There is one remaining institution of the old Tsarist empire of the Romanovs: the Patriarchate of Moscow. It is the only such institution to survive the bloody upheavals of the Russian Revolution, which led to the expansion of Russian imperial holdings but also to a loss of most of its tradition. All that remains is the Moscow Patriarchate, which in Soviet times was the closest thing to an established church in an officially atheist state. Today it is the Russian imperialist’s last hope for a restitution of the old empire—even a smaller, Slavic empire of three fraternal nations, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Of course, Russia would have to be—in Orwellian terms—more fraternal than the rest, but that is the way it is with all empires. That this last empire would never come to be was pretty much apparent by the end of the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ukraine, June 24-27, 2001.
Thanks to the relentless efforts of the enormous KGB-trained Department of External Affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate, under the leadership of the old Estonian KGB’s decorated “agent Drozdov,” a.k.a. Patriarch Alexei II, the world media was alerted to what was to be the Pope’s most controversial and potentially ugliest visit to any country thus far. In Goebbels-like fashion, the articles from paid or simply lazy drones in the press came churning out systematically. One influential media outlet per week—different every week—spread the universal message: Pope John Paul may not set foot on the soil of Ukraine, despite the invitation of its government and the bishops of both the Ukrainian and Roman Rite Catholic Churches, with their flocks of nearly six million people.
Demonstrations were organized—pitiful, little demonstrations, but with icons, beards, and incense, they certainly made for a good visual and thus made the editor’s cut for the news. The demonstrations were organized and attended by members of three groups: the faction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate; the movement to unite Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia; and the Communist Party. At first glance the third seems “not like the others,” as Sesame Street might say. But in reality they were very much alike. All three would like to see the return of one state with one closely allied church, just like the good old days.
That is where the Moscow Patriarchate lost touch with reality and its faithful. Only one-half of 1 percent of the Ukrainian population was adamantly opposed to the papal visit. In the aftermath of the pontiff’s trip to Ukraine sixty-five percent of Russia’s population wanted a papal visit of their own, with only 17 percent describing themselves as opposed. Patriarch Alexei’s dire predictions only offered the mass media the opportunity to witness and report on a remarkably warm and successful papal pilgrimage. Some journalists, in their perpetually Russocentric obsession, asked repeatedly: What is the meaning of the visit to Ukraine? Does it signal the end of John Paul’s hopes to visit Russia? Is Ukraine merely a consolation prize? They could not see the obvious. The Catholic Church of Kyiv (otherwise known, by an ethnic and therefore less proper name, as the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church) was for half a century (1946-1990) the world’s largest banned religious body. Not that many people noticed this fact, since the world knows precious little of Ukraine and even less of the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches (those Orthodox Churches that are in full and visible communion with Rome), the Catholic Church of Kyiv.
This Catholic Church of Kyiv looks to the Vatican City State as a kind of guarantee that the Catholic Church will not become a servant of the state, as the Moscow Patriarchate has clearly done, from the times of the Tsars through the rule of the commissars and still today. June’s papal visit underlined this fact in a strange way. In order to appease those Orthodox who followed Alexei’s warnings about the nefarious intentions of the Pope—who, it was said, was out to steal sheep away from Moscow’s Church in Ukraine—the entire trip was billed as the State Visit of the Head of State of the Vatican, that quaint little country whose army is gaily attired in uniforms by Michelangelo, armed with the latest in pike-style weapons.
Yet that the Pope is the citizen of no country, the subject of no earthly ruler, is precisely what Ukrainian Catholics were willing to suffer and die for in Siberia. The recent beatification of twenty-six martyrs only solidified the long-standing belief that the Church should remain beyond government control.
Not one Ukrainian Greco-Catholic bishop was willing to cooperate with the secret police and join the Moscow Patriarchate, though they were asked to do so repeatedly. Most died, either in prison or as a result of their tortures. The patriarch of this Church, Josyf Cardinal Slipyj, was released by the Soviets in a deal brokered by journalist Norman Cousins between John F. Kennedy, Pope John XXIII, and Nikita Khrushchev, shortly after the Cuban missile crisis. Expected to die soon, after suffering eighteen years in Siberian concentration camps, he stubbornly lived on for twenty-one years, dying a scant five years before his Church came out of the underground not in the thousands but in the millions, to the utter surprise of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Vatican, the KGB, and the CIA.
