Like many Ukrainian Greco-Catholics, I am pleased that Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill finally met in Havana February 12, even though the negotiations that preceded this encounter included some unseemly concessions. After all, for the last three decades such an encounter was always described as impossible because of the very existence of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church. I note that Pope Francis praised Patriarch Kirill’s humility, but the latter did not return the favor. After all, it was clearly the Pope who humbly agreed to the time and place for the meeting, in order for it to finally happen after decades of stalling on the part of Moscow. When the two met, Pope Francis tellingly said, “Finally . . .” That is a sentiment that I share. This should have been routine a long time ago. Moscow’s approach of seeking strength through aloofness really does not work in a world of instant communication. They have finally seen the light. Pope Francis favors frank dialogue over confrontation and posturing. But to dialogue, one needs a partner to come to the table. Finally, it has happened. One can only hope that the Patriarch of Moscow will also be open to a meeting with the head of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who has repeatedly called for such an encounter.

The Moscow Patriarchate likes to attack the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church for many things, both real and imagined. At least now the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow have broken the ice and will be able to communicate directly about these and many other matters. Now, it remains to be seen what kind of spin Moscow and its admirers in the media and blogosphere will put on the meeting and the Joint declaration the two signed.

The spin will be important to watch because much of the world press is hopelessly confused in its reporting about the historic meeting between the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Moscow. Endless references to the thousand-year estrangement between Rome and Moscow display ignorance of the fact that 1,000 years ago the Patriarchate of Moscow did not exist. It was created in 1589. Even the position of Metropolitan of Moscow goes back only to 1448. The creation of the Moscow Metropolitanate was a direct reaction to the fact that the Church of Kyiv (Kiev) had re-established full communion with Rome at the Council of Florence through Metropolitan Isidore. The Metropolitan of Kyiv, Petro Akerovych, had attended the First Council of Lyons in 1245. Moscow cannot claim the history of the Kyivan Church as its own and simultaneously ignore such momentous moments in that history. Furthermore, the Kyivan Church re-established full communion with Rome in 1596 through the Union of Brest, an explicit revival of Florentine models of unity, only to be beaten back by rivals who did not accept this Union. Even so, the Orthodox Metropolitan of Kiev, Petro Mohyla in the 1640’s, made contacts with Rome and was the author of yet another proposal for renewing communion with Rome, on what he considered slightly better terms. Now, either the history of the Church of Kiev is a separate reality from that of Moscow, or it is part and parcel of Russian Orthodox identity. Moscow cannot have it both ways. Alas, Moscow does do its best to obfuscate matters. The Moscow Patriarchate (founded 1589) claims to be the Mother Church for the Church of Kiev (founded 988). George Orwell would smile at this sort of Double-speak. That is why Moscow does not correct commentators who talk about the thousand-year estrangement. It all makes Moscow look more exotic, more like a great prize to be wooed at all costs.

Pope Francis’s ecumenical advisors paid an exorbitant cost to get the Patriarch of Moscow to meet. Again, commentators seem to fail to take notice of the fact that Moscow and Rome have had high-level contacts for decades. How quickly we forget that the head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate died in the arms of Pope John Paul I. The Moscow Patriarchate already had official observers at Vatican II in the 1960’s. But because modern efforts at Christian unity are often heavy on symbolism rather than substance (the harder thing to achieve), a meeting between the Patriarch of Moscow and the Pope of Rome was held out as a tantalizing prize for Catholic ecumenists, one that could be used to extract concessions at some necessary moment. That moment has come, as Russia faces international isolation and sanctions due to its adventures in invading Ukraine and reckless bombing of Syria that adds to the suffering of Christians there. Vladimir Putin desperately needed something—anything—to make Russia look good. So he sent the chief ideologue of the “Russkiy mir” (Russian world) to this summit. The Patriarch also had good reason to seek enhancement of his position as he jockeys for influence at the upcoming Great and Holy Synod of the Orthodox Churches in June. For Pope Francis, who is devoted to dialogue as process in every area of his papacy, the goal was clearly to open the door to direct contact and frank conversation. And as Papal Nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Claudio Guggerotti has emphasized, most people will quickly forget the document the two Church leaders signed. What will be remembered, he says, is the embrace.

