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Building Bridges in an Emerging Ukraine

Grassroots ecumenism gains ground

Since Grand Prince Volodymyr of Kyivan Rus’ accepted Christianity in its Byzantine form, instructing his subjects to be baptized in the year 988, the city of Kyiv has been among the Christian centers of the world.

In the span of more than a millennium, however, five independent Eastern churches, Catholic and Orthodox, function in what is now an independent Ukraine with Kyiv as its capital.

These faith communities include the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and the Carpatho-Rusyn (also called Ruthenian) Greek Catholic Church. The first four trace their history to the baptism of Kyivan Rus’ and consider themselves direct successors of the church of Kyiv, which when founded embraced full communion with the churches of Rome and Constantinople. The Carpatho-Rusyns were among the Slavs who first received the Christian faith from Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century.

“The Kyivan tradition was born when the church was [still] united,” says Constantin Sigov, director and cofounder of the European Humanities Research Center of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv.

“The memory that both Volodymyr’s baptism and the construction of Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv took place before the split into [the] Western and Eastern traditions … is the memory that we are actually related to the first millennium, when the church was one,” adds the philosophy professor.

Given these four churches’ common origin, questions have emerged as to whether this shared history can inspire unity among the Eastern churches in Ukraine today and whether Ukraine’s jurisdictional maze is a hindrance to achieving greater mutual understanding in a country at war — and threatened by cultural and social rifts — as it struggles in its search for a national identity.

According to a 2020 survey on religious affiliation in Ukraine conducted by the respected Razumkov Center, 62 percent of the population identifies as Orthodox Christian, a drop from 71 percent in 2013. Ten percent identify as Greek Catholic, although that number jumps to 38 percent in the western part of the country. Some 15 percent of Ukrainians claim no religious affiliation, while non-denominational Christians account for 9 percent of the population. The rest of the people identify as either Protestant Christians, Roman Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists or Jews.

Ukraine’s religious pluralism and its need for greater cohesion and social understanding are inherent in the search for unity among its Eastern churches. However, relations among the Kyivan churches in Ukraine are complex. While they sometimes seek to unite Ukrainian society, interchurch divisions and historical and jurisdictional disputes often get in the way. Perhaps the best example is the 2019 decree of the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople, who recognized the autocephaly or independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Formed in 2018 by Ukrainian Orthodox communities from multiple jurisdictions, its recognition by the ecumenical patriarch, the “first among equals” in Orthodox Christianity, has led to tense relations with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church governed by the Moscow Patriarchate.

Until the breakup of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine in 1991, the Moscow Patriarchate claimed the loyalty of all Eastern Christians in Ukraine, as Stalin had suppressed the Greek Catholic churches and a nascent autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox church born amid the upheavals of the revolution and civil war in the former Russian Empire. Threatened with the loss of parishes and resources to the renascent Greek Catholic churches and self-consciously Ukrainian Orthodox churches, the Moscow Patriarchate has ruptured full communion with those Orthodox churches, including the ecumenical patriarchate, that recognize the independence and existence of a unified Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

two church leaders embrace while the gathered crowd applauds.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew embraces Metropolitan Epiphanius (in blue) of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine at the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul in 2019. (photo: Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)

Furthermore, while the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Greek Catholic churches have a strong sense of Ukrainian national identity, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate does not, remaining an autonomous but not independent branch of the Orthodox Church of Russia — despite the Russo-Ukrainian War that began in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

“This discord among churches is considered a problem on the part of the state,” as it is “detrimental to state-building,” says Dr. Pavlo Smytsnyuk, who directs the Institute of Ecumenical Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. He believes the discord may also be a factor that “drives people away from the church, especially youth.”

Although there are good examples of cooperation among the different churches within the Ukrainian Council of Churches, which was established by the Ukrainian government in 1996, there is still no official ecumenical dialogue among them.

Despite the lack of official dialogue, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has been actively promoting ecumenism for decades. It established a commission on ecumenical and interreligious affairs and published the document, “The Ecumenical Concept of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church,” which emphasizes the need for a positive attitude among the laity toward dialogue, ecumenical activities with other churches — in particular with the Orthodox — and the unity of all Christians who trace their origin to the Kyivan church.

