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Union of Orthodox churches in Ukraine a cause for rejoicing

Orthodoxy in Ukraine has been granted full autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch, even as the Russian Orthodox are dismissive and critical of the union.

Metropolitan Epiphanius, newly elected head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, conducts a Dec. 16 liturgy at St. Michael's Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine. (CNS photo/Valentyn Ogirenko, Reuters)

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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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 73 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).

19 Comments

  1. As of today (January 7) not one single autocephalous Eastern Orthodox jurisdiction of the fifteen, except Constantinople, has endorsed the grant of autocephaly to the now-united/non-Moscow affiliated jurisdictions in Ukraine. Not one. Indeed, every autocephalous church has disagreed with it or condemned it outright, with the exception of Albania, which has made no declaration one way or the other. This will leave the new Ukrainian Patriarchate a rogue church in world Orthodoxy. The “Greek” Christian East (certainly, at least since 1453) operates through consensus. In this case, there is but a consensus of one.

  2. Very well-reasoned and written, Adam. Thanks for bringing valuable context to this issue; it’s a difficult one for those, like me, who don’t keep track of it regularly!

    • I know absolutely nothing about him, having never even heard of him before, but I recognize an ad hominem argument when I see it. Even if what you say we’re true, what would that have to do with “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?” That description or idea or theory would apply to anybody who did it, not just to whatever group you happen to be defending. If you don’t think it applies to your group, explain why.

  3. Disclaimer: I am not a Russian, nor do I have any sympathy with the Putin regime, and I am a Latin Rite Catholic. This said, I find this article problematic because it fails to acknowledge the fact that a large proportion of the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine aligned with the Moscow Patriarchate (including the Metropolitan, and almost certainly a majority of members) had nothing to do with this unity synod and wish to remain with Moscow. Will these people’s right to worship, and their continuing legal personality, be recognised (particularly by the Ukrainian state) or will the MP clerics who participated in this synod be regarded as the sole legal representatives of the previous MP church? If it is the latter, this comes dangerously close to the way in which the Soviet state and the MP Church suppressed the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the late 40s. That was wrong then, and even a much milder version of the same thing would be wrong now

  4. Interestingly Mr. DeVille you are what is call a Neo-Con, one whose Political ideology is much more important than any reality. Keep on worshiping Margaret Thatcher and if she is your role mod3el in life, you truly are empty. I grew up in a metropolitan area with both Ukrainian Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox friends and asked both why they would not attend each others Festivals, I always thought it odd that they refused to socialize even though all were Ukrainians, but of course I now understand everything about Ukraine, I owe it to you that I am bathed in the truth because you are a Phd., so smart or should I say brilliant. Be sure and save this piece and in five years look back on how it has been fulfilled. An obvious soldier for Joe Biden do everything possible to make sure he is on the ballot next year, yes he and you are birds of a feather, your own version of ecumenicalism. Joe Biden and Margaret Thatcher,amazing.

    • Lots of accusations here, Mr. Wright, but little or no evidence for anything you are saying. For example, you write, “An obvious soldier for Joe Biden.” Based on what? And how can you claim Dr. DeVille is a “neo-con” (most dubious, that) and then claim he is a Biden supporter? Goodness.

      • Mr. Biden is very much a NeoCon, Dr. Deville is espousing the same rhetoric, hence Dr, Deville is also a NeoCon. Mr. Biden was also a cheerleader in the bi-partisan love fest for Georgian Leader Saakashvilli, who bizarrely ended up Governor of a Ukrainian State before being arrested by the Ukrainians – yes this lover of Democracy Saakashvilli was appointed as a Governor after being chased out of Georgia, and now is under arrest. Mr. Deville was also a champion of Saakashvilli. Saying this politically driven mess the Ukrainian Orthodox Church finds itself in is somehow good for Catholics is absurd. Lets not forget how Ukrainian Nationalists killed thousands of Polish and Hungarian Catholics less than a hundred years ago. Where is the ringing endorsement from the Polish and Hungarian Churches? I recognize the brutal persecution of true Christians by the Soviet Russians, but having the most corrupt Government in Europe and it’s NeoNazi supporters call the shots on Religion in Ukraine beggars belief.