Enough about the meeting and its symbolism. Let’s take a look at the Joint Declaration, because it is sure to be a point of reference in Church relations, even if most people will either fail to read it, or will forget its contents in short order. It is a beautiful document, with much to reflect upon in prayer, and it sets a clear agenda for Christian cooperation in the fields of defense of traditional morality, religious liberty in the face of aggressive secularism and life issues. A common front on these issues is incredibly important. It includes an inspiring call to young people. The declaration speaks eloquently and adamantly about the defense of Christians who are persecuted for their faith. All Christians should band together on this last issue, and exercise whatever influence we still have in the various countries in which we live, in order for the governments of this world to mobilize against this genocide. As a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic, I can confidently assert my total agreement with all of these points.

Yet I am also obligated by my conscience to speak to three paragraphs in the Joint Declaration, which I suspect will be used by the Moscow Patriarchate to interfere, in whatever way possible, in the life and activity of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church. The three paragraphs in question are strategically positioned near the end of the document, but not at its conclusion. By the time most readers get to paragraph 25, they will be positively inclined, and rightly so, because there is so much good in the document. That’s why it is easy not to notice the insidious elements of paragraphs 25 through 27. Let’s examine them in some detail.

Relations between Greek Catholics and Orthodox

Paragraph 25 reads as follows:

25. It is our hope that our meeting may also contribute to reconciliation wherever tensions exist between Greek Catholics and Orthodox. It is today clear that the past method of “uniatism,” understood as the union of one community to the other, separating it from its Church, is not the way to re–establish unity. Nonetheless, the ecclesial communities which emerged in these historical circumstances have the right to exist and to undertake all that is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful, while seeking to live in peace with their neighbours. Orthodox and Greek Catholics are in need of reconciliation and of mutually acceptable forms of co–existence.

In paragraph 25, the Moscow Patriarchate finally acknowledges that Eastern Catholics actually have a right to exist and to minister to their flocks, something the Joint Orthodox-Catholic Balamand Declaration in 1993 clearly stated. Twenty three years later, all of the Eastern Catholic Churches can breathe a sigh of relief that the Church that co-operated in the destruction of Eastern Catholic Churches under the Czars and under Stalin, has finally come into line with world Orthodoxy and no longer denies their very right to live. Interestingly, this paragraph does not mention Eastern Catholic Churches, but only “ecclesial communities.” Anyone versed in Catholic ecclesiological and ecumenical vocabulary will be alarmed at this, since this signals something less than full stature as a Church. There is no doubt at all that Rome views the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches precisely as a Church. In fact Rome refers to 22 Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris, a term that means “of their own law” or self-governing. How, then, did this anomalous terminology creep into the document? There is only one answer, I believe. It was inserted by Moscow and Vatican ecumenists either missed it or knowingly made a concession in order to please Moscow.

This certainly would not be the first time that Rome’s ecumenists have generously sacrificed Eastern Catholics for the sake of their outdated Ostpolitik. While this is unfortunate, it will not fundamentally change anything, except, perhaps, realign the rhetoric coming from Moscow, and especially the head of its Department of External Relations.

This being a document of a diplomatic nature, it is perhaps overly optimistic to have desired a commitment from both sides to openly and objectively study the so-called 1946 “Council of Lviv,” whose seventieth anniversary will be upon us in a few weeks. This so-called “council” was attended by no Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Bishops. All had been arrested. The Moscow Patriarchate collaborated directly with the Soviet secret police to orchestrate this event, which supposedly put an end to the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church by “re-uniting” it with Russian Orthodoxy. Ukrainian Greco-Catholics have patiently asked for Moscow to join in an objective and transparent scholarly and pastoral examination of this event, its causes and its aftermath. My own Sheptytsky Institute has done so publicly. So far those requests have fallen on deaf ears, as have several offers of mutual forgiveness extended by the heads of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church going back as far as Myroslav Ivan Canrdinal Lubachivsky in 1988, when this Church was still banned and functioning in the underground in the Soviet Union.

