A “Laboratory of Ecumenism”: Cardinal Koch Visits Ukraine

Ecumenical trip marked by candor and optimism

A “Laboratory of Ecumenism”: Cardinal Koch Visits Ukraine

The president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch, visited Ukraine from June 5 to 12, 2013.  Upon his arrival the curial official was welcomed at Borispol Airport by the primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), His Beatitude Sviatoslav (Shevchuk), and by Archbishop Thomas Edward Gullickson, apostolic nuncio for Ukraine.  Since it was the first journey of the honored guest to Ukraine, his chief purpose was to meet with the Greek, Latin, and Armenian Catholic communities and their respective leaders in a country that Bl. John Paul II had called “a laboratory of ecumenism” during his pastoral visit in June 2001.  Cardinal Koch spent two days in Kyiv, the capital, then traveled on Saturday to Lviv in Galicia (Western Ukraine), a Catholic stronghold, and finally on Monday to Uzhorod and Mukachevo, near the border with Slovakia and Hungary.

Cardinal Koch is also the co-chairman of the Mixed Commission for Theological Dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  In that capacity he held talks, during his visit, with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church leader, Metropolitan Volodymyr, of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP), and other representatives of that Church.  He also learned about the inter-confessional fellowship that takes place within the framework of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, and about the work of Institute of Ecumenical Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv. 

Past documents of the official Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical dialogue have typically ignored or papered over crucial differences in how the two sides understand Church and authority.  The keynote of Cardinal Koch’s visit, however, was a refreshing candor on the part of the Catholic speakers.  On June 10, in a lecture at Ukrainian Catholic University, he explained that: 

from the Orthodox point of view, the Church is present in every local church that celebrates the Eucharist, so each Eucharistic community is a complete church. Instead, from the Catholic point of view, a separate Eucharistic community is not a complete church. Therefore, a basis of the Catholic Church is the unity of separate Eucharistic communities with each other and the bishop of Rome. That is, the Catholic Church lives in the mutual intersection of local churches in one Universal Church.

Earlier, on June 7, during a round-table discussion in Kyiv entitled “Ukraine in the Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue,” the Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church boldly argued that both theological and historical reasons compel Ukrainian Christians to seek unity. 

Anyone who considers himself a faithful Christian has no right not to remember the Commandment that Christ gave to the apostles at the Last Supper, saying:  “Father, that all may be one, as You are in Me and I in You, so that they be united in Us, so that the world may come to believe that You sent Me.”  The Head of the Church Himself says that evangelization can be successful only when there is a deep-felt unity among Christians.

This year together with our Orthodox brethren we will celebrate the 1,025th anniversary of the Baptism of Ukraine-Rus.  If we look into the spiritual mystic memory of the Kyiv Church, then we will find the recollection of an undivided Christianity of the first millennium.  Therefore, every time that we speak of the necessity of one apostolic Church in Ukraine, a search for unity among us, the Holy Spirit speaks in our hearts and reminds us of this commandment of Christ and that experience which the Kyiv Church had.  Possibly, other Churches—daughter Churches of Kyiv Christianity, which emerged after the Great Schism [of 1054]—do not possess this church memory that the inheritors of Kyiv Christianity have…. And today, we should thank the Holy Spirit, that He reminds us of this shared profound inheritance.

His Beatitude Sviatoslav went on to say, in effect, that ecumenism is too important to be left to “diplomats and politicians.”  On another occasion, during an ecumenical prayer service in the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of the Dormition in Lviv, he reminded his listeners that unity in Ukraine can be fostered by spiritual ecumenism (prayer), by “the ecumenism of martyrs” (the recognition that both Orthodox and Catholics gave their lives for Christ during the Communist persecution), and by “the ecumenism of the sacrament of Baptism” (the acknowledgment of baptismal grace at work in all Christian Churches and ecclesial communities).  He went on to recommend another possibility that he called “the ecumenism of meeting” whereby people who may have different histories and perspectives can learn from one another and be enriched.    

Ever since the emergence of the UGCC from the underground in 1990, the Moscow Patriarchate has complained of Catholic “proselytism” in its “canonical territory.”  When asked about this by a journalist in Lviv on June 10, Cardinal Koch replied:  “Such accusations are not heard as often right now as they were in the past.”  He emphasized that the issue of proselytism is very complicated because not every accusation of proselytism has a basis in fact.  “Behind this issue stands the issue of the freedom of choice of every individual.  Each person has a right to choose that confession and Church to which one wants to belong.”  These remarks were particularly striking in light of a public statement made on May 27 by Boryslav Metropolitan Antoniy (Pakanych) of the UOC MP, after consultation with Bishop Filaret of the UGCC Eparchy of Lviv, that “in Western Ukraine there are no misunderstandings between the Orthodox and the Greek Catholics and relations between the two Churches in this region are stable.” 

In his lecture at the UCU in Lviv on “Prospects of the Ecumenical Dialogue” on June 10, Cardinal Koch insisted that “the Catholic Church should strengthen the argument for the importance of the primacy of the pope in the life and work of the Church.”  He also called for the Orthodox Church to “boldly examine its main ecclesiological problem, namely autocephaly of national churches and their inclination toward nationalism.”

Perhaps the greatest reason for hope that the Church in Ukraine may one day again be united was mentioned by His Beatitude Sviatoslav during the round table discussion in Kyiv.  “Today all the confessions in Ukraine are undergoing rejuvenation.  There is a new generation of monks and nuns, clergy, bishops and even Church Heads.  All Churches without exception have borne the brunt of wounds from the Communist totalitarian system, and the youth are to a certain degree free of these wounds.  Therefore I am truly am optimistic.”

(Based on reports by Vatican Radio, UGCC, and Religious Information Service of Ukraine)

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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.