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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Ukrainian Paradox

A centuries-old tradition provides a toehold for rebuilding a culture and a nation.

A few years ago, an elderly Ukrainian woman explained to me the importance to all Ukrainians, Catholic and Orthodox, of pysanky, the intricate Easter eggs embellished with national and religious imagery.

“The tradition of painting pysanky is passed from mother to daughter,” she said. “If this Ukrainian tradition dies, evil will be loosed upon the world.”

History has not been kind to Ukrainians. They have endured dispersion, invasion, persecution and religious and geographical division. Yet they continue to practice the delicate art of pysanky.

Ukrainians, like their Eastern European neighbors, are today in the limelight of political change. The successes of glasnost and failures of communism have witnessed the rebirth of suppressed ethnic, political and religious identities. But these identities threaten to fracture Ukrainian society.

Ideally, the Ukraine’s rich Christian heritage could unify a country whose historical truths are difficult to discern from political prejudices. But Christianity itself is divided. The majority of the Ukraine’s Christians are Byzantine in tradition. They share the same faith, the same deep attachment to the Divine Liturgy and veneration of Mary and the saints. But their loyalties are torn among the Russian patriarch, the pope and an independent Ukraine – graphic reminders of painful historical realities.

Paradoxically, in the attempt to unify the Ukraine, Josef Stalin wiped out every form of Ukrainian nationalism. In the 1930’s, Stalin abolished the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a powerful eastern Ukrainian body whose hierarchy advocated independence from Russian Orthodoxy and ultimately the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union’s annexation of the western Ukraine from Poland in 1946, Stalin eliminated the Ukrainian (Byzantine) Catholic Church, spiritually Orthodox yet loyal to Rome. Ukrainians nonetheless clung to these institutions.

The Ukrainian Orthodox set up their own hierarchy in exile while the faithful attended liturgies in Russian Orthodox parishes. Ukrainian Catholics, though persecuted as a church, clandestinely practiced their faith while outwardly appearing Orthodox. Things are not always what they seem in the Ukraine.

The Ukraine’s history is a myriad of invasions and partitions (See Fact Sheet: Ukraine, this issue). Stalin’s attempt to forcibly unite a partitioned people proved disastrous. Today tensions between the Orthodox and the renewed Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic communities are escalating. The renaissance of Ukrainian Christianity has its perils.

The heart of these heightened tensions is St. George Cathedral in Lvov, in the western Ukraine. This baroque edifice was built in the 18th century to serve as the cathedral for Lvov’s Byzantine Catholics. The use of Baroque architecture, one of the Roman Catholic Church’s main instruments in propagating the faith during the Catholic Reformation, contradicts Orthodox spirituality.

The Orthodox house of worship manifests the Church’s spirituality Most church exteriors are severe, for they confront the profane. Symbolically, the interiors depict the interior life. They revel in color and texture. Dancing flames bring to life frescoes, gilded icons and bejeweled vestments. Billowing clouds of incense shroud the interiors. Whereas the baroque with its ecstatic saints, gargoyles and irrational architectural shapes celebrate the flesh, the Byzantine and Russo-Byzantine styles stress asceticism and the richness of the soul. The Cathedral of St. George, then, is not consistent with pure Orthodox tradition.

This monument to the paradoxical was recently closed. After Stalin decimated the Ukrainian Catholic hierarchy, he turned over the cathedral and other church properties to the Russian Orthodox Church. But Ukrainian Catholics have come out of hiding. Thousands of Catholics have jammed Lvov’s squares demanding recognition and legality from the government. The Orthodox Metropolitan of Kiev, Filaret, refuses to recognize the existence of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. However, more than 200 Orthodox priests and over 300 Orthodox parishes have since declared themselves Catholic.

In the spring, Lvov’s city council authorized the return of St. George’s to the Catholics, but the Orthodox refused to vacate. Civil authorities then closed it.

Since the cathedral’s closure, Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox assemblies have celebrated simultaneous liturgies on its steps. The Orthodox have situated themselves on the street level while the Catholics are entrenched in front of the façade’s large wooden doors. There have been reports of violence.

The schism is scandalous. The liturgies are identical in form and substance. Yet there is one noticeable difference – the Catholics pray for Pope John Paul II, while the Orthodox pray for Patriarch Alexei of Moscow.

The embarrassment incurred by these events threatens the ecumenical rapprochement between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. To combat these tensions, high-level negotiations between the Vatican, Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic officials have been held in Moscow.

But on March 13, Ukrainian Catholic Archbishop Volodymyr Sterniuk of Lvov walked out, claiming that the Vatican did not understand the real issues or their demands. These include: the legalization of their faith by the Soviets and the annulment of the Lvov Synod called by Stalin in 1946 in which a few Ukrainian Catholic priests decreed “voluntary” reunion with Orthodoxy.

For the first time in more than 40 years, the world’s Ukrainian Catholic bishops gathered in Rome in late June to meet with the pope. John Paul II reaffirmed his support of the Church and accepted the validity of the its clandestinely-ordained bishops. But the pope warned them to take ecumenical and conciliatory approaches to the Orthodox. “This reconciliation is one of the primary tasks of the church today,” the pope said. “This obligation is fundamental also for the Church of the Ukrainian rite.”

During the June synod, Archbishop Sterniuk revived the idea of a Ukrainian Catholic patriarchate centered in Lvov. The present pontiff neither accepted nor rejected the archbishop’s proposal, which would grant more autonomy to the national church.

This sense of independence, as with everything in the Ukraine, pervades both politics and religion. Members of Rukh, the Kievan-centered independence movement, have stated their desire for a “Church independent of both Moscow and the Vatican.” After centuries of foreign domination, Ukrainians are turning toward themselves for answers. The rapid growth of the re-established Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which is independent of both Moscow and Rome, threatens both the Russian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic churches. The Holy See, therefore, faces potential anti-Russian violence within the Ukrainian Catholic community and the possible destruction of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

Meanwhile, as massive demonstrations throughout the Ukraine threaten to wrench the Soviet system from its ingrained roots, Ukrainian mothers prepare to train their daughters in the delicate art of pysanky – a Ukrainian paradox.

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.

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