At age 44, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk leads the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest Eastern Church in communion with Rome. Having previously served as a seminary rector in L’viv and then as bishop for Ukrainian Greek Catholics in Argentina, Shevchuk was selected to be head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in March of 2011. A skilled polyglot (he is fully conversant in English, Russian, Italian, Modern Greek, Polish, Italian, and Spanish) and a dynamic pastor, Shevchuk has emerged as a foremost moral and religious voice within a nation mired in political crisis. During his stop in Rome to participate in the canonization ceremony of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, Shevchuk paused to reflect on Ukraine’s Maidan movement, ongoing tensions with Russia, and ecumenism with the Russian Orthodox Church.
CWR: Your Beatitude, priests and bishops of your church have been visibly present in both the Orange Revolution of 2005 and in the Ukrainian Maidan movement earlier this year. In general, how would you describe the role of your church in the renewal of post-Soviet Ukrainian society.
Major Archbishop Shevchuk: First of all, I would like to underline that the whole phenomenon of the Maidan was a bit of a surprise for everybody—even the Church. This was because it was an appearance of civil society in Ukraine whose existence was debated for decades. Moreover, many wondered whether the Ukrainian people were able to peacefully stand together for a European future for their country on the basis of such values as rule of law, rejection of corruption, abhorrence of violence, and intolerance of authoritarian behavior. Many scholars would analyze the situation in Ukraine and would say that Ukrainians were not able to realize such a movement. Nevertheless, that European project became the project of social development in Ukraine and the churches helped to develop this. Last year, before the Maidan movement, the Ukrainian Council of Churches visited Brussels twice and sent several appeals to Ukrainian society concerning the discussion of European values. As churches, we were involved in promoting that discussion and were trying to be, as a church, part of civil society in order to awaken the people. To help them undertake their responsibility for their own country. Not only government or politicians have responsibility, but each, individual citizen.
No one expected that when our president suddenly changed his mind, such a large protest would emerge. So we as a church, as the churches—we did not call the people to protest. We were not those who would encourage such a protest. Yet we followed our people, because we recognized that those people were standing at the Maidan for those values, which we were promoting. If people take a stand for human dignity, rule of law, rejection of violence and corruption—we as a Church have a duty to recognize the moral power of such claims. It is why churches, not just the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, but Orthodox, Protestant, as well as Jewish and Muslim communities, were all present with their people on the Maidan. In some way, the people were leading us. For those three months, we were trying to be with our people and to keep the protest peaceful. I felt I needed to be a “preacher” of peace in order to reach the goals of the Maidan and emphasize peaceful methods were always more powerful and transformative in society than any other form of demonstration.
CWR: In mid-March, Fr. Mykola Kvych, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest and chaplain to the Ukrainian navy in Crimea was kidnapped and interrogated by Russian militants. In light of the Russian annexation of Crimea, what is the situation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic parishes on the Crimean territory? What do you foresee for your church there in the coming years under Russian occupation?
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk: I would say that this is a very delicate question, as we do not have all of the answers yet. We have five parishes in Crimea at the moment. During the first stages of the Russian annexation, a period of great confusion and anxiety, our priests were simply trying to be with their people. Nevertheless, many of our priests were also chaplains to the Ukrainian military detachments in Crimea. My opinion is that maybe these “new” authorities noticed the activity of our priests not so much on account of their pastoral care of their parishes, but on account of their contacts with the military units in Crimea. This was likely case of Fr. Kvych in Sevastopol. For some reason, these chaplains were considered dangerous. Subsequently, there was a new attack of Russian propaganda against our Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. We were likened to be the Church of the “radical nationalists” and our very existence was considered to be dangerous.
Right now, the situation is still under significant question. We have, right now, three priests in Crimea, but the legal “status” of our parishes is still uncertain. In certain situations, we share the same church buildings with the Roman Catholics, for which I am very grateful. In some places such as Sevastopol, Kerch, Evpatoria, we have some churches under construction. But we will see what will happen in the future, as we do not know whether we will be able to finish those buildings now. However, our current goal in this situation is to be with our people and to offer them adequate pastoral care. We expect that these new, so-called authorities in Crimea would respect human rights especially the most basic right of religious freedom. I hope and I expect that the priests and faithful of our church in Crimea will not be persecuted on account of their Catholic faith.
CWR: Recently, the head of external affairs for the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), remarked that “Uniatism” in Ukraine was a special project of the Roman Catholic Church to convert the Orthodox to Catholicism and even went so far as saying, in lieu of the Maidan movement, that Ukrainian Greek Catholics are waging a crusade against Orthodoxy. How would you assess your church’s present relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church and how would you respond to comments such as this?
