A Ukrainian Catholic Reflects on Church and Country

Even if political progress is slow, Constantinople’s recognition of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine offers reason for hope, says one Ukrainian Catholic scholar.

Mykola Symchych
Mykola Symchych (photo: Photo Provided)

Ukrainian Mykola Symchych has followed the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) with interest, although he and his family belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Last December several Orthodox Churches and other ecclesial institutions and monasteries in Ukraine were united to form a single autocephalous (self-governing) Church that is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople rather than the Moscow Patriarchate.

In issuing a tomos (official document) granting autocephaly, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, “first among equals” of Eastern Orthodox bishops, ended the Moscow Patriarchate’s 332-year jurisdiction over Ukraine. The action has resulted in a split that all the Eastern Orthodox Churches are working to resolve.

For Symchych and many of the roughly 44 million Ukrainians — regardless of their faith — the new Church under Constantinople’s jurisdiction makes a statement about Ukrainian independence not only from the Moscow Patriarchate, but from the entire Russian Federation.

While Symchych did not vote for Ukraine’s new president Volodomyr Zelenskiy in April and also didn’t vote for his party in the July 21 parliamentary elections, he still hopes that having won a majority of seats the president and his party will move the country toward a pro-European democratic state rather than one that’s closer to Russia.

“In general, Greek Catholics support the [new] Orthodox Church of Ukraine,” said Symchych, a research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy in Kiev.

“It’s interesting because we are a separate Church,” he said. “We have nothing to do with the Orthodox Church, but we support the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which now is in connection to Constantinople. Everyone understands that it is important not just for those people who call themselves Orthodox but for all the Ukrainian nation. It’s important to have a strong, independent OCU.”

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Symchych and his family belong to is a Byzantine-rite Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Holy See. It is the second largest particular Church after the Latin Church with nearly 4.5 million members — roughly 10% of Ukrainians.

As a result of Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision, the Moscow Patriarchate unilaterally withdrew from full communion with Constantinople. Some of the other Orthodox Churches have condemned Constantinople’s decision and many are seeking to resolve the division.

The Ukrainian impetus for seeking recognition as an autocephalous Orthodox Church came from Church leaders and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, reflecting a national desire for independence, Symchych said.

The new Church’s recognition was very important, he said. “Also, it was very important that Constantinople gave some instructions how to create this Church because in Ukraine, we must be honest — there is corruption,” he said. “Corruption is also in the Church and to make the Church more transparent it is very important.”

According to a 2018 survey, 43% of Ukrainians respondents identified with the two Churches that now make up the OCU: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Also part of the OCU are all ecclesiastical institutions and monasteries from the Ukraine, and a part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Seventeen percent of Ukrainians in the survey identified with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Not all Ukrainians who identify as Orthodox attend regular church services, but for many, the Eastern Orthodox Church represents an important part of the country’s heritage and identity, Symchych said.

Creation of the OCU also has played a role in Ukrainian politics, he said. Poroshenko promoted the tomos during his unsuccessful reelection campaign. The April presidential election, in which former TV comedian Zelenskiy won with 73% of the vote, proved to be a referendum on corruption and Poroshenko’s failure to enact reforms, Symchych said, adding that favorable media coverage through outlets run by oligarchs helped to put Zelenskiy over the top, though he didn’t present a detailed plan for governance.

It’s not yet clear how Zelenskiy will address Ukraine’s corruption problems and approach the country’s relations with Russia, especially in light of the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing fight for control of the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, Symchych said.

Even if political progress toward full independence is slow, recognition of the OCU offers reason for hope, he said.

Ultimately, change in Ukraine will come not only through the Church and government but through each citizen’s efforts, Symchych said.

“We ourselves have to solve local problems,” he said. “There is no omnipotent president who can do everything. Russians think [President Vladimir] Putin can do everything. We can’t believe that. We have to transform our country from the bottom. … There is only one way, just to work. If everyone understands this and does his obligation, his duty in the best way, then we can transform this country.”