My involvement with the ecumenical movement began just over thirty years, as a high-school student. In 1991 I was in Australia at the seventh general assembly of the World Council of Churches, just in time to be grumpily instructed by ecumenical veterans there—those who had, in the salad days of the 1960s, been so full of hope that by century’s end all Christians would be united—that we were now entering an “ecumenical winter”.
I saw the evidence with my own eyes in Canberra, when the emerging Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe, having just thrown off Soviet domination, began to revolt and retreat from ecumenical engagement, preferring instead to exclude others so as to concentrate on rebuilding their own identities and churches.
As they pursued this course throughout the 1990s and first years of this century, old divisions, previously forcibly suppressed by Russian imperialism, came to the fore again. Nowhere was this more evident for a time than in Ukraine. There, in December 1989, my own Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, suppressed in 1946 on the orders of Stalin and with the collusion of the Russian Orthodox Church, began to emerge from the catacombs.
Soon we were joined by three other churches, all Orthodox but with differing allegiances. And that’s where matters remained, with three churches—the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church, the Kyivan Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian church under the Moscow patriarchate—at a standstill. This complex history is superlatively treated in Nicholas Denysenko’s exceptional new book The Orthodox Church in Ukraine: A Century of Separation (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018).
As of today, however, unity becomes a reality for these three Orthodox churches. On the great feast of Theophany so beloved by many in the East, Orthodoxy in Ukraine has been granted full autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch. The bishops of the three churches, having already met in a council of union, have elected a new leader, Metropolitan Epiphanius, who at 39 years of age will need every bit of energy and vigor for the daunting work ahead of him.
What should Catholics think of all this complex, messy business? I think the response should be, in a word, following the apostle, Rejoice! Again, I say: rejoice! The Catholic Church, and especially the papacy, arguably more than any other Christian body, find the search for unity an existential imperative: our very life as Christians is imperiled if we are divided. Any time any Christians can move towards authentic unity the Catholic response can only consist in giving thanks to God unstintingly.
Such moves in Ukraine are welcomed on their own terms, for Christian unity anywhere is a cause for rejoicing. But they are also to be welcomed as a prelude to deeper Catholic-Orthodox unity, as my own primate, Archbishop Sviatoslav, has recognized, calling the granting of autocephaly a “special historical moment for Christians of Ukraine.” Saying he wants to “extend a brotherly hand” on behalf of all Ukrainian Catholics, he has challenged all “Ukrainians [to] look to the future, let the internal movement toward consolidation and unity never be stopped.”
Was that “internal movement” in Ukraine messy? Certainly. Are there various “political” factors involved, not least Putin’s Russia and its war of aggression against Ukraine? Absolutely. Are all the motives and actions of the Ecumenical Patriarch as limpid as those of the Mother of God? Not likely—but whose are? It has always been that way in Christian history.
Some, however, are unwilling to accept this great gift of unity and to rejoice in this news. Instead they lament it, having been bamboozled by the propaganda of the Russian Orthodox Church, which, with tedious regularity, has cut off communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch while writing increasingly absurd demonizations of him and the move towards unity. To hear them recount the good news from Ukraine is to see how right Vamik Volkan is. Volkan, a retired psychoanalyst from the University of Virginia, has spent his life studying the dynamics of religious and political conflicts around the world. In 1998 he coined the phrase “chosen trauma” to describe how some groups narrate their own history, trying to secure sympathy by fixating on some event (however spurious) that allows them to deny their own messy motives and guilty actions and instead portray themselves as pure victims deserving only pity.
When I hear such petulant claims written in such hysterical tones, I am reminded of a clip of her whom the Soviets called the Iron Lady. Margaret Thatcher, on April 1982, at a hastily called late-night press conference on the steps of 10 Downing Street, was flanked by her Defense Minister John Nott to announce the first victory of the Falklands War when British troops landed without casualties on South Georgia. Nott read a perfunctory statement announcing this minor achievement, but the assembled press caviled. Thatcher waved the questions off with an adamantine if not Pauline admonition: “Just rejoice at that news!” Let that be counsel for Catholics and all Christians everywhere, too, with this gift of unity from and for Ukraine.
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