Ukrainian Greek Catholic Leaders Encouraged After Meeting the Pope

The March 5 meeting in Rome eased concerns that the Vatican might subordinate the interests of the UGCC, to the cause of improving relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Pope Francis greets Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church at the Vatican on March 5.
Pope Francis greets Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church at the Vatican on March 5. (photo: © L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — Despite many Ukrainian Greek Catholics feeling betrayed by the joint declaration signed last month by Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana, the Eastern Church’s leadership was encouraged by a recent meeting with the Holy Father and a pledge he made to help the suffering people of Ukraine.

At the March 5 meeting at the Vatican, held at the end of the Ukrainian Catholics’ permanent synod in Rome, the Pope stressed that the Havana event was “first and foremost an encounter, and the declaration was lightly weighted,” Bishop Borys Gudziak, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s department of external relations, told the Register March 9.

He said their meeting with the Pope focused on the “biggest problem” facing Ukraine: “the war that is killing thousands of people, rendering millions homeless and traumatizing hundreds of thousands.” The Pope, he added, “indicated that he will act.”

Since 2014, Russia has been making several military incursions into Ukrainian territory, beginning with the annexation of Crimea. The war has resulted in thousands of casualties, causing what Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, has called the “biggest humanitarian catastrophe in Europe since the Second World War.”

Ukrainian Catholics argue that the Russian invasion has only been made possible thanks to the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is closely tied to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. They also point out that many of the dead have been Russian-speaking Orthodox Ukrainians who, if they practice their faith, belong to the Moscow patriarchate. This, they believe, should make it even more imperative for Patriarch Kirill to speak out against the Russian aggression.   

In an interview shortly after the Havana meeting, Archbishop Shevchuk said he was pleased that, for the first time, the Russian Orthodox Church recognized their existence, and that the joint declaration acknowledged a need for reconciliation between the two churches.

But he criticized paragraph 26, which failed to refer to the ongoing war in Ukraine as an “act of aggression against a neighboring state.” Also problematic for the Ukrainian Greek Catholics were other passages, such as the assertion that “Uniatism” (Eastern rite churches in communion with Rome) “is not the way to re-establish unity,” and that Ukraine’s churches should “refrain from taking part in confrontation" and exacerbating the conflict. Ukrainian Catholics have only ever supported the people of Ukraine, Archbishop Shevchuk countered.


Russian Orthodox Criticisms

For their part, the Russian Orthodox Church criticized what they called the “aggressive rhetoric” of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It has “not surprised us, but has very much saddened us,” Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for External Church Relations, told Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

He claimed that, although the declaration elicited “quite extensive and extremely positive reactions,” the Greek Catholics “did not want to constructively accept” the statement. He was more blunt in an earlier interview with Interfax, saying the Greek Catholics “aren’t ready to hear not only the voice of our patriarch, but even the voice of their pope” and have a “politicized agenda.”

But Father Giovanni Guaita, an Orthodox priest who has worked for the Russian Orthodox Department for External Affairs, told the Register March 10 that not all the Russian Orthodox were pleased with it, either, but of course for different reasons. On the Havana meeting generally, “several Orthodox conservatives have publicly expressed disappointment,” Father Guaita said, and opposition to a rapprochement with the Catholic Church is particularly prevalent in monastic communities. Many Russian Orthodox continue to see Catholics as heretics.

Despite the criticism, Father Guaita believes the Holy See’s approach to the Havana meeting — “not to return to the wounds of the past, but to put them in some way on standby and begin to work actively on common concrete projects” — was the correct one. The declaration was a “masterpiece of diplomacy,” he said, and the two Churches “want to leave aside old prejudices to get out of what, until now, has been a cold war.”

He also called upon Greek Catholics to “adopt a less rigid line” and welcome the Havana Declaration which “is, in fact, a step forward for them.”