The Rev. Igor Shaban, who heads the commission, says the church “is open to dialogue and we declare this at every step, at every meeting, with all our Orthodox and Protestant brothers, if we have joint activities.”

Dialogue with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has been trying to develop over many years, has been taking place in waves, both positive and negative, he adds.

“We had quite good relations,” says Father Shaban. “Unfortunately, now it seems that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is trying to be partially enclosed in its ‘ghetto.’ From our side, it looks like that.”

Sergii Bortnyk, a member of the Department for External Church Relations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, explains that his church leadership often seeks to avoid dialogue, because “we believe that simply engaging in dialogue with those with whom we disagree somehow sets us up to fail.”

“Solidarity is impossible without communication.”

He says his church maintains the position on ecumenism of the noted Russian Orthodox theologian, Father Georges Florovsky, which is that “we do not need to unite. We have the truth. We need to testify about Orthodoxy. We do not think that we lack something, and we believe we can share, bring Orthodoxy to them.”

Mr. Bortnyk, who teaches the graduate course “Interfaith Relations in Ukraine” at the Kyiv Theological Academy and who often participates in ecumenical conferences, says he thinks Christ’s words, “That they may all be one” (Jn 17:21), express the main idea of the ecumenical movement and should be treated responsibly.

“We need to see Christians in others. Protestants are certainly not Orthodox, but they are also Christians. Catholics teach a little differently. They have the filioque, but they have preserved the apostolic tradition and they have a similar tradition of prayer as we do,” he says. “There are a number of things that unite and bring us closer through Christianity.”

According to Mr. Sigov, however, who also cofounded and serves as the director of the Dukh i Litera (“Spirit and Letter”) Scientific and Publishing Association, the paradox is that Kyiv could be a unifying force for these churches and for all Christians, East and West.

However, “because of the traumas of the Soviet Union, on the one hand,” and Russia’s aggressive “imperial projects, on the other, it is also today a neurological point of tension,” he says. “Particularly, the tension is between the Orthodox who want to be in unity with Catholics and Greek Catholics, and the rest of the Orthodox who … are influenced by the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.”

According to Mr. Sigov, the establishment of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine, led by Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kyiv and all Ukraine, is a positive development that adds a new player to the field of ecumenical dialogue.

“Kyiv has not spoken with its own voice for a long time, too long,” says Mr. Sigov, noting that Ukraine did not have an independent Orthodox Church since it gained national independence in 1991. Granting this new church autocephaly also allows for a way out of a certain isolation, allowing Kyiv to have direct dialogue with Rome, Constantinople or other centers, he adds.

“Finding this voice is not against anyone at all, but it’s just a chance for polyphony, so that everyone can hear each other, so that Kyiv’s voice can be heard in different countries of the world, including neighboring countries. And there is hope that this voice will be heard even in Moscow,” says Mr. Sigov.

Recognition of this new Orthodox church is also an important step toward Ukraine’s liberation from its Soviet past, he adds. The Soviet era was one of great isolationism, politically and otherwise. Countries behind the Iron Curtain were separated from the West, clergy and faithful were repressed, and churches, rich in cultural and historical traditions and artifacts, were destroyed.

“The Soviet regime tried to make a clean slate, tabula rasa, to destroy any memory of the past and in particular to destroy the memory of the millennial church tradition, to destroy the memory of Eastern Christianity,” says Mr. Sigov.

a man offers another man a book.
Brother Richard of the Taizé community gives Constantin Sigov (right) a book about the founder of Taizé, Brother Roger, at the 2009 Assumption Readings conference. (photo: Lidiya Lozova)

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church also sees the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine as a positive step forward toward unity.

Ukrainian Greek Catholic Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych and Metropolitan Epiphanius have met several times at the Ukrainian Council of Churches and other public events. Both have discussed the need for a so-called “common roadmap.”

“We are ready for a theological dialogue, because there are a lot of issues that we would like to start solving, such as mixed marriages in Ukraine and recognition of the Holy Sacraments,” says Ukrainian Greek Catholic Father Shaban.

According to the priest, aside from the Union of Brest in the 16th century, a real model for future unity has not yet been found. Though official ecumenical dialogue in Ukraine is lacking, the private meetings and friendly exchanges that are held are already very positive, he says. Formal dialogue often starts this way, he adds.

