Hope for Ukraine

40-year-old bishop chosen to head the largest Eastern-rite Church. Will it help mend fences with the Russian Orthodox?

Ukrainian Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, the new head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, is seen during an interview with Catholic News Service in Rome March 30.
Ukrainian Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, the new head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, is seen during an interview with Catholic News Service in Rome March 30. (photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Catholics in Ukraine — and Ukrainian Catholics throughout the world — have a new bishop. On March 23, the Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church elected Sviatoslav Shevchuk, 40, as major archbishop of Kiev. He succeeds Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, major archbishop since 1994. Cardinal Husar, 78, retired because of his health.

Archbishop Shevchuk’s election was confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI on March 25. When he was installed March 27 at the Cathedral of the Holy Resurrection of Christ in Kiev, the new major archbishop commented: “The death of hundreds of thousands of our laity, priests, monks and nuns — led by our bishops — was a death on the cross and, therefore, a giver of life.”

In a wide-ranging discussion, Taras Antoshevsky, director of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine (RISU), shed light on Archbishop Shevchuk’s election and what it means for the Catholic faithful in Ukraine and beyond. He spoke from his office at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. Mariana Karapinka of RISU translated his comments into English.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, with its nearly 10 million faithful, is the largest Eastern-rite Church in communion with Rome. It celebrates the Byzantine Divine Liturgy and maintains the spiritual heritage associated with Orthodoxy. The Church in Kiev reunited with Rome in 1595.

During the Soviet occupation of Ukraine, the UGCC was forcibly merged with the Orthodox Church and made illegal. When Ukraine won its independence in 1991, many Catholics in the country returned to their religious roots, reclaiming Church properties that had been given by the government to the Orthodox. Tensions arose.

At the time of his election, Archbishop Shevchuk had been apostolic administrator of the Ukrainian Catholic Diocese of the Protection of the Mother of God in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A moral theologian, he also served as rector of Holy Spirit Seminary in Lviv.

Archbishop Shevchuk hopes that Rome will grant him the title of “patriarch,” a status the Vatican has been reluctant to bestow upon the head of the Catholic Church in Kiev, lest it complicate matters with Moscow.

What do you think about the fact that someone who is only 40 has become head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church? Is there precedent for such a choice?

I think one should not view the young age of the new head of the UGCC as a weakness. Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytskyi became head of the UGCC at an even younger age and managed to accomplish a great deal during the 44 years of his leadership.

Patriarch Sviatoslav has great experience … in administrative work at the Curia of Cardinal Husar, missionary work in Greece, work as the rector of Holy Spirit Seminary, and his bishop’s ministry in Argentina. All this is based on a more solid theological education than that of many older bishops.

Why do you think he was selected over others, including such presumptive top contenders as Archbishop Ihor Vozniak of Lviv?

I think that the members of the [bishops synod] who elected him understood that he was faced with the possibility of a potentially very optimistic future for the UGCC. We can only guess about the other details of the choice, due to the secrecy of the process of the synod.

What challenges will he face? Do you foresee any crises for the Church in Ukraine?

There are several challenges for the UGCC. First of all, there are internal matters [i.e., within Ukraine versus those within the Church’s several million-strong worldwide diaspora]. The status of religious freedom in Ukraine has changed for the worse. It became clear during the first year of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency [elected in February 2009] that he definitely 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], as he found no time to meet with the members of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations. He was not obliged to do it, but it has already become a tradition in Ukraine for the leadership of the state to try and hear the opinion of that council, which reflects the interests of nearly 90% of the believers of Ukraine representing various religions. In the last decade, the UGCC has become the mouthpiece of the council.

His Beatitude Lubomyr [Cardinal Husar] repeatedly and quite publicly put forward initiatives to improve interreligious relations and criticized violations [of ecumenical amity].

He became a great authority as an arbitrator of social and religious life in Ukraine.

On the other hand, the UGCC has certain internal problems where treatment is required. For instance, it is necessary to make parish life more active, promote the development of lay initiatives and communities, and conduct a more active mission in the north, east and south of Ukraine. [The bulk of UGCC faithful within Ukraine live in the western third of the country.] The problems among the diaspora, which is being secularized and assimilated overseas, remain.

Tell me about the question of Rome recognizing the head of the UGCC as a patriarch.

The question of recognizing the patriarchate of the UGCC remains. Actually, the whole Church prays during the liturgies for the blessed patriarch, and he is recognized as such by other denominations in Ukraine, but he is not officially recognized by the Apostolic See. We understand well that it is not an internal Church problem. But the believers in the UGCC are hurt by the fact that the Vatican pays more attention to the position of the Russian Orthodox Church in this regard than to the aspirations of the faithful Catholics themselves. 

One can see from the first addresses of Patriarch Sviatoslav that he sees these problems and has ideas as to how to solve them. The UGCC is developing a strategic plan of development, and all these questions are probably included in it.

How would you describe Major Archbishop Sviatoslav’s position toward the Orthodox? Will the relations between the UGCC and the Russian Orthodoxy change?

This aspect is of great interest, as Patriarch Sviatoslav keeps some distance from the rhetoric of Patriarch Lubomyr. The previous head of the UGCC often spoke about the necessity of having a unified Church in Ukraine, whereas the young patriarch stresses the necessity of a strategic alliance and partnership. That is, he speaks not of a great future, but about our own times. And this is more understandable and obvious for both sides, as we can see from the latest news.

It is very important to establish direct dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church. For Moscow quite often views the UGCC as an objection in its relations with the Vatican. The UGCC itself is equated as synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church, which is in contradiction with the decision of the Second Vatican Council regarding the local Eastern Catholic Churches.

Therefore, I think, that it is this aspect where the theological and diplomatic skills of Patriarch Sviatoslav may manifest themselves. His young age and previous experience can only help him.

It really seems, to me, that from his first steps, the new head of the UGCC won great authority and provoked keen public interest. I think that in quite a short time he will provide many subjects to talk about and consider. We will see.

Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.