Last March a bishop who had not yet reached his 41st birthday was appointed head of the largest Eastern-rite Church in communion with Rome. Only recently appointed a bishop to serve the South American Ukrainian Catholic faithful, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, was elected major archbishop of Kiev-Halychna, thus taking the helm of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church from Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, who had already served three years past normal retirement age.

With some 10 million faithful worldwide, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church holds a unique position within the Catholic Church. It bridges Eastern and Western Christianity, tracing its roots to the Church in Kiev, which broke with Rome during the Great Schism but reunited with her in 1595. Acknowledging papal authority and learning from the Western Church, it also retains the Byzantine liturgy and the spiritual heritage of Orthodoxy. Within this rite, the Church truly breathes “with both lungs,” as Pope John Paul II was wont to say: the tendency toward reason in the Latin Church coalescing quite naturally with the Orthodox emphasis upon faith, so often manifested in mysticism.

Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey spoke with Archbishop Shevchuk during his visit to Chicago last month to preside at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Eparchy of St. Nicholas, a diocese of the Ukrainian Church which has jurisdiction over the entire western United States, all of the Midwest (except Ohio), Alaska and Hawaii.

Especially given your age, one is reminded of two of your 20th-century predecessors: Andrei Sheptytsky and Josef Slipyj. Both became head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church when they were young, and both led the Church through difficult years: World War II, Soviet occupation and Stalin’s brutal clampdown on the Church, which was forced to function underground as the so-called “Church of the Catacombs.” What challenges do you face, and do they in any way compare with theirs?

I think the biggest challenge our Church faces now is her existence as a global Church. Our center is in Ukraine, throughout its different parts, but we have eparchies and parishes throughout the world. The challenge is how to be one Church in different countries and cultures: how to maintain our internal unity and be pastorally efficient in very different contexts. The second challenge — or perhaps I should say: main task of each parish — is how to be efficient in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is especially true in Ukraine, a post-communist country. Church life can be very intensive in one part of our country and in another part completely absent. How to fulfill this important task of preaching the Gospel, sharing our faith with all those people who need to be evangelized? — that is a primary challenge right now.

What is the general state of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church today?

The Church has been experiencing a big explosion ever since the fall of the communists and our Church coming out from her underground existence in 1989. We are restoring our structures: from parishes to creating new eparchies. And now we are creating the patriarchal structures which can provide the head of the Church the possibility to have a special care for the Ukrainian Catholics in and outside Ukraine. The Church is developing herself. We also are focusing on creating new Church structures in central and eastern Ukraine, first of all because a lot of our faithful live there, whereas they might not have lived there in the past. Today, we have three exarchates in those territories.

What is an exarchate?

It is like an embryonic eparchy: the basic structures needed to provide good and efficient care to all of our faithful. So we are developing our presence in different parts of Ukraine. [The majority of Ukrainian Catholics have long resided in the western third of Ukraine, which was ruled by westward-looking Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the long Soviet occupation of 1946 to 1991. The eastern two-thirds, on the other hand, were long ruled by Russia, which enforced Orthodoxy, and then the Soviet Union, which enforced Russification in order to undermine Ukrainian national identity. The result is that much of Ukraine is virtually missionary country for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.] But besides building Church structures, I think it is important to emphasize that we still have many vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.

There was an influx of seminarians in those first exciting years after the Church emerged from underground. Some, however, may have been inspired by religious and patriotic ardor rather than a true calling. And, evidently, some men have chosen the priesthood for reasons that don’t exist in America: The priesthood in Ukraine carries social status and offers a good income upon which to support a family in a country whose economy is far from stable. (The Ukrainian Church can ordain married men.) What is the seminarian situation in Ukraine today?

It’s a very difficult question. Because when a young man asks to be received into the seminary, it is hard to say what kind of motivation he has. But I would say, as a former seminary rector, that we have very authentic vocations. Maybe some 2% or 3% leave after the first year. Thanks be to God, we have really good, authentic vocations among the overwhelming majority of seminarians.

Approximately how many Ukrainian Catholic priests and seminarians are there in Ukraine? Are there enough to serve the faithful?

We are experiencing a shortage of priests. Right now, in Ukraine, we have 2,500 faithful per priest. It’s too much in order for a priest to give proper personal care. And we have 2,300 priests serving the faithful. Before the Second World War and the destruction of our Church, however, we had 3,200 priests. So, 20 years after the liberation of the Church, we have not achieved pre-persecution levels.

