Orthodox Church Leaders Duel Over Ukraine, Meet With Pope Francis

The Bishop of Rome’s support is being called upon by two sides of Eastern Orthodoxy over the creation of a new independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

In this file photo taken May 25, 2010, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, left, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill tour the Kremlin during a meeting in Moscow, Russia.
In this file photo taken May 25, 2010, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, left, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill tour the Kremlin during a meeting in Moscow, Russia. (photo: Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP, file)

VATICAN CITY — Within the span of a week, Pope Francis met with the spiritual head of Eastern Orthodoxy, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, and the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow.

Both Constantinople and Moscow are locked in a battle over the creation of a new and independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which could shift the balance of power in Eastern Orthodoxy and impact the course of Orthodox-Catholic ecumenical dialogue.

Pope Francis’ May 30 statements to the Russian Orthodox delegation, published by the Vatican Press Office, have now broken the papal silence in the game of patriarchal thrones between Constantinople and Moscow. While observers disagree whether or not the Pope took clear sides in the dispute, they say the message to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) was stay out of the conflict. 

Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations, has loudly and repeatedly accused the UGCC of supporting the efforts of the Ukrainian government, which is fighting Russian-backed separatists, to create a unified self-governing (or autocephalous) Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Ukrainian government has petitioned Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to create an autocephalous (self-governing) Ukrainian Orthodox Church out of two separate Orthodox Churches currently without canonical recognition in Eastern Orthodoxy, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, which would also incorporate any Ukrainian Orthodox clergy and communities under the Moscow Patriachate that would voluntarily join. The government plans to have this Kiev-based Ukrainian Orthodox Church exist alongside the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.  

Metropolitan Hilarion has denounced Constantinople’s possible issuance of a tomos, a formal recognition of a unified, autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as legitimizing “Ukrainian schismatics.” Metropolitan Hilarion also has condemned the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church repeatedly for allegedly supporting this plan. In an interview with Interfax, a Russian news agency, Patriarch Kirill’s spokesman alleged the UGCC was plotting to bring the Ukrainian Orthodox, through this new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, into the “Unia” — a term referring to the Eastern Catholic Churches, which have communion with the Bishop of Rome, that is regarded as perjorative by those Catholic Churches.


The Pope’s Remarks

Pope Francis appeared to address those charges directly in his remarks to Metropolitan Hilarion at the Vatican, saying that “the Catholic Church will never allow an attitude of division to arise from her people.”

“We will never allow ourselves to do this; I do not want it,” he said. “In Moscow — in Russia — there is only one Patriarchate: yours. We will not have another one.”

The Holy Father added, “When some Catholic faithful, be they laypeople, priests or bishops, raise the banner of Uniatism, which does not work anymore, and is over, then it causes me pain. The Churches that are united in Rome must be respected, but Uniatism as a path of unity is not valid today.” 

The Pope stated that “the Catholic Churches must not get involved in internal matters of the Russian Orthodox Church, nor in political issues. This is my attitude and the attitude of the Holy See today. And those who meddle do not obey the Holy See.”

Instead, the Holy Father emphasized the need for ecumenical unity to begin through “journeying” together “walking in love, in prayer,” instead of waiting for doctrinal agreement first.

“We must continue to study theology, to clarify the points, but in the meantime, let us walk together,” he said. Francis said “I found a brother” in Patriarch Kirill, and he added that he prayed for Catholic-Orthodox unity every morning before a relic of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

Russian media quickly seized upon Pope Francis’ words as both a rebuke to Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the UGCC in Kiev, and the Ukrainian government. TASS Russian news agency, for example, reported that Pope Francis spoke “in favor of unity of the Russian Orthodox Church in the wake of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s plans to institute an independent local [national] Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”


What’s at Stake

But Anatoliy Babynskyi, a fellow of the Institute of Religion and Society at the Ukrainian Catholic University of Lviv, told the Register that a close reading of Pope Francis’ words shows the Holy Father steering clear of a “game of thrones” involving Constantinople, Moscow and Kiev.

Many analysts, including Babynskyi, contend that the Russian Orthodox are poised to see a serious loss of membership.