        • “Mr. Biden is very much a NeoCon”

          I looked up “Biden is a neocon” and the Internet laughed hysterically. You’re going to have to define your terms if you want anybody to believe you, because your reasoning does not seem to be like our earth-reasoning.

          “Georgian Leader Saakashvilli, who bizarrely ended up Governor of a Ukrainian State before being arrested by the Ukrainians – yes this lover of Democracy Saakashvilli was appointed as a Governor after being chased out of Georgia, and now is under arrest.”

          According to Wikipedia, the position of Governor of Odesa Oblast “is an appointed position, with officeholders being appointed by the President of Ukraine, on recommendation from the Prime Minister of Ukraine, to serve four-year term.” So if they chose to appoint him, that’s their business, not mine.

          “Mr. Deville was also a champion of Saakashvilli.”

          Ahhhhh, I see. So, essentially you are in a snit with Dr. DeVille because you disagree with his views of Mr. Saakashvili, and so you followed Dr. DeVille to this site so you could spew venom about him.

          “having the most corrupt Government in Europe and it’s NeoNazi supporters call the shots on Religion in Ukraine beggars belief.”

          I don’t quite see how having the Russians, who are not exactly shining examples of political purity, call the shots is any better.

      • Joe Biden has immersed himself in the “New Ukraine” to the extent of getting his son a lucrative Government Position, there is no greater shill for the present Ukrainian Government than Joseph Biden.Joe Biden is the personification of the NeoCon line with regards to Ukraine I find it interesting that someone could be a supporter of Margaret Thatcher and Joe Biden’s policies at the same time. Maybe the Iron Lady would be happy to be known as a NeoCon in 2019, certainly she would have lots of well know company.

        • Joe Biden is not a conservative of any kind, so he’s not a neo*conservative.*
          Margaret Thatcher was a conservative from the get-go, so she couldn’t be a *neo*conservative (though she has been called “neoliberal” on certain points).

          Your definition of “NeoCon” seems to be “somebody whose views on Ukraine I don’t like so I’ll use a buzzword to display my diapproval.”

          Do you reserve any of your blame for whatever actions the Moscow Patriarchate has taken that led to so many people in Ukraine’s not wanting to be associated with it?

  5. This article is a grotesque distortion of a most grievous reality … I’m dumbfounded at the articles misinformed, shallow, and even its immaturity. Orthodoxy is ‘ancient ’ it is the Catholic churches ‘lost sister’ and now … this catastrophe (the implementation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church) is ‘further’ distancing, further division, further fragmentation. It is a catastrophe in the Orthodox church unequalled in the last 80 years!
    Is the writer oblivious to the reality that this is nothing less than the United States, via the use of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo consorting with President Petro Poroshenko to bring about a violent spiritual vandalism to the Russian Orthodox church loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate!
    It is a political Atomic Bomb! Inflicted on the spiritual innocents. The repercussions and repair will be (if ever) many, many generations.

    • Heh? So you’re saying the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (which last time I looked was in Turkey) takes orders from the US, via Mike Pompeo and Ukraine? Wow, who knew?

      “this catastrophe (the implementation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church) is ‘further’ distancing, further division, further fragmentation.”

      I don’t quite see how
      “three churches—the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church, the Kyivan Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian church under the Moscow patriarchate . . . The bishops of the three churches, having already met in a council of union, have elected a new leader”
      can be described as further division and further fragmentation; that’s three churches that have unified, not divided.

      I’ll grant you that I don’t know a lot about the situation, and am only drawing conclusions from articles I have read here. Tell me, why do so many of the Orthodox of Ukraine not want to belong to the Moscow Patriarchate?