“The Orthodox Church of Ukraine is open to dialogue and this is its official position,” says Archpriest George Kovalenko, a member of the Synodal Commission on Inter-Christian Relations of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. However, he holds a somewhat different view from Father Shaban.

For Father Kovalenko, how unity is defined “determines whether it exists or whether it is just our dream — or a lost, broken vessel that can no longer be glued together.”

Father Kovalenko believes the current plurality in Ukraine requires other forms of unity that would not be necessarily organizational, but would rather take on an “essential, meaningful or dialogue format.”

“The answer to a particular question at a particular time is not always the same answer at another time, in other circumstances or situations. There must also be the Holy Spirit and the spirit of the Gospel operating in the church,” he says regarding dialogue on matters of a historical nature.

In accordance with this perspective, the church can be changed and developed in some external form yet remain constant at its core.

people pray in an ornate cathedral.
Worshipers gather in the Cathedral of St. Volodymyr in Kyiv for the 2006 Christmas vigil liturgy. The cathedral was built to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the Baptism of the Rus’. (photo: Sergei Chuzavkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“It will be the Church of Christ that confesses Christ as the Son of God, and it is the foundation that does not change,” he says.

Father Kovalenko is also the rector of the Open Orthodox University of Saint Sophia-Wisdom, which he launched in 2016 as a modern educational institution to offer a space for scientists, philosophers and theologians to dialogue about present and future issues. It is based on the concept of “Open Orthodoxy,” which is favorable to dialogue with society and other denominations.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine “would like to be in unity with all Orthodox of Ukraine and all Orthodox in the world,” he says, and “also in some format to be in unity with all Christians in Ukraine, and to pray together for our country and people — to serve the common good together.”

“Unity without a conflict is really possible,” says Mr. Bortnyk of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, “if the new structure [the newly independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine] will stop considering us as exiles of the Russian Church in Ukraine, and will recognize that we are citizens of Ukraine and we live here and have the right to our own opinion, it will be a reason for unity.”

Mr. Bortnyk also underlines that the difference between the official positions of church leadership regarding unity and the perspectives of the faithful on the ground is a problem. He says the latter are often quite aggressive in not accepting the other side, and this is inherent for both the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Lidiya Lozova, who coordinates the activities of a not-for-profit organization that promotes ecumenical and intercultural dialogue, says she has experienced a similar rigidity among the faithful in the implementation of her organization’s “Dialogue in Action” initiative.

Many people do not believe in unity, she says.

Ms. Lozova insists that any ecumenical or intercultural dialogue that occurs as an academic or churchwide initiative must have a connection with the reality on the ground. Church declarations of openness on social media are heartwarming, but they do not reflect the “extremely tough, conservative position” she encounters in her work with ordinary citizens in eastern or western Ukraine.

Sponsored by St. Clement’s Center, which is affiliated with the European Humanities Research Center of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, “Dialogue in Action” involves representatives from various religious organizations and aims to develop a culture of communication and cooperation in small communities throughout Ukraine.

“If you don’t have openness to all people, if you don’t see that all people are made in the image of God … then the power of your message and work is small.”

The high level of mistrust among citizens and the many stereotypes and prejudices they have of each other are serious problems, which “prevent people from being able to speak at all, which is why facilitation is needed,” she says.

“Dialogue is not just about talking. It is the ability to create an appropriate space, safe and comfortable … a space where you can coexist, see yourself and see another and a common future,” she says. “Solidarity is impossible without communication.

“If you don’t have openness to all people, if you don’t see that all people are made in the image of God, that you are connected to them all, then the power of your message and work is small and ineffective,” she says.

Mr. Sigov adds there is a great need to provide opportunities for and to facilitate such dialogue in the country’s educational institutions and seminaries.

Post-Soviet Ukraine has lacked the experience of a broader vision and a space to foster communication between representatives of different denominations and researchers in the humanities. In an effort to address this deficit, Mr. Sigov began the Assumption Readings in the year 2000. The annual international theological conference gathers leading theologians, philosophers and humanities scientists from Ukraine, Europe, the United States and Russia and aims to bring Christians of East and West closer together.

Mr. Sigov’s vision for the Assumption Readings was partially inspired by a decisive ecumenical experience in the mid-1990’s — a meeting with Pope John Paul II in Rome — when he discovered how Ukraine is part of the vision of the universal church.

