Ukraine's 'de facto' Catholic patriarch foresees universal mission

By Benjamin Mann

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Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev

The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church stressed his church's historic dignity and worldwide mission, in an interview during his recent pastoral visit to the U.S.

“We have all the possibilities, and all the rights, to live and act as a patriarchal church,” said Ukrainian Greek Catholic Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, in a Nov. 11 English-language interview with the Religious Information Service of Ukraine.

Major Archbishop Shevchuk, who leads 4.3 million Ukrainian Catholics in communion with the Pope, told Roshka: “If tomorrow, I receive a new title as 'Patriarch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church,' what would change? I would answer, 'Nothing.'”

“There is a small juridical procedure when a new patriarch is elected by the synod, that he doesn't need any confirmation from the Holy See, to express his communion with the Successor of Peter,” the major archbishop noted, in response to a question about the church's 'de facto' patriarchal standing.

“Right now, a 'major archbishop' has to be accepted by Rome, has to receive approval from the Holy See,” he explained, outlining his current position.

“But in other ways of acting and existing, we hold the same possibilities as a patriarchal church, a patriarchal structure. When I will receive this honorific title, we'll try to act as the patriarchal church – which we 'de facto' are – and maybe worldwide action of our church will demonstrate our dignity.”

Many Ukrainian Catholics already regard their leader as the Patriarch of Kiev, and some refer to him as such in liturgical settings. The title signifies the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church's claim to represent the tradition of Slavic Christianity, a claim also made by the separated Eastern Orthodox churches.

The question of patriarchal status is part of the complex relationship between Ukrainian Catholics, the Vatican, and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Ukrainian Catholic Church's 1596 reunion with Rome, achieved after long periods of separation, remains controversial among the Orthodox.

Elected to lead the Ukrainian Catholic Church last spring, Major Archbishop Shevchuk has spoken of his desire for good relations with the Orthodox. But he has also expressed interest in seeing the Catholic Church of Kiev restored to its historic patriarchal standing.

In his remarks on Nov. 11, the “de facto patriarch” said his church would expand its mission beyond its historic strongholds in western Ukraine.

“In the last synod,” he recalled, “we proclaimed that the strategic orientation or priority of the development of our church is our presence, and our work of evangelization, in the center and the east of Ukraine.”

“So perhaps if anybody wants to help us,” he declared with a smile, “please help us to build churches in that territory!”

The plan to expand may meet with resistance from both of Ukraine's two rival Orthodox churches.

“Very often, from the Orthodox, we will hear that we are a 'sect,'” the Ukrainian Catholic leader said. “And very often, if you are not an Orthodox, people will be suspicious: 'Are you Christians?'”

“Those are very practical difficulties. I think that with good priests, and good, vital, vibrant parishes – and also with the help of our brethren in the United States – we really can perform and fulfill our mission to preach Jesus Christ … especially in that (eastern and central) part of Ukraine.”

Major Archbishop Shevchuk said his church has plenty of priestly vocations, though it lacks the resources to build enough churches in the areas where it seeks to expand.

“Right now, in many cities, we just have to perform our services in schools, in different halls, in libraries perhaps. And for people who used to pray in temples, in churches, it's not so easy to go to pray in a private apartment.”

“I would say that, thanks be to God, we do have enough vocations for the priesthood. But we are lacking resources in order to accept all those vocations, and to give them a good formation.”

The major archbishop also hopes to attract more vocations to consecrated religious life, a traditional pillar of Eastern Christianity.

“We really realized that there is not enough vocation to this particular way of being Christians, and you have to encourage young generations, especially in Ukraine: 'Don't be afraid to join the religious communities in our church.'”

Ukraine's Greek Catholics were among the most persecuted Christians of the 20th century, and Soviet authorities denied their existence for decades before the fall of Communism. Many of Ukraine's current problems, Major Archbishop Shevchuk said, stem from Communism's painful legacy.

“Abortion, right now, in Ukraine, is a real plight of the Ukrainian society,” he said. “We still receive that heritage from the Soviet Union, where according to the state law it was allowed to perform such an operation.”

“The Catholic Church – both Byzantine and Latin Rite – we are trying to do everything that we can.” He cited legislative efforts, education in bioethics, and pastoral work with young people, as efforts “on different levels, to preach the 'Gospel of Life.'”

Ukraine's highest-ranking Catholic hierarch is just 41 years old, and places youth outreach among his top goals.

“We would never say that we have 'enough' youth ministry in Ukraine,” he stated. “I, as the youngest Ukrainian bishop, am trying to be especially attentive and sensitive for the youth pastoral ministry.”

Ultimately, the potential patriarch sees his church's mission for the future as one that goes beyond national and ethnic boundaries.

“Our presence in different countries,” Major Archbishop Shevchuk stressed, “is a presence not only for Ukrainians, but for everybody.”

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