There were martyrs of Nazi oppression as well. Even though the Germans struck a less barbaric pose at first and may have confused some Ukrainian Catholics who had been suffering under Bolshevik oppression, the Church soon saw things as they were. Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky used his residences and monasteries to save Jews from extermination and wrote a courageous letter to Himmler condemning the slaughter, while most of German-occupied Europe remained anxiously silent. He also wrote a pastoral letter entitled “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” in which he threatened with excommunication any of his flock who took part in the genocide. Among those recently beatified was a priest who took his bishop’s orders seriously and was murdered by the Nazis for it. Sheptytsky himself was honored by the Pope repeatedly, but his beatification requires the detailed examination of his voluminous archives from forty-four years at the helm of the Church.
Today that Church has the most ambitious theological school in the country, the L’viv Theological Academy, whose Harvard-trained rector, Father Borys Gudziak, asked John Paul to bless its cornerstone, its students, its faculty, its buildings, and its future. Outside of Ukraine, the Church is represented in nine dioceses in North America, with bishops in South America, Australia, Western Europe, and Poland. It has the only doctoral program in Eastern Christian Studies in the Western hemisphere at its Sheptytsky Institute in Ottawa, which already works ecumenically and is poised to expand its services to Eastern Catholics and Orthodox as well in an ecumenical vision taken from its own intrepid leaders and echoed by the Bishop of Rome.
Education is the priority of a new generation of self-starting leaders who push for authentic catechesis and place the highest demands on theological students. Armed with thorough knowledge of classical and modern languages, alumni of the L’viv Theological Academy are among the best educated university graduates in Ukraine. Through a strange twist in post-Soviet history, the government of Ukraine has not yet recognized theology as a university discipline, depriving those highly qualified young people of job opportunities and basic benefits accruing to university graduates. The Pope made sure to emphasize the need to rectify this situation. In a wily move, Fr. Gudziak welcomed President Leonid Kuchma to the Pope’s last and best attended service (over one million came to the Byzantine Liturgy in L’viv) by asking the crowd to thank the president for his openness on the issue of accrediting theological studies. A cheer went up and saved the president from embarrassment. Most of those present would have preferred to boo him on worldwide television. We’ll see if he follows through on the Pope’s suggestion.
This Church is no creation of counter-reformation missionaries out to convert unsuspecting Orthodox, as Moscow would have one believe, and as is the case with some Eastern Catholic Churches. Its Orthodox bishops chose in Orthodox synodal fashion to end the schism with Rome in 1596. Sometimes let down and sometimes saved by Rome, this Church takes no one’s help for granted, though it deserves the help of those who believe the Church has a vital role to play in the public forum, without becoming subservient to the state. This feisty attitude is directed not only to foreign occupiers, but to the Ukrainian state as well. One of the country’s most outspoken critics of President Kuchma and the corruption in his government is His Beatitude Lubomyr Cardinal Husar, the patriarch of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church.
The title “patriarch” still appears in lower case, because Rome and other Eastern Catholic Patriarchates have not yet recognized the title officially. Many wonder why such an archaic title is of such vital interest to this Church, which has so much else to occupy its time and interest. The answer is quite simple. A Major Archbishopric (the current acknowledged category for this Church) can be swallowed up by a patriarchate, while a patriarchate cannot. With the neighboring Patriarchate of Moscow still occupying some of the church buildings taken away from the Ukrainian Greco-Catholics by Stalin and given to Moscow in the 1940s, fears of Moscow’s voracious ecclesiastical appetite are not unfounded. Of course, the Church’s spokesmen emphasize that the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches should be granted full status and recognition. At the Byzantine Liturgy in L’viv on June 27, the clergy and the faithful let the Pope know their hopes. As Cardinal Husar approached the altar, they chanted exuberantly: “Patriarch, Patriarch!”
While the fear of being swallowed up by a caesaropapist neighbor persists, the Catholic Church of Kyiv is nevertheless decidedly ecumenical in its vision. This Church seeks double communion—with Rome and Constantinople—and will gladly unite with the Ukrainian Orthodox if they will accept a similar arrangement, allowing the Orthodox Synod to choose the one patriarch of a united church. The bigger problem seems to be to get the Orthodox in Ukraine, now split into three major factions, to unite among themselves. The Patriarch of Constantinople, who has never accepted the unilateral forced subordination of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to Moscow in 1686, has tremendous interest in these developments. Moscow’s claim that autocephaly or ecclesiastical self-rule can be granted only by Moscow, as Kyiv’s Mother Church, is specious, since Moscow received Christianity from Kyivan missionaries two hundred years after Kyiv accepted the faith from Constantinople. The Moscow Church cannot be its mother’s mother.
