Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church

Head of Ukrainian Catholic Church skeptical of papal-Orthodox declaration

By  Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service
  • February 18, 2016

WASHINGTON  - The joint declaration signed Feb. 12 in Cuba between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has met with a tepid reaction from Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

"In general it is positive," he said in a Feb. 12 interview with Ukrainian Father Ihor Yatsiv and translated from Ukrainian.

"In it are raised questions, which are of concern to both Catholics and Orthodox, and it opens new perspectives for co-operation. I encourage all to look for these positive elements. However, the points which concern Ukraine in general and specifically the (Ukrainian Church) raised more questions than answers."

One positive is that the Russian Orthodox "no longer seem to object to our right to exist. In reality, in order to exist and to act, we are not obliged to ask permission from anybody," Shevchuk said. The joint declaration says that "the ecclesial communities which emerged in these historical circumstances have the right to exist" and to do what is necessary to minister to their faithful.

On the other hand, he added, "this text has caused deep disappointment among many faithful of our Church and among conscientious citizens of Ukraine. Today, many contacted me about this and said that they feel betrayed by the Vatican, disappointed by the half-truth nature of this document, and even see it as indirect support by the Apostolic See for Russian aggression against Ukraine. I can certainly understand those feelings."

He said, "I encourage our faithful not to dramatize this declaration and not to exaggerate its importance for Church life. We have experienced more than one such statement, and will survive this one as well."

In analysing the first meeting in at least 1,000 years between a sitting pope and the patriarch of Orthodoxy's largest branch, "one notices immediately, especially from their comments after the meeting, that the two sides existed on two completely different planes and were pursuing different goals. His Holiness Pope Francis experienced this encounter primarily as a spiritual event," the archbishop said. "From the Moscow patriarch, one immediately sensed that this wasn't about any Spirit, or theology or actual religious matters."

He added: "Did these two parallel realities intersect during this meeting? I don't know, but according to the rules of mathematics, two parallel lines do not intersect.

"For a document that was intended to be not theological, but essentially sociopolitical, it is hard to imagine a weaker team than the one that drafted this text," which Shevchuk said was "beyond their capabilities." He was speaking of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, responsible for drafting the declaration, and whose members, he said, were "exploited" during the drafting process by the Russian Orthodox Department of External Affairs.

"One gets the impression that the Moscow Patriarchate is either stubbornly refusing to admit that it is a party to the conflict (the separatist war in eastern Ukraine), namely, that it openly supports the aggression of Russia against Ukraine, and, by the way, also blesses the military actions of Russia in Syria as a 'holy war,' or it is appealing first of all to its own conscience, calling itself to the same prudence, social solidarity, and the active building of peace. I do not know," Shevchuk said.

In the declaration, the two leaders insisted on the need to stop the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

“The very word 'conflict' is obscure here and seems to suggest to the reader that we have a 'civil conflict' rather than external aggression by a neighbouring state," the major archbishop said.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill said in the declaration, "We deplore the hostility in Ukraine that has already caused many victims, inflicted innumerable wounds on peaceful inhabitants and thrown society into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis," and called on their churches "to refrain from taking part in the confrontation and to not support any further development of the conflict."

The Ukrainian Catholic Church, which is one of 22 Eastern churches in communion with Rome and shares a spiritual and liturgical heritage with its Orthodox counterparts, "has never supported nor promoted the war. However, we have always supported and will support the people of Ukraine. We have never been on the side of the aggressor," Shevchuk said.

"Our priests have never taken up arms, as opposed to what has happened on the other side. Our chaplains, as builders of peace, suffer the freezing cold together with our soldiers on the front and with their very own hands carry the wounded from the battlefield, wipe away the tears of mothers who mourn their dead children. We care for the wounded and for those who have suffered as a result of the fighting, regardless of their national origin, their religious or political beliefs," he added.

"No one invited me to express my thoughts and so, essentially, as had already happened previously, they spoke about us without us, without giving us a voice," Shevchuk said. "From our experience, gained over many years, we can say that when the Vatican and Moscow organize meetings or sign joint texts, it is difficult to expect something good."

But he cautioned against Ukrainian Catholics criticizing Pope Francis.

"I would invite all not to rush in judging him, not to remain on the reality level of those who expect only politics from this meeting and want to exploit a humble Pope for their human plans at all costs."

On the papal flight from Mexico to Rome Feb. 17, Pope Francis was asked about the major archbishop's interview.

"When I read this, I was worried," said the Pope, who explained that he has known and respected Shevchuk for years.

The archbishop's criticism seemed "a bit strange," he said, but when people speak, their words must be read in the context of what they are living. The Ukrainians have the experience of Russian aggression toward the Ukrainian Catholic Church and Russian support for separatist fighting in Eastern Ukraine. That experience cannot be ignored, he said.

"You can understand how people in that situation feel this way," the Pope said. The archbishop's right to express his opinion must be respected, he said, "especially in this situation."

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