“When you realize that you are talking to a person who represents a billion Catholics on the planet, for whom what he calls the ‘eastern lung’ is absolutely not indifferent, it really expands the vision,” says Mr. Sigov, an Orthodox Christian, of his meeting with the pope.

“Assumption Readings is evidence that Kyiv wants to breathe with two lungs and that Kyiv wants to hear both Eastern and Western sources,” he says. “Every person, myself included, in order to be able to breathe normally, needs to breathe with two lungs.”

This year’s conference participants issued a joint document, “Longing for the Truth That Makes Us Free,” which reflects on the secularity of modern society in Ukraine. The document was signed by representatives of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine and two evangelical Christian organizations.

a priest blesses a woman outside near a tent canopy.
An Orthodox Priest delivers a blessing to a grieving woman at a makeshift chapel in the Maidan, or Independence Square, in Kyiv on 22 May 2014. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The Institute of Ecumenical Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv has been conducting intense research, as well as educational and practical activities in ecumenical studies, since 2004, with a stated goal of “facilitating ecumenical dialogue between churches, civil society and policy makers.” A year later, the institute cofounded the Ukrainian Christian Academic Society with the European Humanities Research Center.

“Ecumenical Social Week” is one of the institute’s prominent projects. This year, the annual conference was dedicated to discussions on integral ecology.

“We cannot overcome the consequences of environmental challenges without an interdisciplinary approach and dialogue between different sectors,” says Iryna Kitura, the project coordinator.

In her view, the churches have great potential in shaping the ecological culture of the community through the prism of faith and responsibility. The forum featured the position and interests of the churches in solving environmental problems, as well as the need to join forces.

“It is important to hear each other and to work together to create a new environmental wisdom, a new policy of conserving resources, not hyper-consumption,” she says.

While every mainline church in Ukraine participates in some environmental initiatives, says the Rev. Dr. Roman Fihas, a researcher at the institute, churches need to collaborate more on joint projects to have a real impact on the changing situation in society.

“Working together on important challenges of the time, especially in the environmental sphere, has ecumenical potential, because working Christians will get to know each other, learn to dialogue and … to ‘go together,’ ” he says.

“That’s why it is so important to have various opportunities where representatives of different denominations can come together, communicate, share experiences and cooperate.”

Therefore, despite the absence of official ecumenical dialogue among the churches in Ukraine, says Father Fihas, dialogue happens in the form of various initiatives that promote “unity in cooperation and communication,” and it is gaining momentum and prospects through the efforts of individuals and institutions.

“ ‘Gutta cavat lapidem,’ a water drop hollows a stone,” says Dr. Pavlo Smytsnyuk, the institute director, translating a Latin proverb that speaks of the power of gentle persistence.

“Ecumenism has been always the work of individuals who began and were not noticed by others. And then, gradually, they convinced everyone around them that this is the right way.”

Anna Nekrasova-Wilson is a Kyiv-based journalist and producer from Ukraine, working with international media such as USA TODAY, Die Zeit, and The Wall Street Journal.

a congregation celebrates a Christmas liturgy.
Members of the Hutsul community gather for Christmas at Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Kosmach, Ukraine, in 2004. Historically, Greek Catholic and Orthodox Hutsuls, a cultural community in southwestern Ukraine, celebrated church feasts together. Efforts to restore that unity, ruptured during the Soviet years, proceed despite hardened differences. (photo: Petro Didula)

The CNEWA Connection

“Always act as if the church is one, unless you are forced to encounter a difference,” has long been CNEWA’s operating directive, as CNEWA works to be of service to all Catholics, to all Christians, to all believers and to all members of the one human family.

In the modern world, differences, rather than distinctions, often become insurmountable causes for division, even in the church. But in the “dialogue of charity,” to use the words of the sainted Pope John Paul II, CNEWA focuses on the common needs of all, and the appeal and power of love. As Ukraine continues in its path of nation-building and exploration of identity, its churches, too, are compelled to advance the cause of Christian unity and the interests of dialogue, respect and mutual understanding among all Ukrainians of good will. CNEWA is humbled to support the ecumenical efforts described here, as well as those programs sponsored by the Holy See’s dicasteries for Christian unity and interreligious dialogue.

To help CNEWA continue these initiatives, please call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).

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