Right now in Ukraine, we have five seminaries. Just recently, we opened one in Kiev, just aside my residence. [In 2004 the archepiscopal see of the Church moved from Lviv, the Church’s cultural capital in western Ukraine, to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine and historic center of Ukrainian Christianity.]

In all, we have about 600 seminarians. We are happy for this, but it is still not enough. In Ukraine we have nine seminarians per 100,000 faithful. Compare this with Spain, for example, which has 4.2 per 100,000. So we still have a good number of vocations. And a certain percentage of potential seminarians are still being turned away — not accepted for various reasons. Even though we need more vocations, it is not possible to receive everybody.

Taras Antoshevsky, director of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine, told me that “the status of religious freedom in Ukraine has changed for the worse” under President Viktor Yanukovych (elected in February 2009). According to Antoshevsky, the president “sympathizes only with the UOC-MP” [the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, versus the Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church centered in Kiev], and he has “found no time to meet with the members of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations,” to which the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church belongs. Have things become harder for your Church under an administration viewed as pro-Russian, perhaps in religion as well as politics?

Right now we are in a different situation than we had maybe two years ago. Is it worse or better? It’s hard to say. Definitely our president declared himself to be a faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. We [religious leaders] used to have common prayers in the past, especially on the anniversary of Ukraine’s freedom. This year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of an independent Ukraine. All the leaders of the different churches and denominations asked for the possibility to pray together for Ukraine [at an official government function]. It was not allowed.

What role does the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in particular play in the life of Ukraine, all Ukrainian churches, in general? And is their job hard, given Ukraine’s long national nightmare under communism, which produced a secularized society with rampant atheism and false ideologies?

In Ukraine the biggest part of society is not evangelized. Right now the Church — or Churches — present a unique social structure which has credibility in society. No one among politicians or political parties has that same credibility. In today’s society, the Churches play an important role as the moral authority. We have an organization called the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations. For over a year the president [Yanukovych] would not meet with its leaders. Finally, this past Holy Thursday, he met with us for the first time. And this council plays a very important role in society. When we make a declaration on a specific issue in social life, it has very big repercussions — more than any governmental structure. It’s why we all together are playing a very important role.

Maybe some politicians don’t know how to deal with the moral authority of the Church. Many people would predict that some political parties or governmental structures will try to discredit the moral authority of the Church: inventing false reports, for example — a new form of persecution toward the Churches in Ukraine.

What would be the motivation to discredit the Church or Churches? And can you give an example of this discrediting, what we would call a smear tactic?

The goal may be to eliminate those Churches who would not be easily manipulated by the government, obeying its directives. Those Churches who want to have the freedom to pronounce the truth publicly would be under threat of political persecution. As for examples, recently there have been TV shows that have tried to represent the “true lives” of religious leaders to discredit them in the minds of the faithful. Of course, some of these representations might be true. We’re just humans. But some of them have been done falsely, simply to discredit the Church.

Ukraine’s birthrate of 1.2 children per woman is one of the lowest in the world. If it persists, the country’s population of 47 million will be cut in half by 2050. What is the Church doing to restore a culture of life?

There is a whole bloc of activities the Church is promoting. Generally speaking, the Church is trying to protect family values and promote social morality. For example, we have a special Church program to prepare young couples for the sacrament of marriage: to educate them about the Church’s pro-life positions against abortion and contraception. We also have different movements of young Christian couples. It is interesting that those parents who were well prepared for the sacrament of marriage — they ask the pastors to help with the program after they are married. Those young people, they themselves are developing this culture of life, sharing their own family values.

Technically speaking, the government is doing some very positive things regarding the family: supporting the family when a child is born, such as by giving financial support. But, generally speaking, the economic situation in Ukraine is not so favorable for young families. Sadly, we are witnessing the destruction of the middle class in Ukraine. There are different reasons why this has happened. Politicians say that the country will become more happy and wealthy if more reforms take place, but the last reforms they did have, they only created more problems; people lost their jobs, their savings; small businesses went under. It’s not so easy today for young couples to rear children.