In Ukraine, a country of 45 million people, approximately 70% identify as Orthodox. A majority of Ukrainian Orthodox have flocked to the non-canonical churches, and given the ongoing Russian-backed fighting in the country, a large contingent of Orthodox bishops, clergy and congregations are expected to leave the Moscow Patriarchate to join the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church once Bartholomew I gives his formal recognition.

Babynskyi said the move will create a 15th member of the Eastern Orthodox communion and make the new independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church one of the biggest churches in Eastern Orthodoxy. The Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine would be reduced to 10%-15% of Ukraine’s population, down from 20%-25%, and the Ecumenical Patriarch, whose traditional leadership of global Orthodoxy has been challenged by Patriarch Kirill, is poised to gain a new ally.

Babynskyi pointed out that Pope Francis, who is close with Patriarch Bartholomew, said nothing about Ukraine, denying Metropolitan Hilarion the active support he came looking for. And the Catholic Church has not recognized the Russian annexation of Crimea, where those Catholic congregations remain part of their Ukrainian episcopal jurisdictions.


Ukrainian Catholics’ Concerns

Pope Francis has drawn some criticism from Ukrainian Catholics for using the term “uniatism” — a method of proselytism once used to restore portions of Eastern Orthodox Churches to communion with Rome.

”The Moscow Patriarchate constantly accuses our Church of participating in uniatism, and it is a calumny,” said Father Andriy Chirovsky, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest and the founder and first director of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in Toronto.

Father Chirovsky told the Register both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have rejected “uniatism” in the 1993 Balamand declaration. But he said the Russian Orthodox do not use the term theologically, but pejoratively, to delegitimize and isolate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

He stressed that the Ukrainian Greek Catholics support the pastoral healing of the divisions between Ukrainian Orthodox. But he said they are also wary of too close an alliance between the church and state, or heresies that elevate nationalism over the Gospel — concerns that they believe are alleviated by communion with the Bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter the Apostle.

Father Cyril Hovorun, acting director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who also has represented the Russian Orthodox Church in ecumenical dialogues, told the Register that the Ukrainian Greek Catholics have been unfairly blamed by the Moscow Patriarchate for a pastoral problem created by its closeness to the Russian government and silence on the Russian-backed war in Ukraine.

Father Hovorun said the Russian Church and Russian government’s concerns about retaining control of the Orthodox Church in Kiev go beyond historical ties. The Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine is also seen by the Russian government as the remaining Russian institution that can exert influence on Ukrainian society. Both the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church, he said, are putting significant pressure on Bartholomew I to abandon his plans to recognize an autocephalous Ukrainian Church.

“The Russian Church and the Russian government, I think, have hopes that through the Pope they could exercise pressure on Bartholomew to stop this process,” he said.


Competing Claims

The visits of the Orthodox leaders in Rome come amid Patriarch Bartholomew’s and Metropolitan Hilarion’s intense, in-person lobbying of the heads of the other 14 Eastern Orthodox churches and their synods.

Bartholomew is advancing the case for recognizing a self-governing Ukrainian Church among the Orthodox Churches, while the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian government oppose the change. Kiev is considered the spiritual birthplace of the Russian Church since 988, when Vladimir I and the Kievan Rus embraced Christianity in a mass baptism. While the ecumenical patriarch considers Constantinople to be the mother church of Kiev, the Moscow Patriarchate claims it has a better claim for primacy over the region, arguing jurisdiction over Ukraine was transferred from Constantinople in 1686.

The two non-canonical Orthodox Churches in Ukraine that would unite into a unified, national Orthodox church (and be joined by some Orthodox bishops, priests and communities currently under the Moscow Patriarchate) are on the verge of fulfilling a plan that began 25 years ago after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church began in 1921, after Ukraine first gained independence from Russian rule, while the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate formed in 1992 after splitting with the Russian Orthodox Church. Since the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory in 2014, support for the Kyivan Patriarchate has increased, with nearly 25% of Ukrainian Orthodox claiming membership, according to the Ruzumkov Center.