      • Not my role to educate Les, you need to read. Nor mine on such a topic the liberty and danger of liberal free opinionated thinking contesting religious tradition.
        Start at a reputable source… (if they let me put this in…? )

        “…There are a number of Orthodox Christian organizations active in Ukraine, all of them called Orthodox Churches with various additional qualifiers. The three most important ones, boasting the largest followings, are: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
        The latter two used to be non-canonical, or illegitimate, from the point of view of the worldwide Orthodox Church. Last week, the Constantinople Patriarchate, the ‘first among equals’, granted them autocephaly, recognizing their independent status. In effect that makes them equal to the Russian Orthodox Church (otherwise known as the Moscow Patriarchate).
        The Moscow Patriarchate, which had earlier anathemized Kiev Patriarch Filaret, is now up in arms against Constantinople’s decision. So much so that it has broken off its relationship with the Orthodox center, creating what is already being described as a schism comparable to the Catholic-Orthodox split of the 11th century…” https://www.rt.com/news/441455-russia-orthodox-constantinople-ukraine/

        • “Not my role to educate Les, you need to read.”

          True, it’s not your role to educate; but if you come in here pitching a fit about an article and making wild accusations, it should be your role to explain and clarify and provide supporting evidence, if you expect to be believed. And I have read articles on this site, which I trust; I’ve even read a few other articles from other sites.

          You say that I should start at a reputable source; and then you provide a link to rt.com. According to Wikpedia, “RT (formerly Russia Today) is a Russian international television network funded by the Russian government.” You consider that to be a reputable source? How very odd.

          You haven’t said why you think so many Orthodox in Ukraine do not wish to belong to the Moscow Patriarchate. Judging by what I’ve read, it’s because the Moscow Patriarchate is a bit too palsy-walsy with the Russian government. Here, here’s a link that’s at least as reputable as the source you cited, and probably far more so: https://www.voanews.com/a/moscow-calls-independent-ukrainian-church-us-backed-provocation-/4611972.html Do you have any other theories to propose?

          • originally from…
            VOA, is exactly that … the voice of America.
            Raphael Satter … is a cybersecurity writer for AP, … but he’s now elevated as an historical authority on Russia and religion, past and present. Right ?
            he wrote the article you referenced … “Ungodly espionage: Russian hackers targeted Orthodox clergy
            Appears to me you’re a loyal American. Good on ya.

          • I know it’s Voice of America. That’s why I posted it: to see if you would consider it a “reputable” source, as you consider the Russian Times “reputable.” Apparently not.

            I didn’t reference an article by Raphael Satter; he’s not even mentioned in it.

            Interesting that your objections to the union and autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox churches are all political. Religion seems to enter into it not at all, in your view.

            And yes, I am a loyal American. And you are a loyal…what?

  6. As a member of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, I rejoice at the Ecumenical Patriarch’s grant of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine!

    I’m baffled by those who call the Ecumenical Patriarch’s long-overdue decision a “catastrophy” for Orthodoxy. Really? Why? These doomsayers don’t (and cannot, honestly) explain why Ukrainian Orthodox believers shouldn’t have their own, independent Orthodox Church, like Greek, Bulgarian,
    Serb, Rumanian, Russian and other Orthodox believers. Why should the Ukrainian Orthodox church remain subservient to the Russian Orthodox Church and a less-than-equal member of the Orthodox community?

    It may be that Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly is a “catastrophy” for the Russian Orthodox Church, which desires to continue dominating Ukrainian Orthodox believers, and wants to dominate ALL Orthodox churches, but it is not a catastrophy for Orthodoxy or true Christianity. Rather, it is an act of overdue justice.

  7. A cause for rejoicing? Dr. DeVille, I wholeheartedly disagree, and so do the majority of the world’s Orthodox believers. First of all, consider that “Patriarch Filaret” was excommunicated and anathematized. He had no valid holy orders, and thus anyone ordained by him likewise does not. Essentially, he is a Protestant, and now His All Holiness took the bait and “legitimized” this circus. This tragedy has been a thorn in the side of the Orthodox Church, and may well have caused a division that never will be healed. And you and the Ukrainian Catholics rejoice at this? Kyrie eleison!

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