Rome recognizes the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as a “major archbishop,” despite granting him all the prerogatives of an Eastern patriarch as head of a self-governing Church in full communion with Rome. Is this lack of formal titular recognition motivated by Rome’s concern not to rile relations with the Orthodox, especially the Moscow Patriarchate?

The whole issue of the patriarchate is not a political issue, though, very often, journalists like to speak of it as such. It’s an issue of Church life. I would like to move this issue from the field of politics to the field of pastoral care. I would say that I, as the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, have the same rights as each Eastern patriarch, but I do not have the honorific title. I think the most important thing is the growth of the Ukrainian Church, which definitely is growing toward patriarchal dignity. Right now we do live in a [de facto] patriarchal Church, however.

Please explain that.

Let me explain by giving an example of a patriarchal Church in action. A few weeks ago we had a patriarchal sabor in Brazil: that is, a general assembly of the whole Ukrainian Catholic Church, with representatives of all the eparchies throughout the world, including monks, nuns and laymen. Not a synod, which would only include all the bishops, but a patriarchal gathering of the whole Ukrainian Catholic Church. This is the sign of an existing patriarchal Church. Why? Because this sabor gathered people not only from Ukraine, but from Ukrainian Catholic communities throughout the world, in order to discuss matters important to the whole Church, not just the Church within Ukraine. This is the way of existing for a patriarchal Church.

Your predecessor, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, stressed the need for a unified Church in Ukraine, erasing the Orthodox divide. Is that your focus as well? And have relations with Russia improved under Kirill, the new patriarch of Moscow?

To answer your first question, there are two different levels of unity: unity of action and unity of structure. I think the latter is not an imminent goal. Cardinal Husar understands very well that we do not presume to create a unified structure for all the different Churches in Ukraine. First of all, they want to go to communion [i.e., unity in action]. It is very important to distinguish.

Maybe it is not imminent, but would you envision a “unified Church in Ukraine” as one being in communion with Rome? Is that the ultimate goal?

Unifying the Church doesn’t mean uniformity of Church: building a unique structure under the Pope. It’s not like that. Christ’s Church is the communion of the different local Churches. That communion doesn’t mean the dissolution of one Church inside of another. From our point of view, we need to restore the life of the Church of the first millennium of Christianity: one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Not a uniform, unifying Church, but one in communion with Rome — and also restoring regional ways of being Christians.

Before the division of the Great Schism in the 11th century, the Church of Kiev had double communion — with the See of Constantinople and the pope of Rome — so it was united with East and West. The Church of Kiev, you see, existed before that division. So, in order to restore the communion with the Churches in Ukraine, we don’t have to invent something strange or different, but restore the original unity of the Church of Christ. And this process, this ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox: Is it easier now when the patriarch of Moscow is Kirill? That is hard to say. I would say it is different, because he is a different person. But we are trying, first of all, to restore this unity of action, not the unity in structure.

Unity of action meaning …?

The common Christian witness of traditional values in today’s society. There is so much that Orthodox and Catholics can do together to restore a society so in need of Christ. That is why I am speaking mostly about strategic alliance now: stressing unity of action, not unity of structure. This very terminology [an Orthodox/Catholic strategic alliance on social issues] was announced by the Russian Orthodox Church. I think it can be easily adopted in Ukraine as well. We have to be Christian in today’s secularized world. Orthodox and Catholics, first of all, have to be Christian and commonly witness for Christ and preach the Gospel.

Does the Russian Orthodox Church continue to view the Ukrainian Catholic Church with suspicion: as an arm of Rome, reaching in to proselytize Orthodox territory?

There is a lot of prejudice among Orthodox, but also among Catholics: You mention only one of them. I think that developing these simple relationships between the Churches can help overcome these prejudices.

Prejudices born of history, born of …?

Prejudices born of history, born of communist ideology and the ideology of the Russia in the time of the czars. It’s something that came from the past. It has nothing to do with the present. I think we need to liberate ourselves from those prejudices of the past.

Is there still the problem of the Orthodox refusing to return to Ukrainian Catholics the churches that were put under Moscow’s control when Stalin banned the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in 1946? Does that continue to be a sticking point in Catholic/Orthodox relations?

It’s not a problem, because today in western Ukraine we use those churches which we built, that belong to us. I think the biggest problem for the Russian Orthodox Church is the fact that many Ukrainians who belonged to it have decided to return to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.

The Ukrainian Church in the United States:

Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia