being made by a broad spectrum of men of faith representing the vast majority of Ukrainian citizens.
In recent weeks the Head of the UGCC has been conducting a diplomatic outreach to both religious and secular leaders worldwide. In one letter that was sent to the Catholic Bishops Conferences of the European Union, the United States and Canada (where there are large communities of emigrant Ukrainians), and also the Anglican Primate and the General Secretary of the World Lutheran Federation, he requested their solidarity with Ukrainians in prayer and with Ukraine as it resists threats to its sovereignty. In another letter to high-ranking officials of the EU, he urged them not to allow “the center of the European continent—Ukraine—to be destroyed”.
In all of these efforts, the Head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church has acted as a pastor first and as the descendant of Ukrainian emigrants second and incidentally. His teaching is not driven by ethnic allegiance, nationalism or exaggerated patriotism, but is motivated by the virtue of piety and a concern for the welfare of the Church and for the common good.