The definition of uniatism given by paragraph 25 is rather ambiguous and thus (and I’ll say this with a smile) it appears not to apply to the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church. The text says: “It is today clear that the past method of “uniatism”, understood as the union of one community to the other, separating it from its Church, is not the way to re–establish unity.” Apparently, Ukrainian Greco-Catholics can sigh a great sigh of relief, since this Church came into being through the decision of the bishops of the Orthodox Metropolia of Kiev, and not through “the union of one community to the other, separating it from its Church.” This was an action of the whole Kievan Church. Ironically, the two last bishoprics to join the Union (a hundred years later) were those in Westernmost Ukraine, today the region in which Ukrainian Greco-Catholics still constitute a majority of believers. The 1596 Union of Brest was precisely a corporate union of one Church with another, not some peeling off of communities from another Church. Of course, the faithful of this Church have paid a very high price for their choice of unity with Rome, openly persecuted by Russian imperial governments, whether czarist or Bolshevik, whenever they acquired another slice of Belarusian or Ukrainian territory. The narrative presented by most Orthodox authors is that all of this was a plot by Polish Jesuits against the Orthodox Church. Such a narrative denies subjectivity to the Orthodox bishops of the Metropolia of Kyiv. In fact, they were shrewdly acting against plans that many Poles had for turning the Orthodox into Roman Catholics and Poles. None of this is to say that the Union of Brest is a model for Orthodox-Catholic unity in the future. It had numerous flaws, on the side of the Orthodox architects of the union as well as on the side of Rome. A good number—but not all—of them have been corrected. The Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church does subscribe to the Balamand Statement of 1993. It has from the beginning.

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

The Joint Declaration is an ecumenical document. It is not meant to stray into purely secular political questions. And yet, in paragraph 26, it takes on the war in Ukraine. Of course, it doesn’t call it a war, just a conflict. That calls to mind Vietnam, Korea, and countless other “conflicts” that were not “officially” termed wars. Here is the text:

26. 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. We invite all the parts involved in the conflict to prudence, to social solidarity, and to action aimed at constructing peace. We invite our Churches in Ukraine to work towards social harmony, to refrain from taking part in the confrontation, and to not support any further development of the conflict.

One cannot but be dumbfounded by the failure to mention foreign aggression. Ukraine has been invaded by Russia, not once, but twice with hybrid war. Have we forgotten the occupation and annexation of Crimea? Can we ignore the fact that heavy war materiel of every sort, including the most lethal offensive weapons, have been brought into Ukraine by Russia, often under the guise of “humanitarian aid”? Can anyone still make believe that both special operations and regular army units from Russia are not fighting in Ukraine today? Let’s be very clear. Ukraine has never invaded Russia. It’s the other way around. Peace is much to be desired, of course. But peace without justice is no justice; appeasement without truth is self-deception.

The Moscow Patriarchate has never condemned the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. In fact, this same body has attacked the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church for supporting Ukraine’s efforts at self-defense (that support is purely in terms that flow from Catholic social teaching). What is going on in Ukraine is foreign aggression; it is by no means a civil war, as Russian propaganda would like the world to believe. Nearly two thirds of Ukrainian government troops are Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine, who are defending their homeland from invasion. The vast majority are Orthodox Christians. Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Chaplains and charitable institutions serve everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, language choice, religious affiliations, or political views.