It is ironic that those who accepted union with Rome in 1596 were depicted by Ukrainian freedom-fighting Cossacks (not to be confused with the Tsar’s later pogrom-bearing elite troops) as having sold out to Polish overlords. Within ninety years, the relatively autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox who rejected union with Rome would be reduced to an ever smaller role in the Russian Church. By the early twentieth century, all its bishops would be carefully chosen Russians or Russo philes, so that proponents of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church could not find a single hierarch to head it and had to follow untraditional means of establishing an episcopate, which left it outside the orbit of canonical Orthodox Churches.
It is thus even more ironic that during John Paul’s visit to Ukraine, representatives of the descendants of the Ukrainian Cossacks presented the pontiff with greetings and a gift at the Byzantine-rite liturgy in L’viv. The Ukrainian Cossacks slaughtered Roman Catholics and Greco-Catholics, whom they called the hated “uniates,” but it was Pope John Paul II and Lubomyr Cardinal Husar who did the apologizing for dark moments in history, to the fury of those who think this Pope apologizes entirely too often, for entirely too much. But asking for forgiveness is a powerful weapon. It disarms the attacker and makes it difficult, or at least in bad taste, to hate. It is an entirely different thing to demand an apology, as Patriarch Alexei II recently did, when he demanded that the Pope atone for his visit to Ukraine. As the Kyiv Post noted recently, if there are any converts from Russian Orthodoxy in the wake of John Paul’s visit to Ukraine, they will not be due to any proselytizing by the pontiff, but rather to the incredibly negative vituperations of the Moscow Patriarchate.
There is one other thing that won the hearts of many Ukrainians—one that the Moscow Patriarchate is incapable of understanding. The Pope spoke Ukrainian—very good Ukrainian—in most of his allocutions. No Patriarch of Moscow, despite claiming that Ukraine is his pastoral territory, has ever spoken Ukrainian to the Ukrainian people. Unless the Patriarch is completely incapable of seeing beyond colonial dreams, he will have to catch up soon. Both Poles and Russians bought and sold Ukrainian serfs until the mid-nineteenth century and considered Ukrainian unfit to be called a language, but this Polish Pope has been speaking Ukrainian for the last twenty years and he talked up a storm of it during his visit.
Despite a government that is manifestly corrupt—in which oligarchs make off with obscene amounts of money and the average small businessman must pay protection to the Mafia throughout Ukraine—President Kuchma has been successful on two fronts: minority rights have been protected and religious and ethnic hostilities have been kept at bay. He desperately needed the Pope’s visit to bring some good press to his government. But that did not stop the Pope from reminding political, business, and cultural elites that they must put human dignity before the lining of their pockets. He also appealed to youth—three hundred thousand of whom braved torrential rains to see him—not to trade the slavery of communism for an enslavement by consumerism. He begged them not to seek the illusion of an easy life abroad, but to stay at home and help build a bright future for Ukraine. I asked a twenty-something taxi driver how he felt about the Pope’s remarks. “I’m walking half a meter off the earth, and giddy as a child,” he replied.
Ukraine will need a lot of dedicated young people to transform itself into the prosperous country it could be. With a highly educated and extremely resourceful populace and much natural wealth, the largest entirely European country could emerge from the shadows in which it was hidden for centuries by foreign powers to be a formidable force. Unlike the industrialized powers of the West, Ukraine’s isolation from the nihilism of twentieth-century Western elites may make it a paradigm for a new type of modern state: one with a Christian soul. Vocations are plentiful. There is incredible potential among dedicated lay believers who want to make a difference. Can the homo Sovieticus now ruling at national, regional, and local levels produce a new leadership class to seize the potential? The normally cynical people who were “walking half a meter off the earth” days after the Pope’s departure will tell you: Ukraine has plenty of surprises left.
Fr. Andriy Chirovsky is the founder and director of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, where he holds the Peter and Doris Kule Chair of Eastern Christian Theology and Spirituality. He is the author of many studies on the Eastern Churches and the editor-in-chief of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.