Head of Ukrainian Catholic Church consoled by pope's words

IMAGE: CNS photo/Marcin Bielecki, EPA

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) — The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church said
he was consoled by Pope Francis’ words of understanding and tenderness after he
expressed the disappointment of Ukrainians with a joint declaration signed by
the pope and the Russian Orthodox patriarch.

The pope’s remarks were “truly the opening of the doors
of mercy,” said Archbishop
Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, head of the Ukrainian Catholic

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow
signed a joint declaration in Cuba Feb. 12 and, in an interview the next day, the
archbishop said it contains unclear statements on the war in Eastern Ukraine
and on the identity of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. He also said his people
were deeply disappointed in the declaration’s wording.

Responding Feb. 17 to a reporter’s questions about the
archbishop’s critique, Pope Francis said everyone has a right to his or her own
opinions about the declaration and the archbishop’s criticisms must be read in
light of the experience of Ukrainian Catholics.

But Pope Francis also spoke about how his friendship with
Archbishop Shevchuk began when they were both ministering in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and
how the archbishop had given him an icon of Our Lady of Tenderness, which is
one of the few things he asked to have brought to the Vatican after his
election in 2013.

Mentioning their friendship and the icon, the archbishop
said, “he is inviting us to lower our voices. You cannot have a dialogue

In an interview with Catholic News Service in Rome Feb. 23,
Archbishop Shevchuk said he was pleased that even for the pope, the declaration
“is not the word of God, it is not a page of the Holy Gospel,” but
rather offers indications for discussion.

The archbishop said that when the pope-patriarch meeting was
first announced, “my spontaneous reaction was, ‘Finally,’ and I was
pleased that Pope Francis repeated almost the same when he embraced Patriarch Kirill”
in Havana.

“I think that the very gesture is sacred — we are
supposed to meet, we are supposed to talk, but that meeting is only a tool to
start true, sincere dialogue,” the archbishop said.

The desire for mutual respect and closer cooperation among
Catholics and Orthodox in Ukraine is not in question, he said, but the
declaration’s depiction of the situation in Eastern Ukraine and the terminology
used to describe the Ukrainian Catholic Church are.

In encouraging an end to tensions between Orthodox and
Eastern-rite Catholics, the declaration referred to the churches that are in
full union with Rome as “ecclesial communities,” a phrase usually
used to designate communities the Catholic Church believes are lacking valid
sacraments and apostolic succession. Yet, clearly, as part of the Catholic
Church that does not apply to Ukrainian Catholics, he said.

The declaration’s affirmation that the Ukrainian Catholic
and other Eastern Catholic churches have the right “to undertake all that
is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful, while seeking to live
in peace with their neighbors,” the archbishop said, is “a step

However, the declaration’s recognition that the Eastern
churches have a “right to exist” makes no sense, he said, because
“it’s not that we need anyone’s permission to exist.”

“The Lord resurrected us to full life 25 years ago after
the fall of the Soviet Union,” he added.

Under Soviet rule, the Ukrainian Catholic Church was illegal
and functioned in the underground; in ecumenical dialogues at the time the
Russian Orthodox claimed the church did not exist. Once the Soviet Union
dissolved and the Ukrainian Catholic Church began functioning publicly, some
Orthodox claimed its very existence was an attempt to encroach on the
“canonical territory” of the Orthodox.

Along with other Eastern Catholic churches, Archbishop
Shevchuk said, “we are churches, ‘sui iuris’ churches (having their own
law). We conserve the Eastern Catholic-Orthodox spiritual-liturgical tradition,
but we are in full communion with the successor of Peter.”

Being part of the universal Catholic Church, he said, should
preserve Ukrainian and other Eastern Catholics from excessive
“provincialism, very narrow nationalism, and opens us to real, open
ecumenical dialogue. Being Catholic today means being ecumenical.”

The other problem with the declaration, the archbishop said,
is how it seems to hint that the war in Eastern Ukraine is a civil war and not
one involving both Russian troops and Russian support.

The declaration invited “all sides involved in the
conflict to prudence, to social solidarity and to action aimed at constructing
peace.” The pope and patriarch also said, “We invite our churches in
Ukraine to work toward social harmony, to refrain from taking part in the
confrontation and to not support any further development of the conflict.”

In announcing the Cuba meeting, Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk,
director of foreign relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, said the Russian Orthodox still
see the Eastern Catholics as an obstacle to normalized relations. However, he
said the need for joint efforts to defend the rights of persecuted Christians
in the Middle East was more pressing.

In addition to calling for protection and respect for
religious minorities, the declaration also urged Catholics and Russian Orthodox
to work together to fight secularization, to protect the environment and to
defend definitions of marriage and family life.

“It is good to be united because of so many common
challenges in today’s world,” Archbishop Shevchuk said, “but I think
that real ecumenism is the search for unity in the name of one God, not one

The permanent synod of the Ukrainian Catholic Church was to
meet in Rome beginning Feb. 27 and its members hoped to have a meeting with Pope
Francis, the archbishop said.

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