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk: First of all, I need to stress that we have significant, fraternal relations with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. All of our activities and our statements which we issued in the last few months, in the period of the Maidan, we always did together. Moreover, it is providential that the current seat of that Ukrainian Council of Churches is held by the primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan).
We were united in Ukraine during a very dangerous period in a way that had never really occurred before. Concerning pastoral care for our respective faithful on the Maidan, we were organized in our own way. However, concerning our moral judgments of the civil movement or opposition to the abuses of the Yanukovych government, we always stood together. So I think that there is no reason to fear some “crusade” against the Orthodox. The Maidan was neither a religious nor ethnic protest. It was a “social” protest and almost half of the protesters were Russian-speaking citizens who were faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Of course the Greek Catholics were present along with the Orthodox of the “Kyiv Patriarchate” as well as Jews and Muslims. The Maidan was a sort of “mirror” of the Ukrainian society without any aggression toward the ‘Russian’ nation or ‘Russia’ as a state.
Unfortunately, I have to say that there are no direct and open relations between the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Moscow Patriarchate and it is a pity. For the last three years, my heartfelt desire has been to establish such a direct dialogue. However, we are not able yet. But I am still open and I am praying that one day we can sit at the same table, look at one another in the eye, and recognize that we are members of the same body of Christ and that we share the same blood of Christ. We are members of the same Church of Christ. That will be the common basis to start to discuss our disagreements and problems.
CWR: Ever since the relase of Joseph Cardinal Slipyj (1892-1984) from the Soviet GULAG, your church has petitioned Rome for the elevation to the status of patriarchate. Why is the status of “patriarchal church” is so crucial to your Church at this time?
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk: The “patriarchal” status is not simply a title of “honor”, it is a way to organize the inner life and structure of the Eastern Church. During the time of Patriarch Slipyj, when Ukraine was under Soviet domination, Ukrainian bishops were split around the world without any possibility or any structure that would unite them into one church. At that time, we could not even have our own synod of bishops. This is why [Patriarch Slipyj] began to present the need to organize the specific form of unity among the Ukrainian bishops in the diaspora. Within the diaspora, there was a significant danger that through the process of assimilation, our church would cease to exist within a few years. It was a question of survival. And because of his insistence, he received all the rights of Patriarch, except the title. He was recognized as the “Major Archbishop”. As Major Archbishop, according to canon law, he had the authority to call the bishops to be gathered in synod to promote the life and unity of the church. The only reason why he was not recognized as a patriarch at that time was that he was “out of his canonical territory”—he was in exile in Rome. When his successor, Myroslav Ivan Cardinal Lubachivsky, could finally return to his see in L’viv after the fall of the Communists in 1991 and the resurrection of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, that reason ceased to exist.
The major issue of why we continue to raise this question is because we have to recognize the reality of who we are. Quite simply, we need to provide adequate pastoral care of our faithful in Ukraine and worldwide. It is why the question of the patriarchate, today, is not a question of honor, but the question of “pastoral conversion”—something which Pope Francis points out in his recent apostolic letter, Evangelii Gaudium. We need to have such a structure that would help us to be more efficient in our pastoral care and to not be an obstacle. In the perspective of pastoral conversion, the vibrancy of our church structures and the efficiency of our pastoral activity; we are growing toward the fullness of the patriarchal dignity, which we hope one day will be simply recognized. Nevertheless, we will insist with a “holy insistence”, as Pope St. John Paul II said of our church concerning our eagerness to grow as a patriarchal church.
CWR: In light of the current crisis in Ukraine, has Pope Francis been particularly connected to your Church at this time?
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk: Pope Francis is aware of his universal role as a mediator and servant of peace with a particular Argentine sensitivity. In the history of Argentina, Pope John Paul II played a crucial role to prevent war twice – first during the conflict between Argentina and Chile and then between Argentina and Great Britain. So, Argentines are particularly aware of the crucial role of the successor of St. Peter to protect human life, worldwide. The Holy Father is aware of the history of the martyrdom and identity of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. We do not expect that he will be a special, “pro-Ukrainian” pope, but right now, especially in this crucial moment, the Pope is praying and acting to prevent a new war in Europe.
In the last few months, he has made several statements about Ukraine. In his Easter Urbi et Orbi statement, he openly prayed to the risen Lord for peace in Ukraine as his foremost prayer. He frequently greets Ukrainian pilgrims in their own language with the Easter greeting, Khrystos Voskres (Christ is Risen). This is a marvelous act. We as a church, we as a nation, we as Christians of different confessions are very grateful to the Holy Father for his ministry as an apostle of peace for our days.