Aristotle Papanikolaou, a co-founding director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, told the Register that Patriarch Bartholomew would not simply issue the equivalent of a “papal decree” and recognize a new autocephalous Ukrainian Church. Eastern Orthodoxy requires the ecumenical patriarch to have a certain consensus of the currently 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches in order to create the new autocephalous Ukrainian Church.

“He can act unilaterally, but what will ensue is a debate whether he can act unilaterally, and then there is a question of which of the other Churches will recognize that act,” he said.

Papanikolaou said he did not read Pope Francis’ statements as taking sides between Moscow and Constantinople, but rather aimed at the Ukrainian Greek Catholics to stay out of the conflict.


Rome’s Careful Stance

Father Ronald Roberson, the associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register that Pope Francis seemed to mainly reiterate the Vatican’s careful stance toward the Russian Orthodox Church. Father Roberson pointed out that when the Vatican re-established Latin Church dioceses in Russia, it did so in a way that avoided treading on the Russian Orthodox Church’s spiritual territory in Russia.

The formation of an official Ukrainian Orthodox Church is “a really delicate situation,” according to Father Roberson. Some have even speculated the decision could lead to a serious rift or schism in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Pope Francis could be deeply concerned the Catholic Church does not get blamed as a spoiler. Father Roberson said if Constantinople recognizes an autocephalous church in Ukraine, “Moscow’s reaction is going to be very, very strong.”

He said, “It’s going to be treacherous waters, and Catholics are going to have to tread very, very lightly.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.


Eastern Orthodox Churches

Each of these autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches are all recognized by the other and considered equal to each other. But Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is held to be “first among equals.”

Church of Constantinople (or Ecumenical Patriarchate), led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I

Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa, led by Patriarch Theodore II

Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, led by Patriarch John X

Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, led by Theophilos III

Russian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia

Serbian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Irinej

Bulgarian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Neophyte of all Bulgaria

Romanian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Daniel

Georgian Orthodox Church, led by Ilia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia

Church of Greece, led by Ieronymos II, archbishop of Athens and all Greece

Church of Cyprus, led by Chrysostomos II, archbishop of Nova Justiniana and all Cyprus

Orthodox Church of Albania, led by Archbishop Anastasios of Albania

Orthodox Church of the Czech lands and Slovakia, led by Archbishop Rastislav of Prešov

Orthodox Church of Poland, led by Metropolitan Sawa of Warsaw and all Poland.

The Orthodox Church in America has partial recognition of the autocephaly granted by the Russian Orthodox Church, but lacks full recognition by most Eastern Orthodox Churches, since its autocephalous status lacks confirmation by the ecumenical patriarch.  



Impact on Catholics in Ukraine

Father Chirovsky believed Patriarch Bartholomew may not wait for consensus among the Orthodox Churches to resolve the canonical limbo for Ukrainian Orthodox, but go ahead anyway, since “he has been known to act alone [establishing autocephalous churches] in Estonia and Bulgaria, for example.”

If the ecumenical patriarch goes through with this plan, the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church will effectively remove the Moscow Patriarchate’s claims to be the original Church of the Kievan Rus, but also the “Third Rome” deserving the leadership mantle of the Orthodox world over “New Rome” Constantinople. He said the Russian Orthodox have claimed Constantinople fell away from true Orthodoxy when it temporarily re-established communion with the Bishop of Rome at the Council of Florence in 1438 and that God punished them with the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453.     

But the establishment of this autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church could also further other developments for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which also sees Constantinople as its mother church. Father Chirovsky speculated a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with a Kievan-based patriarchate, could signal its willingness to Constantinople to allow the UGCC to establish formally its own patriarchate in Kiev. The Vatican has refused to recognize formally a Ukrainian Greek Catholic patriarchate in Kiev, without the consent of Constantinople, since 2003.

Another promising possibility, Father Chirovsky said, would be the revival of Ukrainian Catholic-Orthodox theological discussions about whether the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church could have both communion with Rome and communion with Constantinople at the same time. Both the Vatican and Ecumenical Patriarchate have encouraged the exploration of this possibility since the late 1990s.

The Russian Orthodox Church has not spoken out against the Russian Federation fighting in Ukraine or the forcible annexation of Crimea, which led to 1.5 million persons displaced and more than 10,000 dead.