A sickness which long afflicted the Ukrainian church had become chronic. That is probably the best way to describe the background to the historic decision by the Ecumenical Patriarch to take responsibility for spiritual affairs in Ukraine.
Millions of faithful had remained outside the Eucharistic communion with the world Orthodoxy and in a state of schism for decades. We are not talking about one lost sheep but an entire flock.
I have had many opportunities for personal contact with the people who have been described as schismatic, because they belong to the unrecognized Kyiv Patriarchate. They are good Christians who pray with fervor and attend church with zeal. I have not observed among them any fanaticism or ethnic prejudice. At any rate, these qualities are not more evident among them than they are among any other historically Orthodox people. Yes, they love their homeland, but they have an even greater love for the Holy Church. Which has left them in isolation for decades.
For these people, a moment of resolution has finally come. This resolution was long awaited from Moscow and from the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church. However, it always appeared that those parties were looking for excuses not to embrace the so-called schismatics, even when good occasions for this to happen arose. As I watched this behavior, it seemed more and more like the attitude of the Prodigal Son’s elder brother, described in the well-known parable. He did everything possible to prevent the younger son from returning to the bosom of the family. The Ecumenical Patriarch, by contrast, has acted in the manner of a tender father whose interest lies not in self-justification by any party but in seeking opportunities to bring millions of lost sheep back into the fold of the Mother Church.
Ukrainian church affairs have been in turmoil for at least a century. The story begins with an uprising against an empire. It looks very similar to another anti-imperial struggle: that of the freedom-loving Greeks who in the 19th century wanted to liberate themselves from a different empire in order to survive as a people. The Ukrainians were less fortunate. Imperial might of the Soviet kind was destined to swallow them up, imposing atheism and persecuting their faith. They paid a heavy price for rising up.
Millions of Ukrainians died in a famine artificially created by Stalin; in the prison camps known as gulags; and in the war against Nazism. When the Soviet empire, in its turn, collapsed, the Ukrainians once again dreamed of consolidating their own church. In the early stages, the new Russia, which was also trying to shake off the Soviet legacy, did not give the Ukrainians any great reason to be fearful, or to try leaving the Russian Church, which showed a certain understanding of their national sensitivities.
This situation changed when Russia started to look more and more like the Soviet Union. The transformation came to a head in 2014. That was when Russia annexed Crimea and fomented war in the eastern provinces of Ukraine.
As a result of all these developments, most Ukrainians came to the view that having an autocephalous church was no longer just one of the available options, but something that was vital for the nation’s survival. Precisely for that reason, the issue of Ukrainian autocephaly evolved from being a purely religious matter and became a political one too. However it remains the case that the question is first and foremost an ecclesiological and pastoral one. Indeed I would say that the pastoral issue became even more acute than it was before the war. That is because in addition to the millions who were already in a state of “schism” a new category has emerged: people who were in the Russian jurisdiction but no longer wanted to be in a church which from their viewpoint was justifying and even blessing a war against their country. On one hand, they felt that they had no legitimate choice but to adhere to the Russian Church, because it was the only canonical one in Ukraine. On the other, this state of affairs felt intolerable. Faced with this dilemma, thousands of people reluctantly joined the “schismatics”, while thousands more joined the Eastern-rite Catholics and thousands left the church altogether.
The resulting pastoral problem cried out to be solved. Neither the Patriarch of Moscow nor Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev heard this cry. Patriarch Bartholomew, however, did hear it. He behaved like the good father in the story of the Prodigal Son. And in this case, too, the reaction of the older son was brutal. Instead of showing understanding and gratitude, the more senior sibling began to issue insults and threats. Indeed the rhetoric from that quarter has been neither Christian nor humane.
It is a kind of rhetoric that smacks of post-truth, as many would now describe it. We resort to that kind of talk when we no longer care whether what we say corresponds to reality; and when we are no longer interested in the real motives, concerns or intentions of the side that we do not like. We work ourselves into a state of mind where we are fired up solely by the things we want to hear, not by things which are actually true. At that point we often engage in what psychologists call transference, ascribing our own motivations to the people or institutions that we are trying to bring down. Right from the start of the 2014 events, we in Ukraine experienced the Russian version of post-truth. And over time, we developed some expertise in discerning where truth stops and post-truth begins.
Now we see a huge wave of “post-truthful” calumny being dumped on the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as its critics start accusing of it of failings which they themselves possess. People who insist that “Crimea is Russian” accuse the Ecumenical Patriarch of seizing the territory of others. People who have created a monolithic power structure in their own church accuse the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Papism. Allegations of corruption are made by those who have exerted a venal influence over monasteries, metropolitan sees, and entire local Churches.
But we, as Christians, know that there is no post-truth, but simply plain falsehood. We also know that falsehood will not prevail, it will be vanquished.