Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk says that a free Ukraine is strengthened by solidarity and patriotism, while noting that “patriotic feelings are neutral” and “they must be evangelized.”
His Beatitude recalls the so-called revolution of dignity started in 2013 when tens of thousands of protesters take to the streets of central Kiev and other cities to protest the government’s sudden decision to abandon plans to sign an association agreement with the European Union.
“When we discover our roots, our authentic history, we rediscover our identity as European nation,” he says. Then he warns: the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is not a “frozen conflict”, and when the Church is instrumentalized by the State, it loses its credibility.
The Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church highlighted these and other issues, including the next Synod on Young People and the transmission of faith, in an interview with Catholic World Report conducted in Poznan, Poland, during the annual Plenary Assembly of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE), Sept.13-16, on “The spirit of solidarity in Europe today.”
CWR: The CCEE Assembly in Poznan chose this year to deepen the theme of solidarity in Europe. Why has this theme been chosen and why for you is it important?
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk: For Ukraine and Ukrainian society, solidarity is one of the most important pillars of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The big explosion of solidarity we experienced during the so-called ‘revolution of dignity,’ when many people of different churches, different religions, different ethnic groups, they were filled with this compassion for someone who is in need and they were able to share everything in order to respond to the pain, suffering, needs of their neighbors. I have to say that solidarity, the capacity to be empathetic with my neighbor, is an outstanding and important power that gave us a possibility to defend our country, to put an end to the Post-Soviet society, and with this ‘revolution of dignity,’ we witnessed the renewal of the vision of our nation, which is inclusive, so regardless of Church identity, ethnic background, political beliefs, solidarity which unites all the citizens of Ukraine in the name of defense of our country and building European free and independent society. For us, solidarity is a power of our nation.
CWR: Many European countries see the rebirth and spreading of feelings of new nationalisms. Are nationalisms, as such, a danger for solidarity?
Major Archbishop Shevchuk: Speaking on behalf on the Ukrainian situation, I’d say when Ukraine was attacked by the Russians, we witnessed an outstanding manifestation of authentic patriotism, which means the sacrificial love for your homeland, your country and your people. Of course, we, as a Church, make a difference between authentic “patriotism,” which is always an expression of love, and we would say extremist “nationalism,” based on hatred toward those who are different from us. Between those two realities, there is a huge difference, as between love and hatred, altruism and egoism. Patriotic feelings are neutral, but they must be evangelized, to prevent any ideological instrumentalization and to avoid the danger that spontaneous solidarity with the neighbor is contaminated with hatred for the others.
That’s why in Ukraine not only the Greek-Catholic Church but all the Churches are committed in evangelizing their patriotism and empowering them with authentic Christian spirituality.
CWR: Ukraine is a country that recent history has linked more to Russia than to Europe. How do Ukrainians feel European?
Major Archbishop Shevchuk: Ukraine was not linked to Russia, but colonized by Russia. When the Soviet Union, the big prison of the Nations, fell down, Ukraine was reborn as an independent state. In Poznan, we commemorate the 1050 anniversary of the appointment of the first Polish bishop, in Poznan, and the Archbishop of Poznan underlined that the European choice of Poland was made on the day of its baptism. I have to say that the same is true for the Ukrainian identity, because the Prince Vladimir (Grand Prince of Kiev from 980 to 1015, he converted to Christianity and Christianized the Kievan Rus’) was trying to make his kingdom, his nation, a part of Christian world, which at that time, was united and was European.
When we discover our origins, roots, our authentic history, we rediscover our identity as European nation. That’s why our movement toward Europe is a feeling and memory that we are coming back home.
CWR: The long Soviet domination has left problematic consequences even today in the relationship with Russia. At what point is the conflict in the east of Ukraine?
Major Archbishop Shevchuk: The conflict in the East of Ukraine is not a frozen conflict! It’s an open fire conflict. In those about five years, never was a ceasefire reached. Every day someone is killed, every day someone’s home is destroyed! And in the nearest future, we will face another tragedy, comparable with the Chernobyl disaster. In the occupied territories the coal mines were closed down and destroyed. These mines step by step are flooded, and all that contamination from the bottom of the mines, is coming out. So, according to the estimated consequences of that situation, in the nearest future, almost four million people will no longer have access to drinkable water! You cannot imagine that situation! Pope Francis several times declared that access to drinkable water is a human right. But that right will be denied to the Donbass zone inhabitants!
CWR: In Ukraine there are two opposing nationalisms that tend to collide, toward Ukraine and toward Russia. What role can the Christian Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, play to promote peace without being overtaken or limited by nationalism?