Troubled History

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has had a long and troubled history with Russian Orthodoxy. Its most recent permanent synod was timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Lviv Synod (Sobor), when the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was forcibly absorbed into the Russian Orthodox Church with the tacit assent of the Moscow patriarchate. It led to the creation of an “underground” Church that for four decades suffered persecution and martyrdom.

Now the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia is compounding the wounds, Greek Catholics say, made worse by the Vatican’s perceived soft-peddling of the situation in its dealings with the Russian Orthodox.

Part of the problem with the declaration was a general lack of consultation: The text was drafted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity together with Metropolitan Hilarion and other Russian Orthodox officials, but Archbishop Shevchuk was left out, despite being a Council member. 

A Vatican source said representatives of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church had an “opportunity to speak” but he didn’t know if it was precisely about the declaration.

Greek Catholics see this as not incidental, but part of a Vatican policy of Ostpolitik — prioritizing dialogue over past hurts and differences. It’s a “certain default position” which “many ecumenists” have had for the past 50 years, said Bishop Gudziak, adding that such a policy of seeming compromise “is not going to be successful.” He hopes instead that the Vatican will “deal with the realities on the ground” and address humanitarian needs.


Pope Expresses Solidarity

The Ukrainian bishop was consoled by what the Holy Father told them last week, saying that he stressed that “no ecumenical progress” could be made “by sacrificing an entire church, for example, an Eastern Catholic one.” In a March 5 letter to the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church to mark the Lviv Synod, Francis also thanked them for the “fidelity” and expressed his solidarity with “pastors and faithful” at this “difficult time.” 

For its part, the Vatican denies Ostpolitik has been at play in its discussions with Moscow. When seeking unity, a Vatican source told the Register, “there is no politics,” just the “will to restore unity for which Christ died.”

And he said it’s not the role of bishops to discuss policy and politics. “It’s not a document to show who is responsible and, obviously, it’s not going to please everyone,” he said. “It is a common statement.” He also added that, in any case, the document speaks very little about Ukraine.

Some have claimed that part of the problem with what Bishop Gudziak calls three “skewed points” about Ukraine that “don’t reflect the needs of the people on the ground,” was that the Pope had bypassed the Secretariat of State and worked solely through the Pontifical Council to set up the historic meeting. The Vatican has insisted that the Secretariat of State was involved, with the Pontifical Council as the principal interlocutor.  


Acknowledgment of Responsibility

Moving forward, Bishop Gudziak believes that, as happened between Germany and France and between Poland and Ukraine, the truth about past wounds needs to confronted in the future, not only to achieve authentic reconciliation, but “also for the benefit of the Russians themselves.”

As a first step, he welcomed what he called a “prophetic” letter, signed March 7 by more than a dozen leading Russian Orthodox intellectuals, acknowledging a “crime of silence” among the Orthodox over the liquidating of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in 1946 with the participation of the Moscow patriarchate. The signatories asked for the forgiveness of Greek Catholics for “all the injustice.”

The Moscow patriarchate has yet to publicly acknowledge this tragic moment of history. They continue to view the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as "a stumbling block" in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, and blame them for poaching Orthodox faithful and property in Ukraine. Greek Catholics contend that church attendance among the Russian Orthodox is only around one percent, largely because it has lost its "prophetic voice" thanks to its close ties with the Russian state. 

In a recent video message, Ukrainian Orthodox Archimandrite Father Cyril Hovorun, said to be one of the most prominent theologians of the Moscow Patriarchate, appeared to show sympathy for the Greek Catholic position on the painful history between the two churches.

Although the Havana Declaration “recognizes the suffering and losses of the Ukrainian people” and makes an important call for “peace and reconciliation,” Father Hovorun said “what is lacking is a call for establishing truth about the conflict and bringing about justice.” He gave as an example the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established after the end of apartheid in South Africa.

“This is a sine qua non condition for healing wounds and promoting reconciliation,” said Father Hovorum. “Any attempt at reconciliation would be demagoguery without naming the perpetrator and his victims.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.