The Moscow Patriarchate claims that the only truly Christian option is for the Church to remain entirely neutral, loving both sides equally. This is close to the truth, but not quite close enough. Let me present a simple analogy. If I chance upon a scene where one person is violently attaching another, it is not enough for me to say: “I love both of you! Jesus loves both of you! Can’t we all just get along?” That would be an incredibly cynical response on my part if I did nothing to stop the crime. It would have the veneer of Christian love without the substance. Imagine further if someone else tried to help the victim and I had the audacity to complain that the intervening party was not neutral enough. Wars are more complicated than one-on-one violence, but in some wars there are clear aggressors, and this is one. If Paragraph 26 is calling on the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church to cease from encouraging the people of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression (and that is precisely what it seems to be saying), ignoring clear Catholic teaching on just war, then this paragraph cannot be understood as anything but a clear victory for Vladimir Putin. If, however, this paragraph means that Russian Orthodox bishops and priests should finally stop blessing tanks, missiles and other weapons in the name of some “war of Orthodoxy or of Holy Rus’” against a Western-leaning Ukraine (as they currently do on a regular basis), then that development would be welcome. Should both sides do everything possible to re-establish peace? Absolutely. Should they do so by whitewashing the truth and ignoring basic justice? Hardly.

Ukrainian Orthodoxy

Paragraph 27 of this otherwise inspiring document uses a code language that outsiders will find almost impossible to understand. Interestingly, it is not about Orthodox-Catholic relations. Instead, it has all the characteristics of a concession to Russian ecclesiastical imperialism. Let’s look at the text.

27. It is our hope that the schism between the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine may be overcome through existing canonical norms, that all the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine may live in peace and harmony, and that the Catholic communities in the country may contribute to this, in such a way that our Christian brotherhood may become increasingly evident.

It is almost impossible to understand this paragraph without reference to the February 5, 2016 Press Conference of Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations. In that Press Conference, Metr. Hilarion attacks the Ukrainian Greco-Catholics for several sins. Among them is that “they have supported the schismatics.” This is a reference to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Patriarchate of Kiev (a rival to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate) as well as the smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. The reference to “support,” as I have explained in other writings, must mean “failure to revile as renegade and deprived of divine grace.” Bishop Yevstariy Zoria, spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate has already noted, however, that “existing canonical norms” are exactly what his Church appeals to, since according to existing canonical norms, it is the Ecumenical Patriarchate (the Mother Church from which Ukraine received Christianity in 988 AD) and not the Moscow Patriarchate, that should be the arbiter of Orthodox canonical norms with regard to the situation of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The Ecumenical Patriarchate does not acknowledge Moscow’s claim to jurisdiction over Ukraine.


In the end, Ukrainian Greco-Catholics know that the Ukrainian people and their Churches have long been treated as pawns in international relations. We have survived both czarist and Soviet persecution of the bloodiest sort. We have been reviled by many Orthodox as traitors to Orthodoxy because we are Catholics and by quite a few Roman Catholics as not quite Catholic enough because we retain our Orthodox liturgy, theology, spirituality, and governance. A few ambiguous or even unfortunate paragraphs in the Joint Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill will have little effect on the inner vitality of this Church, which comes from a deep inner calling to bring the Orthodox and Catholic worlds back into communion with each other. That is why I am particularly inspired by the fifth paragraph of the Joint Declaration.

5. Notwithstanding this shared Tradition of the first ten centuries, for nearly one thousand years Catholics and Orthodox have been deprived of communion in the Eucharist. We have been divided by wounds caused by old and recent conflicts, by differences inherited from our ancestors, in the understanding and expression of our faith in God, one in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are pained by the loss of unity, the outcome of human weakness and of sin, which has occurred despite the priestly prayer of Christ the Saviour: “So that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you . . . so that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn 17:21).

The Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church has felt the pain of loss of communion more than most. My most sincere hope is that with the revival of the Kyivan Church Study Group that functioned so well in the 1990’s, we might continue to search out how it would be possible for the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church to re-establish full and visible communion with her Mother Church in Constantinople and Orthodoxy worldwide, without losing the full and visible communion she now enjoys with Rome and the worldwide Catholic Church. Among the 33 Articles of the Union of Brest, we find the following in Article 13:

“And if in time the Lord shall grant that the rest of the brethren of our people and of the Greek Religion shall come to this same holy unity, it shall not be held against us or begrudged to us that we have preceded them in this unity.”

In fact, it has almost always been held against us. But that has not stopped us in the past and it will never stop us in the future. We feel called to this unity by the Lord Himself.

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.

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Articles by Andriy Chirovsky


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