Major Archbishop Shevchuk: The conflict inside Ukraine it is not a conflict between two nations. It is a conflict between two visions of the future.
The Church loses its credibility every time it is instrumentalized by the State, becoming an instrument of colonization and humiliation of others. That’s why authentic Orthodox in Ukraine right now–I am not mentioning any specific Orthodox denomination—understand that the religious freedom is crucial not only for the future of Ukraine, Russia, Europe, but that religious freedom, freedom from instrumentalization, is crucial for the future and the credibility of the Church itself! Each time the Church becomes part of the State system it loses its credibility. This is the position of the Catholic Church but I must say, the most “illuminated”–I would say–thinkers and leader of the Orthodox side, understand it as well.
CWR: Would you say that working toward more religious freedom is one of your priorities here at the assembly?
Major Archbishop Shevchuk: Definitely! Because coming back to the Soviet times, for the Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Ukraine, it would mean to lose their freedom. In the Soviet time, our Church was illegal, we existed in the underground. That’s why not only our Church, but even other Churches and religious organizations, are aware that a free and independent Ukraine means freedom of religion. Therefore, it is unimaginable for us to come back, because it against the historical process at well.
To restore the Empire is a utopia, because today we are moving toward a globalized, dynamic world that can be stopped by building new walls. It is why the Holy Father Francis always says that our mission as Christians is to build bridges. But in war, the bridges are bombarded first.
I think that in Ukraine we enjoy an outstanding level of religious freedom. And all Churches now that this freedom means responsibility as well. So, we live our freedom but we are conscious of our common responsibility to set up the authentic foundations for the Ukrainian State and the Ukrainian Society.
CWR: Do you think the Church in Rome, the Pope, and the Church as a whole, are attentive enough, or draw enough attention, to this theme? It is a priority?
Major Archbishop Shevchuk: I think so; the Holy Father is well informed, just two months ago I had the possibility to meet him and we shared our thoughts on the religious, social, and humanitarian situation in Ukraine, and I have to say we feel that the Holy Father is with us, not only with words declarations, but with concrete actions.
CWR: These days we talk about the tensions between Moscow and Constantinople about the hypothesis of the autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. How do you read these tensions?
Major Archbishop Shevchuk: First of all, we consider this argument an internal affair of the Orthodox community or world, but we are witnessing that Ukraine right now is not only a country where the Russian aggression is revealed, but now Ukrainian society is a space where two Orthodox Patriarchates are clashing. So, it is why we are praying for our Orthodox brethren because for us, we do care about them.
But I have to say that we do not understand the inner argument of this conflict, because the whole issue that is discussed right now is the option of the canonical territory, but that is not a theological or Christian issue, but simply political. And when the Church is used by politicians as an instrument to humiliate others, it is very dangerous. I think the biggest danger of this clash is that many people in Ukraine can turn away from the Church. Those inner conflicts within the Churches can be major causes of the secularization. So, that’s why we are pray for our brothers without interfering in their internal affairs, trying to be open to everyone and promote peace and reconciliation.
CWR: Europe seems to have turned its back on its Christian history. The upcoming October 3-28 Synod in the Vatican will be focused on young people. What are your hopes for it?
Major Archbishop Shevchuk: I will participate in it, and we already had a long time of preparation. I not only met with thousands of young people. We made our own survey on the young people’s desires and expectations from the Church. I promised to my boys and my girls that the survey and their voice will be on my table at the synod. I feel like as I received a mandate to represent them.
I think the major challenge, not only for the Ukrainian youth but worldwide, is how to remain yourself, authentically human and authentically Christian too. Without the grace of the Holy Spirit, it is impossible to remain yourself. And the Church, as a loving mother, has to understand better young [people] today, to have enough flexibility, to use an appropriate methodology and even language to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the young generations, in order to transmit our faith in God to them. Boys and girls need a light of hope in today’s world, and that’s the source of our hope! I am convinced that light will come from the Church.
CWR: You mentioned a survey, on Ukrainian young people. What did it reveal on their expectations from the Church?
Major Archbishop Shevchuk: There are some specific expectations, from the clergy, the priests: authenticity, joy, to have the courage to accompany the young people, to be able to listen them and to understand them, the so-called millennial generations, among the very profound cultural changes of today.
There is also some specific expectation that we change our attitude, as Pope Francis very often recommends: reject clericalism, because it divides the clergy from the people of God. The young generations have a special sensibility to that kind of division. This is the biggest expectation that comes from the Ukrainian Youth.